Natalie Portman took the stage at San Diego Comic-Con as part of a presentation announcing that she would be playing the role of Thor in Marvel’s 2021 film Thor: Love & Thunder, showing that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is continuing to shift to the Marvel Comics “All-New, All-Different” model.
The “All-New, All-Different” era of Marvel Comics saw a significant push towards diversity, creating a comic book universe that was more representative of contemporary America. The changes were particularly dramatic for the Avengers franchise. Steve Rogers was replaced by African American Sam Wilson as Captain America, Tony Stark was replaced by the black teenage girl Riri Williams, and Thor was replaced by his long-time love interest Jane Foster.
This era was controversial and many of the changes were gradually rolled back. Some of the major characters at the forefront of this push – such as Miles Morales as Spider-Man and Kamala Khan as Miss Marvel – remain a vital part of Marvel Comics, but the major headliners all defaulted back to factory settings. Steve Rogers is Captain America again, Tony Stark is Iron Man, and Thor is once again “worthy” of wielding Mjolnir.
Jane Foster taking on the role and powers of Thor in the MCU continues a push to bring the “All-New, All-Different” flavor into the blockbuster cinematic franchise. Although not part of the official Marvel cinematic canon, Miles Morales anchored his own animated blockbuster Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Steve Rogers passed on his shield to Sam Wilson at the end of Avengers: Endgame, and he may or may not take on the mantle of Captain America in the new Disney+ show Falcon and the Winter Soldier. However, that is a web series on a subscription service that carefully avoids placing the words “Captain America” in the title. Having Natalie Portman anchor a blockbuster theatrical release – and announcing it with the Academy Award-nominated actor holding the character’s legendary hammer aloft in Hall H of SDCC – is another level entirely.
The longevity and impact of these adaptations are much larger than that of the comics themselves. Modern comic book readership has been shrinking for decades due to changes in distribution, a shift in the target audience, and price increases. The Batman book, which is used as the benchmark for comic book sales, sold around half a million copies a month in 1960. Meanwhile, the highest-selling issue of Batman this year sold less than 100,000 copies. In contrast, more than 100 million people saw Endgame in its opening weekend.
The influence between comic books and their adaptations goes both ways. Many of the core elements of the Superman mythos, such as his weakness to kryptonite and his photographer buddy Jimmy Olsen, actually originated on the ‘40s radio show. Perhaps the most significant addition to the Batman mythos in the past 30 years has been Harley Quinn, who was introduced in an episode of Batman: The Animated Series. The character of Bane was introduced as part of the Batman: Knightfall event, but he attained a higher stature than other ‘90s Batman characters because he was featured prominently in The Animated Series and the film Batman & Robin.
James Lucas Jones of Oni Press has talked about how many media companies now see comic book publishers as “intellectual property farms.” Comics can prove a relatively safe testing ground to see if new ideas can work. Thor writer Jason Aaron’s series that recast Jane Foster as Thor was more warmly received than Brian Michael Bendis’ approach to Riri Williams or Nick Spencer’s work with Sam Wilson.
One of Marvel Studios’ key strengths has been recognizing what worked in comics and porting that material over to the big screen. They’ve even taken images directly from comics, like the scene where Skurge holds the Rainbow Bridge from Walt Simonson’s Thor run that was recreated in Thor: Ragnarok.
Mass media often has a larger role than comics in shaping how audiences see iconic characters. To a generation who grew up on Bruce Timm’s animated Justice League, Green Lantern will always be an African American man named John Stewart. Even though Geoff Johns resurrected ‘60s-born character Hal Jordan in the comic book Green Lantern: Rebirth, a lot of casual fans were surprised when Ryan Reynolds was cast in the role for the big screen adaptation. This diversity has trickled back down into the comics, where Scott Snyder’s ongoing blockbuster Justice League run uses the same lineup as the animated Justice League, including both John Stewart and Hawkgirl. The result is a team that is much more diverse than one with Hal Jordan and Hawkman.
Comic books are inherently nostalgic. Old favorites will always return and the illusion of change is stronger than change itself. Big shifts in the status quo are often reversed or reworked. Dick Grayson might replace Bruce Wayne as Batman, but only for a few years. Even if characters like Barry Allen or Hal Jordan disappear for more than a decade, they will eventually return to their positions and displace their own replacements. Jane Foster was never going to get to play the role of Thor for more than a few years before the original returned. Even if Aaron weren’t required to “put the toys back” at the end of his run, somebody else would have had to.
This is why it’s so meaningful that Jane Foster will be Thor in Thor: Love and Thunder. Millions and millions of audience members – more people than have ever held a Thor book in their hands – will get to see a woman as Thor. That film will profoundly reshape the character and ensure a lasting legacy for the “All-New, All-Different” line.