How The War Was Won: A Retrospective on War of the Realms – Part 1

Wait, didn’t I already do this article? Oh no. That was specifically about five great things about the whole of Jason Aaron’s Thor run. This retrospective is about War of the Realms itself—totally different thing. 

Plan vs. Progression

Lindsay Ellis recently made a video about why she believed the ending of Game of Thrones was a complete failure. She posits that because the writers had an ending in mind, no matter how the characters throughout the series progressed, they had to be bent out of shape to fit the predetermined ending. That’s why some character development felt like it came out of nowhere, whilst others felt like a slap in the face, leaving the whole thing a dissatisfying mess.

I can’t speak to that since I stopped watching GoT, but based on the reactions of others, War of the Realms succeeded where, according to Ellis, Game of Thrones did not. 

Aaron had a plan, but he kept it loose. It had to be flexible; he had no idea if he’d have the time to realize it. He initially planned for it to be strictly a Thor affair, but his success, plus his previous experience on Original Sin, meant he was given a chance to make it a capital e Event. 

Aaron allowed the story to evolve enough to work in new details, such as the interim Thor becoming so unexpectedly beloved while still keeping a consistent theme. He stuck the landing he’d planned since the beginning. Having no plan is not the best idea. Lindsay Ellis points this out about Lost, which relied too heavily on twists, thrown in to keep the audience talking in the short term, that never paid off in the long run. Same could be said about Sherlock and Moffat’s time on Doctor Who (see Hbomberguy’s absolute masterpiece critique of Sherlock). Having too rigid a plan means that if characters suddenly become popular or grow in ways the writers didn’t expect then you’re basically stuffed. Creators must strike a balance, and Aaron managed it.

‘Themes are for Eighth-grade Book Reports’

The other criticism lobbed at Game of Thrones was down to David Benioff apparently saying ‘Themes are for eighth-grade book reports’. For someone who loves discussing theme, it’s a little eyebrow-raising; saying there’s no merit in discussing the themes of Game of Thrones is a bit silly.

The main thing in Aaron’s run that remained consistent, apart from his plan, was its theme. This is what made War of the Realms more satisfying in its payoff.  You feel more justified sinking your time into a series that acknowledges your interest in themes/characters and progresses it along those lines. The consistent theme helped the plan move along even if changes had to be made.

To explain why it worked, I need to discuss the whole run as it all built up to this event. In fact, the whole run is a trilogy, with War of the Realms being the final act. You could read each part on its own, in the same way you could watch any individual Star Wars movie, without it affecting your overall enjoyment. You’d miss out, though not to the extent of someone who saw Endgame without seeing a single Marvel movie beforehand. Still, it’d help to read from the beginning of Aaron’s run to understand some of the most satisfying elements of WOTR.

Someone on Twitter once asked if they needed to read Original Sin to understand Jane’s run. I don’t think so. The important part to her run is right at the end, and it’s easy to explain in a sentence. I’m not saying don’t bother with Original Sin. It’s just not important to know the whole thing in order to understand why Thor is unworthy. But there’s a lot of thematic similarities and plot beats similar to the Gorr the Godbutcher run.

All About the Struggle

However, like I said- to truly get the overarching theme of Aaron’s run- and see his plan play out- you need to read the whole thing. That theme is ‘The Gods are not worthy of the worship they receive… because they don’t know what it is to struggle.’

They need to change. Let go of things that they no longer need. Look at things in proper perspective. They need to accept the same things humans accept. They need to heed the past, work on the present, and prepare for the future. You see it in God Butcher, The Mighty Thor and War of the Realms. If there’s one thing you gotta give props to Aaron for- it’s the consistency of theme and payoff. That’s what I’ll stick to talking about since it’s my main interest and the main thing I enjoyed about his Thor run. I won’t focus much on straight-up plot beats or events since that’s the job of a Marvel wiki, which I’m not. That said; this whole thing will be hella spoilery so be warned, so maybe consider reading the comics first?

Besides—they’re good comics, Brent. Why wouldn’t you want to read good comics? 

This also means that I have written about 3000+ words so far. So to save the people editing this, I’ve split it up into three parts for each of the acts to Jason Aaron’s run. We’ll start with the beginning act: God Butcher.

Act 1: God Butcher and God Bomb

Reading this first act, it’s obvious why Marvel gave Jason Aaron the Conan gig. 

Conan is always a story of his whole life, from his somewhat rough start in life, through his adventuring days all the way through to being an old King. Under Aaron, Thor essentially gets the same treatment- much to his benefit. Seeing Thor grow, even over the course of his run, and getting to see the expanse of his whole life means we get to see the long term consequences of each decision. The funny thing is, Aaron’s got the same approach to his run- a while ago someone asked him on twitter about this panel and whether it was going to pay off- and Aaron pretty much winked and nodded. In twitter form. 

If you’ve read Thors, chances are you’ll know what some of this is about, and the other half is pretty much happening now.

Multiple Thors

Once the idea of multiple Thors is established, it means that introducing a new Thor makes a lot of sense. Thor’s a name, it’s one dude’s name, but it’s also a legacy. It’s a legacy even within the lifetime of Thor Odinson himself. That’s not really been explored before as far as I’m aware (feel free to correct me in the comments), but it’s still tying back to the theme of ‘things need to change, the struggle to being better is key to actually being better.’

The Gods are so removed from the fact they are also essentially people, that they don’t change and become removed and arrogant and the ultimate in privileged. They don’t see the need to change or grow. This is what leads into the conflict with Gorr the God Butcher. I initially called him an atheist- which he is at first, but not for long. How can people really be atheists in a universe where literal gods walk amongst people and drink with them in bars?

