Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster returns to the MCU this summer in Thor: Love and Thunder—as the Mighty Thor, no less! And, with the arrival of this movie, just like in 2014 when Jane became Thor in the comics, you’ll probably see a ton of retrospectives about Jane that go a little something like “Jason Aaron saved this Silver Age character from obscurity, turning a forgotten damsel in distress into one of Marvel’s most iconic heroes.” And they’ll be mostly right—about the latter part! In truth, we shouldn’t minimize Jane’s long comic history to only the early days, when her only purpose really was pining for Thor and getting kidnapped by villains. Granted, this erroneous view of Jane is popular for good reason: she’d never been the protagonist of her own story until 2014, and her best stories—without exception—have been told since. So, to be clear, my purpose here isn’t to uncover hidden gems but to contextualize how Jane Foster became what she is now, and how Jason Aaron didn’t so much reinvent her as he did advance her into the next logical step. Even with sixty years worth of scattered stories through so many different creators, very few of whom were concerned about Jane’s legacy, a clear picture still emerges if you know where she’ll end up.
Jane’s origins are unremarkable: she debuted in Thor’s second appearance, Journey Into Mystery #84 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, as a nurse in the private practice of Doctor Donald Blake, Thor’s human alter ego, who had just found Mjolnir in a trip to Norway and became Thor (Unlike in the MCU, Odin didn’t just depower Thor but hid Thor’s spirit in this mortal persona). Blake is in love with her but doesn’t believe she’d ever marry a “lame” man like him (Blake has a limp); and Jane loves him as well but mistakes his despair as the doctor being distant and stuffy. In the very next issue, Jane meets Thor for the first time and becomes infatuated with him, and Jane not knowing the God of Thunder and Donald Blake are one and the same would become part of the book’s humor: Thor would save the day; Jane would ask Blake why he couldn’t be more like Thor; rinse and repeat. This strange love triangle is all that defines Jane for her early years, except for the frequent kidnappings at the hands of Thor’s enemies. That’s the life of a Silver Age love interest.
However, this love triangle, as well as Thor’s earthly “villain of the month” stories, got repetitive fast. Readers of the era thought so as well, as attested by the often critical letter pages, and Lee and Kirby must have agreed, as they started to veer away from one-and-done Earth stories and into Asgardian epics spanning several issues. Journey Into Mystery improved immensely with this change, but it definitely left Jane dangling, without much to do except wait for Thor to return and wonder where Don had coincidentally disappeared to. Curiously, Lee would only find the heart of what made Jane tick as a character when he decided to get rid of her. But we’ll get to that.
With the longer stories there also came longer dramatic arcs. Jane Foster’s ignorance of Blake’s secret identity would no longer be played for laughs. Instead, it becomes the central tragedy of Thor’s life: Jane loves Donald and Thor, and he in turn loves her both as Thor and Donald, but can never reveal his identity, as the All-Father Odin has explicitly and repeatedly forbidden it. Textually it’s clear Stan Lee didn’t mean it as such, but in retrospect Odin unambiguously becomes the central antagonist of Jane Foster’s life. From the moment the old god becomes embroiled in her life, he does nothing but manipulate her to keep her away from his precious son. Years later, Tom DeFalco would pick up on this thread in Thor #415 and reveal the real reason Donald Blake had found Mjolnir and became Thor again: it wasn’t that Odin was particularly satisfied that his intended lesson in humility had sunk in, but that he saw Donald was falling in love with a mortal, panicked, and manipulated events so Blake would become his immortal son again, hoping this would separate him from Jane. Instead, this resulted in Jane falling in love with both facets of the Odinson and vice versa, and let me tell you—Odin wasn’t happy about that. Not one bit!
Back in the Lee and Kirby era, Jane shows the first spark of three-dimensionality when she gets sick of Donald’s obvious lies and manipulations at last, and tells him to get lost. After months of agony, Blake chooses to do something that will seal Jane’s fate forever: reveal his identity. Odin is so furious he sentences his own son to a trial by combat, which Thor survives by defeating not only dozens of Asgardian warriors but the Guardian of the Bifrost himself, Heimdall. Thor is banished and ashamed—he may have won, but he doesn’t even feel worthy of Jane anymore.
