A lot has been made of Kratos’ glow up from raging barbarian anti-hero, to remorseful demi-father, and for good reason. The worse things about the God of War franchise always centered around finding justification in a completely unjustifiable man. Maybe putting you at bird’s eye view of this wild animal was all apart of the plan — you are complicit in his fuckery, and knowing that you can’t turn away and see how the story ends is supposed to create a moral friction in you.
Or maybe no one did much thinking about Kratos at all. He rips people in half, slays gods AND the ladies, and gets to be this power fantasy that violent action games often reduce down to, but to the nth degree. Young Cory Barlog was a wild and reckless man, and his art suggests such. Kratos growing up is evidence of Cory growing up.
That’s one of the common refrains echoing through much of the critical reception of God of War in these early weeks, at least. Kratos, the living embodiment of rage and irresponsibility, was a fire that burned white hot for three games, and when he was content with letting the fire die, he would wake up in a place completely unfamiliar to him, and be forced to reckon with what he’d done. A great concept made greater by the new setting, one that’s cold, dark, and Norse-y.
Vikings are cool, right? They have beards, wear fur, pillage, drink, etc. And the dimension-surfing god slayer ending up in the land of Thor and Odin seems like a pretty shrewd call in a post-Skyrim, MCU dominated world. But this setting fits this second chance Kratos much deeper than simple aesthetic-jocking. Kratos is a product of his environment.
A lot is said about Kratos’ extreme and brutal persona in the old Greek setting, but Ancient Greek myth is well known for creating outrageous and ultimately problematic and hard to like characters. Zeus regularly disguised himself as animals or other people’s lovers so that he could rape women. Hades kidnapped Persephone and kept her in the Underworld until she gave up resisting him. The Greeks loved depicting their gods as petty and cruel authoritarians that loved using mortals as cattle for their hedonism.
They also loved to create rebellious, semi-mortal heroes who’s super-humanity is devoted to rebelling against these figures. Enter the Greek Myth Mascot Heracles. Heracles’ strength was rivaled only by his wit, and if he couldn’t lift, pull, or break a problem, he’d out think it. Sometimes, he’d do a combination of all of those, like when he was tricked into holding up the sky by Atlas, and had to trick him into taking it back.
Heracles worked hard, maybe too hard, and almost always at the service of a king or a god, whom he would eventually overcome through ultimate righteousness. He also checked several problematic boxes, like marrying three different women all of which he had dubious relationships with (killing all of Megara’s children or delivering Omphale as a slave), and cheating on them with more men and women than are actually countable.
Kratos is a clay figure molded from the dirt of Greek mythos, and the worms that crawl through him are in all of that canon’s greatest figures. He shares the epic burden of being punished by the gods and rebelling against them with the likes of Prometheus and my boy Sisyphus. He is twisted into a monster in the same ways Medusa was. He’s as destructive to the innocents around him, even in the oft chance that he’s working to their benefit, as Heracles.
Old Kratos IS Greek Myth.
So this new, reserved, contemplative Kratos is a jaded, well-traveled, newly settled down version of this über-human. He is also a reflection of Norse worldviews. Or at least, he is still in the process of being shaped and challenged by it.
Norse deities maybe no less cruel than Greek ones, but where Greek gods act out in self preservation, Norse ones live as fatalists. Ragnarok is all of their futures — they know exactly how the world will end, how they will die in the final battle. Everything they do up to that point is in reverence and rumination of the end, or in celebration of life until that fateful moment. The wisest of their canon like Frejya and Odin, are wise and stoic, where Zeus and Hera are impulsive and reactionary. The image of the jovial savage that often accompanies discussions of the ancient Nordic people is influenced heavily by this old religion. A Kratos that actually thinks about his actions fits right at home here.
The Norse world is brutal enough for him, as well. Death is a ubiquitous fact in Nordic life, and the sometimes grotesque imagery used to explain natural phenomenon or lore often stands out. The sky is the inside of an ice giant’s skull. The Nidhogg is a dragon with corpses in it teeth like wayward broccoli. Those who die honorably in bloody combat can be chosen to feast in the afterlife at Valhalla. Seems par for a guy who has torn heads in two with his bare hands.
A cooler temperament hasn’t made Kratos any less dangerous, but it’s definitely made him more Norse. Kratos is many things, including a warped fun house mirror, reflecting the world around him back to us in gnarled, muscled form. Purposefully or not, Kratos’ characterization is not just a celebration of of raw power fantasy, or a tone deaf expression of what we assume machismo is. It’s also a pretty deft expression of our own ancient human legends, and ultimately serves as gory reminder that inhumanity is so human, that it’s carved in our ancestors caves, and painted on our predecessors pottery.