There is perhaps nothing in Hollywood so rigid and tightly calibrated as the Marvel machine. Since launching in 2008 with the release of Iron Man, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been playing the long game; the franchise based a decade’s worth of content on a tremendous amount of faith in its product. A risky move, to be sure, but one that has paid dividends over the years, as Marvel movie after Marvel movie reigns supreme at the box office. But there is a sacrifice made in crafting an entire franchise of films several years in advance: You have an incredibly narrow margin for error, and it’s almost impossible to course correct. That’s what makes the character of Thor so remarkable. All of the other Marvel superheroes have remained pretty much the same over time; a little older, wiser, and broodier, perhaps, but unchanged in essence. Thor is the only Avenger that received the space to evolve.
When we first meet Thor, he’s basically the Asgardian equivalent of the nicest player on a slightly-above-average high school football team. Arrogant and entitled, he was born into a privileged family where everyone constantly told him how special he was. But underneath his broey exterior existed a fundamentally good person.
His first movie presents a classic fish-out-of-water story, where he learns self-reliance and to not take his gifts for granted. There’s a certain amount of humor in Thor, but it’s largely at his expense; we laugh at the buffoonish god forced into embarrassingly human situations where he consistently proves unable to adapt. Thor begins as a deeply apathetic god, willing to fulfill his duty as a classical hero only insofar as it aligns with his personal pursuit of glory. Over time, he grows more intimately acquainted with life on Earth. In turn, he becomes much more empathetic and human.
Throughout Thor: The Dark World and the first two Avengers films, this arc develops similarly to those of other Marvel superheroes. Thor becomes emotionally attached to people and things; he becomes traumatized by his experiences; and he learns from them, always in ways that make him a more worthy hero. Thor integrates into a team structure, and retains his commitment to protecting the Earth from otherworldly threats. We get to know Thor as a charismatic jock with superpowers—a slightly stiff, affected screen presence.
That is, until Thor: Ragnarok. The third film in the Thor series is the first to fully appreciate the fact that Chris Hemsworth, Australian beefcake extraordinaire, is actually funny. And the film uses this to full advantage. Gone (well, mostly gone) are the stilted one-liners that Marvel so frequently employs. In their place, we get a quirky, off-kilter sense of humor that suddenly gives the character of Thor a beating heart. Was this the plan from the very beginning, to alter the personality of a marquee superhero three films into their allotted franchise? Unlikely. Instead, Marvel gave director Taika Waititi a rare opportunity to experiment and improvise with one of its cherished characters. The choice paid off handsomely.
Thor: Ragnarok‘s complete overhaul of its main superhero makes him several orders of magnitude more enjoyable. Up until that point, Thor occupied a sort of tenuous position within The Avengers franchise. His films weren’t the best-received; he didn’t have a passionate group of fans à la Team Iron Man or Team Cap. But here, he has his own distinct personality, capitalizing on Hemsworth’s natural comic skill and Waititi’s eccentric directorial sensibilities. What’s more, the film shows a rare example of Marvel willingly deviating from their carefully set plans.
This decision could not have come at a better time. Thor: Ragnarok released on the backs of the equally irreverent Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 and the low-key Spider-Man: Homecoming. This trend protected the Marvel Cinematic Universe, then almost 10 years old, from growing stale. As for Thor alone, the willingness to swing for the fences and take a bold approach with one of the least relatable superheroes (Thor isn’t, after all, a scrappy kid from Queens or a formerly scrappy kid from Brooklyn, but a otherworldly being with godlike powers) breathed fresh life into what would become a great character.
Against every natural instinct to stick to the plan, Marvel took a chance on an exciting new incarnation of Thor. In doing so, they proved that an unwieldy super-franchise, full of spreadsheets and inflexible release dates for films spanning the next century, was still capable of some pleasantly surprising improvisation.
Featured Image: Marvel Studios