With the book now having found its stride and retitled to Thor, this is when we realize Odin isn’t just an angry old god. He’s a cunning angry old god. More gracious than we’ve ever seen him before, the All-Father appears to Jane and tells her he’s a shamed and remorseful father and his son has done penance enough, and then declares Thor can be with Jane…but only under certain mysterious conditions. When Jane is at long last brought to Asgard, in Thor #136, Odin is all smiles as he is officially introduced to his son’s mortal love. But things quickly take a turn when, without prior warning to Jane or Thor, the All-Father reveals the condition for his blessing: Jane must become a god. And when I say “must,” I mean it; she doesn’t get a choice. Odin grants Jane godly powers and immediately, with no training or weapons provided, locks her up in a dark room with the Lurking Unknown, a demon who happens to be a Fear Lord (and so a cousin to Nightmare and the Dweller-in-Darkness, who was recently adapted in Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings). Just as she was meant to, Jane fails the test. Thor accuses Odin of having planned all this, but Jane’s sick of it and puts it clearly to both of them: if this madness is what being a god means, she wants none of it. This is a crucial point in Jane’s story, as it’s the first time Jane tastes godhood, and it tastes terrible—which is partly why when she becomes a god in earnest in Aaron’s saga, she resolves to be a very different kind of god than the manipulative, high-handed Odin.
Odin takes Jane’s denunciation as consent to send her back to Midgard, not without first wiping her memory of Thor and Donald and placing her under the employment of Dr. Keith Kincaid, a man who greatly resembles Blake, so that she falls in love with him, thus freeing Thor to be with Sif (who Odin also plots to reintroduce to his son, by the way). Odin never meant to make her immortal so they could be together; he wanted her to fail to separate them for good. Father of the Year, truly. All-Father of the Year! Believe it or not, this violation of Jane’s mind was written as a benevolent act by Stan Lee, which says a lot about the man. In fact, unsurprisingly, he cheerily admits in one of the letter pages that Odin is the Thor character he relates to the most.
Considering the writer’s intent and execution, the reason Thor #136 is a standout issue for Jane isn’t that she shows remarkable heroism or anything of the sort. Even Jane becoming a god for the first time, however briefly, isn’t the only crucial reason. The larger reason is that this is the first of many tragedies that will define Jane’s life and indirectly shape her tenure as the Mighty Thor.
Jane was out of the picture for many years, until the creative team changed and she returned, with the consequences of Odin’s actions examined, for good and ill. Odin’s spell would slowly vanish as her memories of Thor and Don returned in her dreams, but by that point she already was with the very Don-like Keith; they’d even gotten engaged! So awkward! In Gerry Conway and John Buscema’s run, Jane finally returns to Thor’s world of supernatural adventures when the Dweller-in-Darkness attacks her mind, agitating her so much she tries to take her own life (another Fear Lord attacking her is an apparent coincidence no one has ever actually written a story about, which is a shame). Despite his best attempts, a desperate Thor can’t save her life, which is where Sif comes in. She’s written in a surprisingly adult manner in this story: instead of being jealous of Thor’s reaction, she realizes the love she’s witnessing is real and, as the true Asgardian hero she is, decides to go on a perilous quest for the Runestaff, a magic item that will allow her to save Jane’s life… at a terrible cost: Sif saves Jane by transferring her own godly energy into the mortal’s body, leaving Sif’s spirit trapped in Jane, in a situation purposely reminiscent of Thor and Don.
The dynamic here evolves from the old triangle to a fascinatingly complex quadrangle: Thor and Sif were together, but Thor’s also in love with Jane, whose body is now inhabited by Sif’s spirit; while Jane has left Keith for Don and Thor. I’m just saying: those must have been some fun nights between the two (or four?) of them. But the fun couldn’t last. For starters, Odin is apoplectic and banishes Thor (again) for insisting on staying with Jane, but that’s par for the course for that old goat. Things get really complicated when it becomes clear Jane is absorbing some of Sif’s essence, such as when she almost single-handedly stops a troll invasion in Thor #238 by capturing their king. She even begins using Sif’s godly powers unconsciously! When an age-old enemy takes the throne of Asgard from Odin, Jane accompanies Thor to Asgard for the first time since Sif saved her life and, as soon as she grabs hold of Sif’s sword, Jane is supplanted by the Goddess, who’s just as confused as everyone else. Apparently in the Realm Eternal, it’s the spirit of Sif which dominates, but Sif has no control over the change, just as Jane didn’t before, which leaves Jane in a narrative and literal limbo for a bit, as Sif and Thor fail to find a way to free Jane.
