9:30am PT by Richard Newby
The Boundless Potential of Thor
[This story contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War]
Asgard. The realm eternal, no more. Last year’s Thor: Ragnarok, which saw director Taika Waititi deliver a comedic take on the character Thor (Chris Hemsworth) ushered in a new era for the mighty hero. Rejuvenating what many fans and critics believed to be a subpar franchise when compared to the likes of Iron Man and Captain America, Thor: Ragnarok surprised at the box office with $854 million worldwide, a much higher haul than 2011's Thor ($449.3 million) and 2013's Thor: The Dark World ($644.6 million). Despite the film’s farcical nature, Waititi brought a share of significant changes that left the character better for it by the end. With his hammer Mjolnir shattered and his heavenly home blasted from the universe, Thor found himself facing loss unlike any he’d faced before. These blows came alongside the superficial changes of having his blonde locks and right eye cut away. Stripped of the things that defined him, Ragnarok taught Thor that Asgard wasn’t a place, but a people. As the captain of an ark filled with Asgardian refugees, Thor began charting a course for Earth to resettle, upon his father Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) suggestion, in Norway. Thor’s future seemed clear. Then Thanos (Josh Brolin) struck, blowing those plans to bits. From the wreckage came the Thor that audiences have always deserved.
Avengers: Infinity War opens with a bang that not only sees the deaths of MCU mainstays Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), but the decimation of half the Asgardian race, with the rest, including Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie, presumably lost in space for the time being. Infinity War doesn’t undo Ragnarok, but positions it as a prologue to a reality where plans don’t always come to fruition and the ability to escape is finite. The destruction of the Asgardians and the lost opportunity for New Asgard on Earth is a necessary creative move in a cinematic universe of teasers and planted seeds, and a reminder that this cinematic universe still has the ability to throw expectations entirely off course. Through Infinity War and Ragnarok, nearly all of the elements that made Thor the character he was when he first learned humility in Kenneth Branagh’s 2011 film are gone. Even his girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is no longer a part of the picture. Despite all of these elements being removed from the character’s identity and arc, the Russos use the changes that Waititi introduced to rebuild the character.
The blandness so often associated with Thor prior to Ragnarok is certainly no fault of Chris Hemsworth’s. While his time in the MCU before Infinity War hasn’t yielded the dramatic meat bestowed upon his peers Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans in their portrayals of Iron Man and Captain America, Hemsworth has always brought a commitment to the role of Thor. Despite the fact filmmakers, like Thor: The Dark World’s Alan Taylor, haven’t always had the clearest sense of what to do with Thor, Hemsworth has established his knack for both drama and comedy. While criticisms of the character have often centered on him being a bit of a bore, self-seriousness was never Thor’s problem. Before Ragnarok, Thor’s solo movies made him into a joke. Rather than allowing him to react to the humor of the world that existed around him, he was reacted against in a fish-out-of-water fashion that made the character feel trite and grasping for significance in comparison to his comic book counterpart. The only reprieve from this oafishness came in the form of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (2012) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), which showcased Thor as more than the jock of the team. But even then, Thor seemed somewhat ancillary in terms of forming an emotional bond with the other characters. This was, in part, because he was removed from the central narratives of both films for long stretches of time, often during these films’ quieter moments that allowed the relationships between these characters to be developed. Infinity War changes all of this by not only taking the character seriously but making him one of the emotional centerpieces of the film.
Unmoored early in Infinity War, Thor no longer simply faces the question of his place as a hero but his place as a god. This is particularly true when Thanos, with his Infinity Gauntlet, can claim the same title of godhood. It is in Thor’s unlikely pairing with Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), who he frequently refers to as rabbit, that offers insight into where the hero finds himself. Thor’s teary-eyed confession to Rocket, in which he discusses all of things he’s lost, is one of Infinity War’s best scenes and affords the character a sincerity that Hemsworth has rarely had the chance to play within the MCU. It’s a scene that wouldn’t work with just any character, particularly given Thor’s emotional detachment from the rest of the Avengers, save for Banner (Mark Ruffalo). But the scene works with Rocket because like him, Thor has been torn apart and left as a broken thing who must now struggle to redefine himself and forge a new family to replace the one he lost. When Rocket bestows Thor with a new eye, Thor is able to see a way forward.
Thor being taken seriously doesn’t mean he’s humorless. Infinity War allows Thor to show off his witty side with an understanding to the developments the character made in Ragnarok, but also an awareness that Infinity War is not a comedy and for Thor to mean something, he must have a sense of weight to him. His arc in the film allows him to finally mature. Ragnarok led to this maturation plot-wise, but not on an emotional level that saw him coming to terms with his father’s death and unworthiness, and the loss of his childhood friends, The Warriors Three (Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano and Zachary Levi). On Nidavellir, the heart of a dying star, Thor forges a new weapon, Stormbreaker, with the help of Rocket, Groot (Vin Diesel) and the dwarf Eitri (Peter Dinklage). In taking on the full power of a sun, at the risk of his life, in order to forge a weapon to defeat Thanos, Thor displays his full godlike potential. No longer at the service of a hammer tainted by his father’s sin and hypocrisy, Thor uses science and magic to define worthiness and the tool befitting it, on his own terms.
It feels as though Iron Man and Captain America’s storylines are coming to a natural end. If they were to meet their ends in Avengers 4, it would be with a sense of suitability. But it feels as though Thor is just getting started, and the Russos have finally found and forged the character that four other filmmakers have sought to define over the course of five previous films. Thor’s films have barely scratched the surface of his lore. If the Russos continue their relationship with Marvel after next year's Avengers 4, they would be a natural fit to shepherd the character into the future. Their take on Thor, and those of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, feels like one that stems from a love and understanding of the comics. It’s easy to imagine what these creatives could do with an adaptation of Jason Aaron’s God Butcher (2013) storyline that sees Thor across three periods of his life attempting to save the immortal beings of the universe from a hunter of deities. Not only would this provide a natural extension of challenges Thor grapples with in Infinity War, but it would allow for Hemsworth to play Thor as an elderly All-Father near the end of time. Beyond Aaron’s modern run, the works of Walt Simonson, Tom DeFalco and J. Michael Straczynski offer plenty of unexplored branches of the World Tree for the God of Thunder to traverse. Without Loki, without Jane, without Asgard and Odin, it’s ironic that Thor finally seems free to stand out. More than any other character currently in the MCU, Thor’s potential feels endless, because finally, after all these years, he’s being treated like he’s sacred.