Warning: The following contains spoilers about the ending of Thor: Ragnarok.
Robert Downey Jr. was kicking off a career comeback. Scarlett Johansson was at the top of her game. Jeremy Renner had two Oscar nominations under his belt. Mark Ruffalo was an indie darling. Even Chris Evans was a definitive that-guy-from-that-thing type. Only Chris Hemsworth, with little more than an Australian soap opera and a supporting part in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek to his name, entered the Marvel world a bona fide unknown. And even blanker a slate than Hemsworth was the hammer-wielding demigod he was charged with bringing to life.
As a character, 2011’s Thor didn’t hold much of a molten uru candle to his fellow Phase One supermen, a collective defined across exploits in wit, grit, rage, and ego. Thor, on the other hand, served less as a realized hero than he did as an in-road to the kind of fantasy spectacle Marvel wouldn’t have the opportunity to explore within any of its other sub-franchises. That first Thor movie saddled its lead with a hefty helping of narcissism, but without the necessary panache to veil its function as the easiest point of entry into a story about a thunder-powered deity's adventures around modern day Earth.
The vacuity of Thor’s eponymous Avenger only becomes more apparent when you compare him to the character we see in Thor: Ragnarok. This latest incarnation looks almost nothing like the Thor we met in 2011 (no, that’s not a haircut joke); this time around he is imbued with the impish charm and amenable swagger that distinguishes him as the only MCU figure equipped to traverse the terrain of director Taika Waititi’s sense of humor.
For the sake of argument, you could chalk these changes up to canonical growth strewn across the three pictures (The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World, and Avengers: Age of Ultron) separating the Odinson of yore with his favorable Phase Three counterpart. But for a better diagram of the character’s development, you’ll need to look beyond Marvel—to films like Vacation and Ghostbusters, to Saturday Night Live hosting gigs, and to a caliber of magic usually limited to the dales of Asgard.
Such episodes of Hemsworth’s evermore surprising comedic chutzpah plotted his climb with Valkyrian stealth to the tops of our Best Chris lists. More amazing than Hemsworth’s spotlighted evolution, however, was Thor’s. As the public took note of new things it loved about the performer, so did Marvel Entertainment ostensibly take heed of the public. As a result, successive pictures saw more and more of Hemsworth in Thor, with Ragnarok showcasing the paragon of this transformation. Six years after his introduction, filling the shell of a figure once defined by his accompanying accessories and set dressing is a character founded foremost on his actor’s charisma—and uniquely so.
The driving force behind any of Thor's fellow do-gooders feels part and parcel of the greater Marvel blueprint; Downey’s comic acumen notwithstanding, Tony Stark’s daddy issues and PTSD lay the course of the Iron Man story within and between Marvel films, operating as much like narrative stepstools as they are character coloring. The same can be said for Steve Rogers’ contorting moral philosophy, Bruce Banner’s inflammable self-loathing, and Natasha Romanoff’s salted misanthropy, the lot of which are employed to usher their respective heroes from one flagship to the next. Whereas these characters, ditto their actors’ performances thereof, feel to this day like they were manufactured to fit and forward the MCU, we see instead the MCU bending to fit the changing shape of Chris Hemsworth.
Wherever you stand on the quality of what this order of operations has yielded so far, you have to agree that it's given Marvel some of its most unusual material. Thor: The Dark World, barely at the precipice of Hemsworth's explosion to popular acclaim, introduced an amalgam of hard fantasy elves and rom-com tropes; by the time Age of Ultron rolled around, we'd learned that Hemsworth could handle a self-effacing riff like nobody's business, and were thusly treated to an array during the film's showstopping party sequence; and even if Ragnarok has been in the studio cards since day one, you can bet that none of the top-tier suits expected Phase One Hemsworth to headline a picture set on a trash planet populated by alcoholic bounty hunters, New Zealand-accented rock monsters, and an eyeliner-lavished Jeff Goldblum.
But better than anything we've seen to date is the very unpredictability of what’s yet to come. With Thor more or less alleviated of the tethers that bind Iron Man and Captain America, the shadow of whose mythos looms large enough to encourage predictions of their deaths and successors years prior to a given film’s release, the Nine Worlds are his oyster. The grandeur of possibility is hammered home in the final moments of Ragnarok, which see the hero and his consortium blasting off for no place in particular, seeking only the very notion of somewhere to go.
If ever there was a testament to Marvel’s burgeoning faith in Hemsworth, it’s Thor: Ragnarok. The film concludes with Thor steering a spaceship into the great unknown, poised at the dawn of a new quest that could take Thor and company to an infinitum of physical realms, storylines, genres, and tones; Hemsworth mans a ship all his own, guided by a road map of his own talents, passions, and inclinations, and moreover our reception of the like.
The generosity of this canon is in no small part to thank for Marvel's most exciting and unpredictable opportunity yet: one for the sort of franchise that can bound between journeys to find the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail, trips to Singapore and Rio, adventures out on the open road and inside the Thunderdome, and missions into the U.S.S.R., the Nile River, volcano lairs, ice palaces, and outer space. But just as much a benefactor is the star we're willing to watch soar lightyears beyond the parameters of his debut's promise. We didn't know Chris Hemsworth would bring us here, and we don't know where he'll bring us next. But we're watching!
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor for Nerdist. Find Michael on Twitter @micarbeiter.
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