In November 2017, Thor: Ragnarok opened to a huge domestic box office, and the general consensus is that the film finally gets Asgardians right, with director Taika Waititi giving the entire cast room to stretch their comedic chops.
However, no two actor have the same chemistry as Hemsworth and Hiddleston. Their long-standing sibling dynamic is equally hilarious (“I’m not doing ‘Get Help’”) and heart-wrenching (“I am here”), but most importantly, it adds new depth to the typically lonely journey of a superhero protagonist.
The average American has at least one sibling, yet our entertainment landscape is littered with orphaned singletons, both children and adults. It’s not just superheroes that suffer from this affliction, either. From The Wizard of Oz to Harry Potter, genre protagonists rarely have both parents, let alone siblings or an extended family. The reasoning behind this is simple: it’s far easier to write a character with few attachments, as it streamlines their narrative for maximum plot momentum. But Thor: Ragnarok showcases how the drama inherent to family (bound to by blood and/or upbringing) can be leveraged uniquely for both humor and pain.
The film side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has little in the way of family drama. Sure, Daddy Issues™ abound from Iron Man. and Star-Lord. to Black Widow, and the Wasp. Complex romantic entanglements drive Captain America and Bruce Banner. Ant-Man has a daughter, but divorce means he doesn’t have to find a babysitter before saving the world. Scarlet Witch had a brother, but Quicksilver died before their relationship could develop. These familial attachments may color how Marvel characters react to stimuli, but they’re mostly ancient history. Other than Thor and Loki, the only siblings in the MCU with any weight are Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). That is a damn shame as Thor: Ragnarok proves.
First, there is Thor’s side of things. He’s a big golden retriever puppy inside the body of a god who loves CrossFit. All Thor wanted growing up was to fight side-by-side with Loki forever, two brothers kicking ass across the Nine Realms. This aspiration still blinds Thor to Loki’s baser nature, as Thor jovially brushes off the ramifications of Loki’s actions that others will not. This is especially evident at the end of Thor: Ragnarok when Loki shows concern about returning to Earth, but Thor is convinced everyone will forgive Loki as easily as he has. This doesn’t mean Thor is without flaws, because he is also kind of a dick. Anyone with an older, bigger brother recognizes how Thor antagonizes Loki. Thor wants Loki to love him, but only on the condition that Loki acknowledges Thor is better at everything. Even when he’s not.
Then there’s Loki. A classic case of “Youngest Child Syndrome,” he was never as big or strong as Thor and the Warriors Three (plus Sif). So he turned to his mother Frigga (Rene Russo), who taught him magic and coddled him, no doubt a contributing factor in Loki turning into a selfish prig. Loki wants to be loved, but not at the expense of his selfishness. His nature both pulls him to Thor for acceptance and pushes him away before Thor can hurt him again. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Thor: The Dark World. An uneven film, Thor and Loki teaming up with each other, even as their mutual distrust is ever-present just under the surface, is one of the film’s high points. Thor: Ragnarok builds off that narrative, using the familial momentum to have Loki finally grow up a bit, putting his life in avoidable danger to help the denizens of Asgard escape certain destruction.
At the end of the day, both brothers want the companionship and acceptance of the other, but their natures make this desire impossible.
Of course, none of this would be possible without the VIP of this family: Odin (Anthony Hopkins). The worst dad in the Nine Realms, Odin kept secrets from his sons and pitted them against each other for his affection all their lives. When the boys’ schemes for their father’s love spilled over into violence or complications, Odin would simply fall into “Odin Sleep,” leaving his wife Frigga to fix the issue. And this is to say nothing of how Odin literally imprisoned his eldest child, Hela, away for eternity because he suddenly decided ambition was bad*. Why even adopt Loki if you were just going to treat him like garbage, Odin? ANSWER ME, OLD MAN.
The result of this broken family dynamic is some of the best character storytelling in the MCU. Loki isn’t a great villain because Hiddles looks good in a horned crown, but because audiences recognize themselves in his motivations. We might not agree with them, but we can at least see where Loki is coming from. Thor might be the hero, but he is humanized by his hubris. Audiences recognize and respond to this because family is a universal language whether you live in Midgard or Asgard. So why not dip into that well more often?
While it’s unlikely Tony Stark will suddenly discover a long-lost sibling or Vision will have time to literally create a nuclear family for himself before Infinity War, Marvel seems ready to expand family drama beyond the Thor franchise. Based on the trailer and character poster taglines, Black Panther looks promising in the “my family is the cause of, and solution to, all my problems” department. T’Challa (Chadwick Bozeman) must deal with his mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and his sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright). Perhaps it’s telling that both Marvel heroes that deal extensively with family dysfunction come from monarchies, a system of government that is custom made for ongoing interpersonal drama. But even peons butt heads with their siblings and parents. As Marvel heads into the next chapter with Phase IV, maybe the time for COSMIC THREATS is over — after all, where do you go after Thanos? — and the time of Machiavellian schemes by loved ones is dawning. As Thor shows, drama doesn’t need to have galactic stakes to make for good entertainment.
*In this case, ambition was bad as it included genocide and subjugation, but damn Odin is terrible at managing his kids.