Thor is often cited as Marvel’s weakest franchise, but look at its competition.
Iron Man, starring the incomparable Robert Downey, Jr.; Captain America, with perhaps the only perfect three-film sequence; Guardians of the Galaxy, arguably the genre’s most punk / auteur series; and The Avengers, the strengths of which speak for themselves. Even the one-entry-so-far series like Ant-Man or Doctor Strange are generally acknowledged as superior to the Thor movies. Even I rank them that way.
So, what are the strengths of the Thor franchise, and why has it always been such a weak link? With Thor: Ragnarok, director Taika Waititi and writers Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost reformat the franchise in a way that keeps the good and jettisons what didn’t quite work, adding in new elements that feel fresh and unique to the franchise. It’s the best of the three Thor movies, by far, and perhaps one of Marvel’s best movies — certainly one of its most unique.
Ragnarok is the mythical ending of the Norse Gods, so you kind of know where this movie is headed right when it starts, but how it contextualizes the end of everything for its lead characters might surprise you. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who has been absent altogether from the MCU since 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, returns to his home of Asgard after his adventures hunting for the Infinity Stones. He quickly realizes that his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), has kidnapped and replaced their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), whose absence has caused the Nine Realms to fall into chaos. This wasn’t Loki’s intention; as always, he’s up to short-sighted selfish mischief, not master plans. The two brothers head to Earth to find their father but run into Hela (Cate Blanchett), Goddess of Death, who destroys Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, and jettisons the brothers to the junkyard planet Sakaar. Thor is turned into a gladiator, reunites with Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), etc., etc.
Ragnarok follows the Guardians franchise in feeling like a film that loudly, and proudly, represents the vision of its director. In an environment where the MCU’s popularity would give Marvel Studios license to sit on its hands and just churn out the same shit over and over again, it’s a testament to the people behind the scenes that they’ve taken such risks — and succeeded.
Waititi’s broad, clever comedy served him well in Boy, What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and dozens of PR-approved articles are out there for you to read about how he “maintained his indie cred” with Ragnarok. But few seem to emphasize that beyond his stellar comedic timing, Waititi’s films have always had deeply felt emotional cores. His mixture of drama and comedy is exactly what a Marvel Studios film calls for, and he delivers.
So, in looking at past Thor films, what worked? Thor’s always been a bit of a bore when he’s stoic and heroic and fun when he’s actively rooting for his friends and encouraging them. Here he’s much more the latter, mixed with a very heaping dose of Jack Burton from Big Trouble in Little China. Hemsworth broke into a new stage of his career as a comedic actor in the Ghostbusters remake last year and he continues that here. Thor and Loki have always been one of the best hero-and-villain pairs in the MCU, and Ragnarok allows that relationship to develop in ways that are not entirely predictable.
The first Thor film is also commendable for feeling and looking so much like a comic book before other superhero films were willing to embrace that kaleidoscope. Asgard’s colorful design, its soldiers’ weird armor, the Rainbow Bridge — those elements of the first Thor deserve more credit than they often get. That’s all still here in Ragnarok, amplified to a new level. Jack Kirby, who co-created of most of the Marvel heroes, had a distinctive visual style lifted whole-cloth here by Waititi and company. It’s a wonder to see many of these designs living and breathing on the screen.
What didn’t work about Thor and Thor: The Dark World? Largely the supporting cast. Not to knock Natalie Portman, but her Jane character suffered from an inability to really join in on the action in a convincing way, rendering her more of a cursory love interest than other women in the MCU.
She’s replaced here by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), the movie’s stand-out character. She is the Han Solo of Thor’s new group of friends, and the more you discover her during the movie, the better. I hope she’s given the lead of her own film someday.
Tossing in Hulk as a supporting character could have been a gimmick, but Ruffalo is given a shocking new direction in which to take the Bruce Banner / Hulk dynamic that is sure to play out in interesting ways during the next Avengers films.
In the comics realm, Thor has always had a great rogue’s gallery but never the right take on them in the movies. Hela is astounding; Blanchett hams it up in just the way you’d want her to. The same goes for Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster, whose Contest of Champions pits Thor and Hulk against each other in the gladiatorial arena.
Marvel Studios films have gradually developed a habit of touching on deeper themes as a way of building their characters. That’s not to say they’re about those themes, but they use them like they use their actors, soundtracks or copious CGI to create an overall affect. Guardians of the Galaxy is about family, but it has a strong undercurrent of depression and alienation. Captain America is about knowing right and wrong and whether you can trust higher ideals to define you. Doctor Strange is about faith.
Thor: Ragnarok tackles colonialism and the way it creates societal structures that rely on the subjugation and dehumanization of entire peoples. It has characters whose roles in that subjugation are called out and made clear. It tackles, to some extent, the whitewashing of history. Again, that’s not to say Ragnarok is a movie about those things, but those themes inform characters and stories. Waititi has always made a very vocal point of hiring diverse casts and making clear the plight of oppressed peoples (as a New Zealander, part of his family is Māori), and these elements of the movie feel very much like him.
As is often the impressive case after each new film in the MCU, deciding whether Thor: Ragnarok is one of Marvel’s best movies is always up for debate. It’s also par for the course that its stature will change as the franchise grows and grows and grows. What I can’t see coming under debate at any point is the fantastic soundtrack by Mark Mothersbaugh, initially of Devo fame and a long-in-demand score composer. The Marvel franchises have always lacked for iconic scores, and Motherbaugh’s ’80s-ish, synth-infused, Neverending Story-esque take on the superhero score is just one for the books. It’s just goddamn delightful.
Whether this is the last Thor movie or just the start of a new cycle is up to the box-office receipts. I hope it’s a success. In any case, we’re lucky that the MCU — one of the largest collective franchises in cinematic history — continues to unfold with such diligence and care, and that the voices employed to make its films are growing ever more diverse and unique.