Haters will allege that Thor: The Dark World is little more than a movie for teenage girls, but teenage girls are what make the Thor movies great. The only thing distinct about the series is the chemistry between brothers Thor and Loki (portrayed by actors Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, for those of you who make it a point to be oblivious to these things), and the teenage girls know this.
Everything else about the movies — the plots, the settings, the supporting characters, and the MacGuffins — exists along a spectrum of more-or-less pleasant fantasy cliché, but when Hemsworth and Hiddleston are together, something happens: something that makes the viewer stop giggling over how gravely the actors toss around words like “dark world” and “aether” and pay attention. In The Dark World, Hemsworth and Hiddleston nail their portrayal of two brothers who resent and revile yet are still beholden to one another, and this alone makes Thor unique amongst comic book franchises.
If young female viewers interpret the Thor movies chiefly as a tale of doomed bromance, this is to their credit: after all, the bromance is the best thing about the series. If anything about the movie deserves a cult following, it’s the relationship between Thor and Loki. The fact that this cult consists largely of young women active on Tumblr merely testifies to the fact that Hemsworth and Hiddleston are good-looking men with a habit of looking deeply into one another’s eyes.
And if this cult chooses to express its interest by drawing pictures of Hemsworth’s Thor and Hiddleston’s Loki locked in steamy embraces, and by circulating a petition demanding that Hiddleston headline a Loki movie — and if Marvel opts to stoke this interest by calling Hiddleston back to shoot more scenes, and by giving Loki his own series that makes no secret about incorporating fanservice — what of it? Longtime Marvel fanboys grumble about how such blatant pandering cheapens the product, but comic book fandom has always been fueled by pandering (see: the return of Barry Allen, the dozens of Wolverine and Batman on-goings and mini-series, and Wonder Woman’s costume). The fact that Marvel is suddenly willing to cater to female fantasies after fifty-two years of catering almost exclusively to males does mark a culture shift, but after fourteen years of feminist activism within comic book fandom, it’s about time that women started seeing some large-scale gains.
Calling a series made by men and starring men a gain for women is a dubious claim. After all, websites like Women in Refrigerators and Girl Wonder were meant to raise the profiles of female characters and creators in comics, not just the kind of comics that women wanted to read. The activists who started these sites claimed it was possible to have a superhero comic without fanservice and pandering, and that such a comic would better suit the tastes of women. But American comics have always been distinct for the nearly symbiotic relationship that exists between fans and creators. As long as there are fans who will pay good money for misogynist portrayals of women, sexism in comics will never go away. The only way to change that would be to radically change American comics; and while activism and radical shifts are often assumed to go hand-in-hand, radical change was never a priority of the fangirl feminists. After all, they liked superhero comics. In protesting the sexist portrayals of women, they mainly wished to create a space in which they felt more included. And despite having few female characters of significance, the Thor series does just that, acknowledging the sex fantasies of its female fans in its story structure and marketing. It might be an ambiguous victory for feminists who were hoping to see more stories driven by women in comics: but it’s a victory nonetheless.