Casting the Celtic Gods in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Part I: The Core Team From the Comics

comic book illustration of eleven Celtic gods with inset photos of the actors who should play them

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Here’s the thing about the “Celtic gods” (a.k.a. the “Tuatha de Danaan”) as featured in Marvel comics:

They’re an amalgamation of three separate—but related—pantheons of gods: the Celtic gods of ancient Gaul; the Welsh gods of the Brythonic/Brittonic Celts in ancient Britain; and the Tuatha Dé Danann, who were the primary deities of the Gaelic/Goidelic Celts in ancient Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man.

Now, it makes sense that Marvel would pick and choose from these three distinct—but again, related—traditions. Because as you go through their pantheons, you very quickly encounter some overlapping characters.

For example, the god Lugh (or Lug) from Irish mythology and the god Lleu (or Llew) from Welsh mythology are both clearly derived from the same Gaulish sun god Lugus (or Lugos). Same with the Irish god Ogma (or Oghma) and the Welsh god Eufydd fab Dôn, who are both derived from Ogmios, the Gaulish god of eloquence. 

Irish god Lugh and Welsh god Lleu are both descended from the Celtic god Lugus

Rather than deal with duplicate characters, Marvel writers cherry-picked their favorites and even gave certain gods—like the Irish sea-god Lir (a.k.a. Leir), cognate with the Welsh sea-god Llŷr—new power-sets. (Lir, lord of the ocean, became “the lord of lightning.”) The result is a mishmash of unfaithfully interpreted characters from three ancient Celtic cultures—and I vow to keep that in mind as I cast their eventual appearances on the big screen. (My theory is that at least some of the Celtic gods will show up in Thor: Love and Thunder).

Wherever possible, Gaelic gods will be played by Irish and Scottish actors, Brittonic gods will be played by Welsh and English actors, and Gaulish gods will be played by French actors.

Giddy up. 

11 Celtic Gods From Marvel Comics (and the Actors and Actresses Who Should Play Them)

1. The Dagda — Brendan Gleeson

photo of brendan gleeson next to marvel comics illustration of the dagda

No-brainer. Easiest casting decision ever. In Irish mythology, the Dagda, a.k.a. Eochaid Ollathair (the All-Father), is the patriarch of the Tuatha Dé Danann. He wields a giant club called Lorg Mór (the Great Staff) that can kill nine foes with a single strike and bring them back to life with a single touch. He also owns a flying, sentient flying harp named Uaithne, but that might be a bit harder to bring to the silver screen. In the comics, the Dagda is portrayed as a wise, noble, burly, stocky, fiery, bearded redhead. If that isn’t Brendan Gleeson deified, I don’t know what is.

Combine the fatherly nature of Brendan Gleeson from In Bruges and 28 Days Later with the humor and reflectiveness of Brendan Gleeson from The Guard and The Calvary, then add the physicality of Brendan Gleeson from Braveheart (naturally), and bada-bing bada-boom, you’ve got yourself the Dagda.

Alternate(s): John Rhys-Davies, Robbie Coltrane

2. Lir — Liam Cunningham

photo of liam cunningham next to marvel comics illustration of lir/leir

Yes, this is a Game of Thrones-inspired bit of fan-casting. And yes, it assumes that Marvel will do the right thing and ignore Lir’s comic book history as the “Lord of Lightning” and revert Lir to his rightful place as god of the sea.

But even if Liam Cunningham, who became a household name playing Davos Seaworth, isn’t a sea-god, he could still tackle the role. The Dublin-born actor doesn’t just have great muttonchops, he’s got great acting chops to boot. On a related not, if we were only casting Lir based on the looks of his comic book interpretation, Kenneth Brannagh—sporting his Poirot mustache—would be the on-the-nose (or should I say below-the-nose) choice.

Alternate(s): Kenneth Brannagh, Michael Fassbender

3. The Morrígan — Michelle Gomez

Should an Irish actress play the Morrígan, the Irish goddess of war and fate? Probably. But unfortunately that can’t happen because Scottish actress Michelle Gomez exists.

Anyone who’s seen Gomez as Miranda Croft in The Flight Attendant knows why she’s the perfect fit for the Irish pantheon’s most deadly—and conniving—temptress. Nor does it hurt that she successfully brought a different (albeit similar) comics character to life on the small screen: Mary Wardwell a.k.a. Madam Satan (re: Archie Comics / Chilling Adventures of Sabrina). When casting a goddess who’s known for luring warriors to their deaths on the battlefield, you can’t do better than Gomez.