Back on Earth, Jane hasn’t been forgotten, however. Remember Keith Kincaid, that Donald Blake look-alike whose arms Odin pushed Jane into? From his perspective, Jane vanished after being last seen with Donald Blake, who’s also been gone for a long time… until Thor returns to Earth and finds his mortal self accused of murder! In Alan Zelenetz’s arc with artists Mark Bright and Herb Trimpe, from Thor #332 to #336, Donald Blake is forced to reveal his secret identity to Jane Foster’s boyfriend to clear his name, and takes him and Sif in a much-delayed quest to save Jane from wherever she disappeared to. With the help of the Runestaff and its previous owner, Thor and Sif release Jane back into physicality. In one of the few Jane Foster stories that ends in any way happily, Jane decides to marry Keith after all, while Thor and Sif go their way. Eventually, she even gives birth to her son with Keith: Jimmy. Happily ever after, right? Well, not quite.
The relationship with Keith turns out to be a bit of an on-and-off affair, which is perhaps unsurprising given its nature. They get separated. But these aren’t bad years for Jane Foster, relatively speaking: she reconnects with Thor and introduces him to little toddler Jimmy; she gets to berate Odin one or two more times; and decides to aid the superheroes of Earth much more actively, starting with the Onslaught crisis. More importantly, however, she spent the intervening years becoming a doctor, and she often acts as a private physician for the Heroes for Hire, Tony Stark, and the Avengers, as well as becoming involved in Thor’s latest adventures, of course, in the Dan Jurgens and John Romita Jr. run debuting in 1998, in which she serves as one of the main characters. During this time, she briefly gets back together with Keith, but that won’t last, as usual. Another thing that doesn’t last is Thor or any of the Asgardians: Ragnarok arrives, for real this time.
Despite Thor vanishing for years, Jane keeps helping the heroes, even aiding Captain America and his anti-registration side during the superhero Civil War, and commences working on the oncology wing of her hospital—which is fitting, as her mom died of cancer, and Jane would get to know the disease well enough herself. In J. Michael Straczynski and Olivier Coipel’s 2007 relaunch of Thor, the God of Thunder returns to life, again in the body of Donald Blake, and while he places Asgard hovering over Broxton, Oklahoma, Thor goes on a quest for the lost spirits of the Asgardian Gods, who he’s discovered are hiding inside humans. In what has now become a pattern, Jane immediately divorces Keith when she hears of this, but loses custody of her child in the process. When Donald Blake comes to her but is in fact looking for Sif, just in case the goddess is inside her again, well… though she can’t blame him, it isn’t the reunion Jane had envisioned, suffice it to say.
During Kieron Gillen and Matt Fraction’s runs, Jane transforms her life yet again. Without Keith or Jimmy in her life, Jane decides to move to Broxton and help Donald. She even opens a medical practice in town with him! Happy days. Unfortunately, this is the exact point in which Jane’s life absolutely crumbles. In a matter of months, Donald Blake is separated from Thor and dies; Keith and her only son, little Jimmy, die in a car accident; and she contracts cancer, the disease that killed her mother and she had tried to combat as an oncologist. It’s devastating. It must be said, however, that not all these incidents are told in order or from Jane’s perspective —we never get to see Jane react to Don’s death, and the fate of her family isn’t revealed until Aaron is deep in his run. But still, in-universe, it all happens in a remarkably (and depressingly) short amount of time.
This absolute low point in Jane’s life is where Jason Aaron picks her up in his momentous Thor: God of Thunder and Mighty Thor books, with stellar artists Esad Ribić and Russell Dauterman. They do beautiful things with this character, not only tying her tragedy to her new godly powers in an exquisite way but using Jane’s long history as a basis for everything that comes after it. For the first time in more than half a century, Jane gets to tell her story from her perspective.
It’s no coincidence that a central point of her adventures as the Mighty Thor is her enmity with Odin, who ruined her life in so many ways and never accepted her as a worthy companion of Thor, let alone worthy of being Thor. It’s no coincidence that her love for Thor, though indisputable, is complicated by the vast amounts of pain that relationship has caused her in the past. It’s no coincidence she aspires to be a better god than those who have failed her so often. It’s no coincidence her first instinct upon becoming Thor is to try and help people, and become a hero.
None of it is a coincidence. It’s all part of her history; a history that will always inform her future.
If you endeavor to go through Jane Foster’s comic history yourself, you will too often find her mired in regressive morals and a crushing lack of agency. I haven’t sugarcoated that, I hope. But the journey will also provide you with a much more comprehensive understanding of this beloved character. If you’re only going to remember one thing of this long rant, remember this: Jane wasn’t a generic damsel in distress who disappeared for decades and then reappeared reinvented as the Mighty Thor; Jane Foster was a character with a problematic yet rich history of resolve, tragedy, and exploitation at the hands of the very gods she would one day be a part of and grow beyond.