Darren Franich
April 28, 2012 AT 01:00 PM EDT

Unsure who Black Widow is? Having trouble deciphering the Hulk’s roar? Can’t tell the difference between Hawkeye and Katniss? In anticipation of the release of The Avengers on May 4, EW’s team of super geeks is here to help guide you through the mythos with our seven-part series of superhero primers, the recently declassified “Avengers Files.” It doesn’t matter if you’re a comic book connoisseur or a Nick Fury newbie — follow along this week as we deconstruct Earth’s mightiest heroes and pose the question: Which Avenger is the mightiest?

Name: Thor, God of Thunder

First comic appearance: Journey into Mystery #83 (August 10, 1962), created by Stan Lee, written by Larry Lieber, and pencilled by Jack Kirby.

First movie appearance: Thor (2011); $181 million domestic, $449.3 million worldwide

Portrayed by: Thor was voiced by Chris Wiggins in thirteen episodes of the barely-animated late-’60s anthology The Marvel Superheroes. (Alas, Thor’s minstrel-chorus ballad theme song was decidedly less memorable than Captain America’s.) The character appeared in the flesh in the telefilm The Incredible Hulk Returns, where he was played by Eric Allan Kramer in a Viking Quest costume. Animation enthusiasts might remember that John Rhys-Davis voiced Thor on a few episodes of various ’90s Marvel cartoons, but it’s fair to say that Chris Hemsworth’s big-screen role as the Thunder God is the definitive incarnation of the character for the vast, vast majority of the public.

Origin story: Thor is one of the great problematic characters in comic book history. Compared to the other iconic Avengers, his back story is much more openly fantastical — or ludicrous, depending on your perspective. Captain America, Iron Man, and the Hulk all emerged from a particular school of mid-century science-fiction: They’re all normal men made extraordinary by modern science, by super-drugs and advanced technology and weapons of mass destruction. (If you think about it, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner are both mad scientists, really.) Thor comes from a much earlier narrative tradition: He’s the Norse God of Thunder. He was a religious figure back in the days when the Roman Empire was a thing. He’s the guy Thursday is named after. And he has a big hammer that throws thunderbolts.

The character’s history gets even more problematic when you consider that his very first appearance is an awkward, fascinating, dream-logic narrative that barely hints at the character’s future trajectory. In Journey into Mystery #83, disabled doctor Donald Blake goes on vacation to Norway and runs afoul of an invading party of stone men from Saturn. Blake flees into a cave, finds a walking stick, strikes it against a rock… and is suddenly transformed into Thor, the God of Thunder. It’s all very wonderfully weird — not least because the stone-men apparently traveled all the way to Norway — and early issues of Thor basically follow the same Jekyll/Hyde structure: Donald Blake gets into a scrap and turns into his godlike alter ego to solve the problem.

The character’s background quickly evolved, gathering mythic dimensions, and later retconning revealed that Odin — King of Asgard and Thor’s father — felt the need to teach his arrogant son a lesson about humility, and had actually imprisoned Thor in the body of Donald Blake. That central notion — that Thor is an egotistical warrior with something to learn from humanity — has defined the character ever since.

Weapon/Superpower: Thor has super-strength and is practically invulnerable. He can also control the weather. If all that isn’t enough, he carries a hammer so powerful it has to have a name: Mjolnir, pronounced “Me-Ole-Near.” The hammer can fire pure thunder energy, but Thor mostly uses it in a more tactile way: By throwing it at people. (Thor can even fly, although only by throwing the hammer into the air and holding on for dear life.)

Outfit/Clothing: A winged helmet, a bright red cape, bright yellow boots, and a set of decorative chest circles: Thor’s original outfit is one of those candy-colored awesome-on-paper costumes that would probably look ridiculous in real life. (See also: Dr. Strange’s collar-cape.) In the ’90s, when mainstream superheroes were getting new costumes every couple of months, Thor had a couple of gnarly fashion disasters — let’s call them the Disco Robot and the Hobo Stripper — but artist Olivier Coipel’s chainmail redesign was the rare costume modernization that actually stuck, and Chris Hemsworth’s outfit in Thor and Avengers is a blend of the new school with the vintage look, although Movie-Thor doesn’t wear his helmet very much. (The nerd in me feels obligated to point out that, at some point in the Thor movies, they really gotta bring out the Asgardian Golden Armor.)

Secret Identity: Ah, and here we reach the other problematic thing about Thor: The question of whether or not he actually needs a secret identity. Writer-artist Walt Simonson ditched the Donald Blake character during his epic run on the Thor series in the mid-80s, sending Thor off on a series of adventures that emphasized the character’s cosmic origins. Since then, Thor has occasionally been bound to human alter egos with appropriately Nordic surnames — architect Eric Masterson, E.M.T. Jake Olson — but it’s probably better to think of Thor as just plain Thor.

Sidekicks: Last year’s Thor gave screen time to Fandral the Dashing, Hogun the Grim, and Volstagg the Voluminous, who collectively form the Warriors Three, Thunder God’s best buddies and battle mates. Thor is also occasionally joined by warrior woman Lady Sif…

Love life: …and sometimes the Lady Sif is a little bit more than a sidekick. However, Thor’s most iconic love interest remains Nurse Jane Foster, who became Astrophysicist Jane Foster in last year’s Thor, because everyone’s a freaking astrophysicist in Hollywood nowadays.

Sample tweet from Thor: All-Father Odin demands my speedy return to Asgard. But shall I leave before sampling some Midgard ale? I say thee, nay!

Random fact of obscure trivia: In the unpoetic banality of modern comic-book science, Thor isn’t actually a “god,” per se. Rather, the people of Asgard are a race of extra-terrestrials who are so all-powerful that they appeared godlike when they originally appeared to Norwegian people centuries ago. So Thor’s an alien, technically.

Ribbet, Ribbet: The aforementioned Simonson’s three-year run on Thor is generally considered some of the finest work about the character, partially because of Simonson’s epic scope, and partially because the creator wasn’t afraid to throw in a little eccentricity. Example A: The three-issue saga in which Thor gets transformed into a frog, which culminates with Thor — as a frog in full costume — screaming the memorable battle cry: “Chugga-Rrumph!”

Why Thor might be the best Avenger: Thor could easily defeat his fellow Avengers in pitched battle. Even if earthly science has somehow made Captain America and Hulk stronger than Thor — unlikely, to say the least — Thor could feasibly conjure up a hurricane tidal wave to swallow them whole. From a more critical perspective, though, Thor is the most interesting Avenger because he fundamentally straddles two very different narrative styles. On one hand, one basic template for a Thor adventure is a fish-out-of-water adventure: Some of the great stories in Thor’s histories find the character attempting to find his way through modern human society. On the other hand, a “Thor” story can also be an impossibly cosmic adventure that flips freely between science-fiction and fantasy — between Star Trek and Lord of the Rings, if you will. The first Thor movie was more the former, but the makers of the Thor sequel have indicated they’ll be focusing more on the cosmic stuff in Thor 2.

Why he might NOT be the best Avenger: Thor is silly in a way that no other Avenger is really silly. He talks in a faux-Shakespearian diction, and he has golden hair, and he comes from a glowing city that hovers up on space at the end of a rainbow. Anyone with even the slightest concern that superheroes should be “cool” in any sense probably finds it impossible to take Thor seriously. Their loss.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

Read more:

Avengers Files: Deconstructing Iron Man

The Avengers: EW’s Photo Album

This Week’s Cover: EW’s EXCLUSIVE chat with the superhero cast of The Avengers — VIDEO

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