Alternate(s): Aisling Bea, Ruth Negga

4. Nuada of the Silver Hand — Gabriel Byrne

A more cynical version of myself might have tried to convince you that Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jamie Lannister from Game of Thrones) would be the perfect choice to play Irish mythology’s most famous metal-handed god, but apart from the cheeky (handy?) reference, it’s not a good fit. Nuada (a.k.a. Nudd/Lludd in Welsh mythology, Nodens in Gaulish mythology) is the first king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. He bravely leads the Irish gods in glorious battle…until getting his hand lopped off.

What we need here is an actor who’s been around the block. Someone wizened and stoic, who can instantly command the respect of both the audience and his fellow actors. Someone who can show up, get his hand chopped off, get it replaced with a silver one, and make the whole ordeal feel authentic and emotionally resonant. We need Gabriel Byrne. The devil from End of Days Gabriel Byrne. Earl Haraldson from Vikings Gabriel Byrne. Bonus points because as he details in his book Walking with Ghosts, the Dublin-born Byrne grew up listening to stories from Irish mythology.

Alternate(s): Ciarán Hinds, Timothy Dalton

5. Bodb Derg — Colm Meaney

In Irish mythology, Bodb Derg (which means “red crow”) succeeds the Dagda to the throne of the  Tuatha Dé Danann. Otherwise, he isn’t the most notable of characters, though he does famously aid his brother Aengus Óg, the Irish god of love, in finding the woman of his dreams (re: The Dream of Angus).

In the Marvel comics, Bodb Derg is a gigantic red Lovecraftian demon-monster with horns coming out of his head and tentacles/mandibles coming out of his face. Enter Colm Meaney. Even if you don’t know Colm Meaney, you know Colm Meaney. The Star Trek alum is a notorious scene-stealer. He’s big. He’s brash. He’s boisterous. My pitch for the MCU’s Bodb Derg: don’t bother designing a CGI demon; just let Meaney do his thing.

Alternate(s): None

6. Cú Chulainn — Michael Fry 

Forget about the Cú Chulain (a.k.a. Cúchulain, a.k.a. Hound of Culann, a.k.a. Sétanta) from the comics: Ireland’s mightiest hero is much cooler in Irish mythology. There, he is less of a stereotypical swords-and-sandals pretty-boy swashbuckler and more like the Incredible Hulk. While in “Bruce Banner” mode, Chulain is a short, average Patrick with a bulbous nose and frizzy red hair. But when he’s taken over by the riastradh (war spasm), he transforms into a nine-foot-tall monster. Remember all that CGI money we just saved by casting Colm Meaney as Bodb Derg? Put it here instead!

As for the actor, let’s think small. Nerdy. Someone whose transformation into the Irish hulk will have the greatest impact. Yes, now you see it, don’t you? The County Meath-born sketch comedian Michael Fry, who recently appeared on the hit show Derry Girls, is perfect for the role. But just in case you’re not on board with this cockamamie bit of casting (it’s a real Michael-Keaton-as-Batman situation), I chose more traditional, “manly” actors as my alternates.

Alternate(s): Jack Reynor, Colin Morgan

7. The Lady of the Lake — Rose Leslie

This is a weird one. It’s another example of Marvel writers looking at a mythological character and thinking, We can make this character cooler. We can add to the mythology. For starters, the Lady of the Lake, best known from her appearances in Arthurian legend, is definitively named as Niamh Chinn Óir (“the Golden Hair”) from Irish mythology. And while it’s theorized that Niamh and the Lady of the Lake are related (the former did commit suicide at the edge of a lake), it’s also theorized that the Otherworld woman Rhiannon from Welsh mythology inspired her. The writers just picked one and went with it.

In Irish mythology, Niamh is the wife/lover of the poet Oisín, son of Ireland’s (2nd-) greatest hero, Fionn mac Cumhail. In the comics, she’s the daughter of the Irish sea-god Mannanan (traditionally the son of Lir) and the sea-fairy Fand. Comics Niamh also rides a magical horse named Ebarr, which can run on top of water…and air. My top pick for this role was initially Erin Kellyman, who played a similarly watery, otherworldly woman in The Green Knight. Then I remembered she was already in the MCU. Then I remembered Scottish actress Rose Leslie (Ygritte from Game of Thrones) and it became clear to me that this role would be hers to lose. A warrior demi-goddess who’s been known to wield Excalibur, Caliburn (the Sword in the Stone), and Nuada’s Sword of Light (Cliamh Solais)? Yeah, Rose Leslie’s got this.