It’s less to do with belief in their existence- it’s about belief in them as heroes/people. That belief is what gives them power, and more often than not, gods squander it and only intervene in human lives when it suits them. This certainly is the case for Gorr. 

Gorr The Godbutcher

Gorr hates the gods and arguably with good reason. He lost everything, and the gods did nothing. But seeing them weak, defeated, and helpless is what sets him over the edge. 

That’s really interesting to me- that his response to seeing a god as helpless as him is anger. Anger that they literally couldn’t help him or his family, that his family had died believing something false. Before this, he does become an atheist, and it’s actually kind of comforting? That at least he could say he’s just unlucky. If he found out that they really never did exist, that might have been preferable- to see that they did exist, but were no better than him? Well.

That makes him want to wipe them all out. I’m not sure that’s atheism, but whatever it is, it’s intense.

The story and the art by Esad Ribic are not only very Conan, but they’re also very pulpy. It’s very Lovecraft- except in reverse? The all-powerful gods, the great expanse of the universe, they are humanized. They all have an end. That’s what introducing Old Thor does. It’s sobering more than frightening. The universe slowing and dying; that’s a fact. Thor still being there, even as a grumpy old man, is strangely comforting. He is trying to stop the inevitable, but maybe that will tie into the theme of change? That sometimes you need to let go of the old and start again? We’ll see in King Thor probably. I hope so. 

When Gorr finds out how insignificant he and his family were, he didn’t go mad, he got really, really angry. Then went mad. His madness culminated in a false, shaky godhood.

Gorr’s Downfall

Gorr goes to ridiculously cosmic lengths—including the murder of an elder god—to create his God Bomb to murder all gods across space and time. He’s a mortal. He hates gods so much he goes full-on cosmic terror to make them disappear. 

This story doesn’t make gods incomprehensible. It makes them human. It gives them all the same ticking clock we do—granted it’s by murder—but that threat of death is something that immortals fear more because it’s not as close or immediate as it is for mortals—until Gorr shows up. 

In the Shadow of Gorr

It’s interesting how he torments Thor throughout his life, showing up in the past, the present and the future- maybe a metaphor for the fear and doubt that plague Thor and his sense of self? Yup. I’d say so. The seed of doubt was always there because Thor had to work hard to be worthy in the first place, but Gorr watered it and nurtured it. Nick Fury allowed it to bloom. The fear, Gorr manifesting in Thor’s life, is a literal embodiment of what happens when the gods ignore their duty to the people who worship them. That it’s the most intense and insurmountable when he’s young and insecure is pretty on the nose.

The end of God Butcher sees Gorr using the symbiote Necrosword, now pretty much a god himself, defeated. It takes the help of a demi-god (Gorr’s son who turns on his father), the prayers of gods and three Thors- young, current and old- working together. Gorr becomes the thing he despised- he’s named the God of Hypocrisy.

It’s also worth mentioning that it’s the same young, brash, arrogant and unworthy Thor that Gorr hurts the most. He’s also the Thor that costs Gorr his arm, his eye, and his head. 

Yeah, that does sound familiar if you’ve read the War of the Realms doesn’t it? Given that Thor also loses an arm and an eye on his journey back to being worthy, you could say that this is what it costs a god to become worthy. Or that Jason Aaron just hates arms? And eyes?

It’s almost as if Thor’s struggle to be worthy is what makes him worthy. The cycle of battle, defeat, and resurrection—a Ragnarok if you will—is what makes him Thor. Thor shows himself as vulnerable, as trying his damnedest and being a superhero. That’s probably the best way to be a God. The aftermath of God Butcher and God Bomb make Thor retreat back to Midgard to recuperate and re-centre, only to find things starting to fall apart there as well. 

The rise of Malekith is something of an in-between event—and I have to admit I’d forgotten about most of it—but it includes Thor moving Asgardia back into space and giving up his old, godly residence to the displaced people of Broxton, repaying them for when they took the Asgardians in. An important gesture, showing he’s already willing to give up the old and honour the people who worship him. 

So, if he does try to be a good god and seems to be doing the right thing, why was he still made unworthy? Oh. We’ll get to that.

It all comes to a head with Original Sin. I know I said you don’t need to read it in order to understand anything about the Mighty Thor era of Aaron’s run, but it carries some very similar themes that Aaron explores in his Thor run. It’s about the relationship between godlike entities and human heroes. The idea that said godlike entities have the power to see everything, but the right to do nothing and excuse it as ‘not interfering.’ Nick Fury is not a million miles away from Gorr either- especially after he murders the Watcher and takes his eye (against his will- again, condemned by fate and the gods do nothing to stop it). 

Stand Back and Watch

But that moment, just before Nick Fury, with the power of the Watcher’s Eye, tells Thor the painful truth that makes him unworthy- he says this:

‘Learn from this hurt Thor.’

THAT IS PAID OFF IN WAR OF THE REALMS.

It also sets up Midas and his daughter as villains later on in Jane’s run… You know what? I take it back. You probably should read Original Sin. I personally found it a bit messy and convoluted, especially with the time jumps all over the place- but it does contain the same themes as Aaron’s Thor run. That does make it worthwhile.

Thor’s journey to regaining worthiness starts with learning something painful- something he already knew, deep down. He had to let go of the old- it was taken away from him. The hammer and the god he was. It hurt.

But it meant someone else had to be a Thor. 

Someone who taught him what it meant to be worthy—someone for whom struggling, being weak, learning, and hurting was just part of who she was. 

She taught him how to be a better Thor, by being a better Thor.

Tune in for part two. I promise this is going somewhere.

I’m a thirty something British nerd-mum and wannabe author, fueled by tea, poor decision making and a need to be distracted. Cursed to watch favourite characters die and ships sink. Send help.

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