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In the early stages of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, each of the Avengers had their own distinctive type of movie, separate from their first team-up in 2012. The Iron Man movies were bright, slick, poppy affairs driven by the sly, snarky, yet secretly soulful Tony Stark, as played by Robert Downey Jr. The Captain America movies were earnest and sincere, just like the title character played by Chris Evans. Then, there was the Thor series, starring Chris Hemsworth.
Thanks to initial director Kenneth Branagh, the Thor films began by taking their cue from Shakespearean tragedy as much as anything else, even if its title character wound up as a fish out of water in America, much as Captain America felt like a fish out of water in the 21st century. In Thor’s latest venture, Thor: Ragnarok, Thor not only feels like he’s grown from the 2011 original, but appears to be a wildly different character as a whole.
Some of the basics of what happens in Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi, feel appropriate to Thor’s other movies: the God of Thunder is faced with a seemingly unstoppable foe looking to control Asgard, Thor must deal with his trickster brother Loki, and there’s a series of supernatural creatures with whom our hero must do battle. But there’s also a supporting character made entirely of rocks who wants to lead a revolution, liberal (and highly enjoyable) use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” a series of meme-able moments featuring Jeff Goldblum as a gleeful hedonist, and pop-culture references aplenty. Gone is the high drama of the original Thor. Now we have something seemingly mashed together from the pages of pulp comics of the ‘70s and ‘80s, as well as the deadpan comedy of something like Monty Python’s Life of Brian. (The rock creature explaining that his last revolution failed because he didn’t print enough pamphlets feels very Pythonesque.)
In short, Thor: Ragnarok feels extremely removed from the two previous Thor movies. Chris Hemsworth has said that if he was going to play Thor again, he wanted it to feel and look unique relative to what came before: “I’ve played this character five times…and [I] thought we’ve got to try something different.” From the opening moments, where Thor explains how he got stuck in a cage to his fellow captive, a long-dead skeleton, it’s unavoidably clear that this Thor has changed far beyond even the way the character was presented in the second Avengers movie in 2015.
Throughout Ragnarok, there is a distinct sense that Hemsworth, Waititi, and screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost are enjoying making fun of the trappings of the Thor universe even more than they’re enjoying telling a new story within that universe. The way that Goldblum, playing the fiendish Grandmaster, revels in essentially walking into the film to poke fun at Thor, calling him “Sparkles” and raising a saucy eyebrow at the name “Asgard,” seems reflective of the film as a whole. More than other Marvel characters or worlds, Thor and Asgard are riper for self-parody, and Waititi doubles down throughout Ragnarok on that type of humor.
A reset may be the best thing for Thor as a character within the MCU, anyway. Neither Thor nor Thor: The Dark World are among Marvel’s highest-grossing films, and The Dark World is currently the MCU film with the lowest rating on either Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes, finding few genuine champions among critics. In spite of that film featuring Hemsworth as well as the always-charming Tom Hiddleston as Loki, The Dark World felt literally and metaphorically dark and grim, a far cry from the generally colorful and exciting Marvel movies. Thor: Ragnarok, from the candy-colored design of the planet Sakaar, where Thor and Loki find themselves for a good chunk of the film, to the way that Cate Blanchett’s baddie Hela is designed as a pulp-comic villain with distinctive headwear and makeup, is the polar opposite of its predecessors.
Largely, that works in Ragnarok’s favor. Anyone who wants to see another dour film with Thor trying to do right by his birthright as the God of Thunder may be let down, but Ragnarok (especially in its first two-thirds) is as off-kilter and exciting as the best that Marvel has had to offer, like Guardians of the Galaxy and Shane Black’s Iron Man 3. In the last couple of years, Hemsworth has proven outside of the MCU that he’s got a hidden, wicked comedic streak, like when he played dim-bulb receptionist Kevin in the Ghostbusters remake. In Thor: Ragnarok, he gets to be relaxed even as he’s trying to save the world from doom and destruction. When Ragnarok turns serious in its final act, it weakens a bit, but when this movie goes as far afield as possible from what we know about Thor, it works wonders.
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