Alternate(s): Erin Kellyman, Yasmine Akram

8. Cairbre — Russell Brand

Nope, to the best of my knowledge Russell Brand doesn’t have any Irish or Scottish or Welsh (or French) ancestry. But the English actor/comedian is playing Cairbre and that’s that.

In Irish mythology, Cairbre (a.k.a. Caber) is a poet and satirist of the Tuatha Dé Danann and is the son of Ogma, god of eloquence. In the comics, Cairbre is known both for his biting sense of humor and his aptitude for poking fun at authority. That, my friends, is a role for English actor-comedian Russell Brand (who was utterly wasted in Death on the Nile, I might add).

Alternate(s): Chris O’Dowd, Jimmy Carr 

9. Taranis — Vincent Cassel

While originating in Gaul, the thunder-god Taranis came to be worshiped across the Celtic world. Hence, we need a French actor with international appeal. We need the Paris-born Ocean’s Twelve and Black Swan star, Vincent Cassel.

If you’ve seen Cassel in action, you know the man positively crackles with energy on the screen. Forget the blue dye-job Marvel gave him in the comics (the MCU has already reached its blue people quota). Just give Cassel a beard and some blown-out hair and he’ll not only embody the Celtic Zeus, but he might give Russel Crowe’s Zeus Zeus (appearing in Thor: Love and Thunder) a run for his money.

Alternate(s): Mathieu Amalric

10. Cernunnos — Jean Reno (voice of)

If DC can get Sylvester Stallone to voice an anthropomorphic shark (re: The Suicide Squad), Marvel should have no problem getting French actor and The Professional star Jean Reno to voice an anthropomorphic stag.

Cernunnos, “the horned one,” is the Gaulish god of nature and wild animals. While ancient sources depicted him as mostly humanoid—the glaring exception being the large deer antlers growing out of his head—the comics transformed him into a big ole walking-talking deer-man. We’ll spare you the makeup chair and prosthetics, Monsieur Reno. This will be a voice-only role. (Marvel has already successfully designed a CGI anthropomorphic hippopotamus, they shouldn’t have any trouble with a deer.)

Alternate(s): Christopher Lambert

11. Gwynn/Fionn — Taron Egerton

I’ll admit it: Thus far, there’s been a deplorable lack of Welsh talent on this list. But that’s about to change. Despite being born in England, Kingsman and Rocketman star Taron Egerton considers himself Welsh “through and through” and is fluent in the Welsh language. His name, Taron, means “thunder” in Welsh, and yes, that likely comes from the same Celtic root word that gave us Taranis (“thunderer”). Cool, right? But I digress…

The character of Gwynn/Fionn is your classic comics amalgamation of two related heroes: Gwynn ap Nudd from Welsh mythology and his equivalent from Irish mythology, Fionn mac Cumhaill. The comics character’s birth name, Deimne (a.k.a. Demna), is a clear reference to the Irish hero. But the comics also make him the son of Nuada (a.k.a. Nudd), which is a clear reference to the Welsh hero. In Irish mythology, Fionn is the son of Cumal, leader of a band of warriors called the Fianna. However, Fionn is occasionally described as a descendant of Nuada. But again, I must digress. Egerton showed us in Robin Hood that he’s more than capable of playing a brooding, hooded huntsman, which is how Gwynn/Fionn is depicted in the comics.

Alternate(s): Domhnall Gleeson, Jonas Armstrong

Stay Tuned…

In part two, I’ll highlight the other gods—and monsters—Marvel will have to cast in order to flesh out the Celtic corner (pocket dimension?) of the MCU.

And I’ll tell you right now that I’ll absolutely be adding a lot more women to the lineup because a team of eleven with only two female characters is preposterous, especially given that women were largely treated as equals in ancient Celtic society (something I allude to in my article about female druids).

Update: Part II is here!

Want to learn about the darker side of Irish mythology? Check out…

Samhain in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 2)

Perhaps the most important holiday on the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain marks the end of summer and the beginning of a new pastoral year. It is a liminal time—a time when the forces of light and darkness, warmth and cold, growth and blight, are in conflict. A time when the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead is at its thinnest. A time when all manner of spirits and demons are wont to cross over from the Celtic Otherworld. Learn more…

Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy

“A thrilling romp through pubs, mythology, and alleyways. NEON DRUID is such a fun, pulpy anthology of stories that embody Celtic fantasy and myth,” (Pyles of Books). Cross over into a world where the mischievous gods, goddesses, monsters, and heroes of Celtic mythology live among us, intermingling with unsuspecting mortals and stirring up mayhem in cities and towns on both sides of the Atlantic, from Limerick and Edinburgh to Montreal and Boston. Learn more…

More the listenin’ type?

I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.

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