In the vast and intertangled web of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor often feels like the family’s unloved stepchild. And it’s not very hard to see why. While Captain America and Iron Man represent different ideals of the American Dream (one personifying it, the other living it), Thor both figuratively and literally exists on a whole other world. His story is rooted in Norse mythology, and dabbles heavily in the realm of gods and goddesses. It’s hardly the sort of fodder one would expect from a superhero, particularly one who helms a blockbuster franchise.
So the Thor films too some time to gain their footing, as one director after another took their turn with the God of Thunder. That it took three films to nail down the character should not necessarily speak as a condemnation of the first two, but as testament to how elusive and unnatural Thor’s corner of the Marvel Universe really is.
In judging the three Thor films, we must take into account the larger scope of the MCU, which is the glue that holds the God of Thunder’s solo adventures together. But we must also ask ourselves how well the films work on their own. And when they fail, we must further press: Who holds the hammer of guilt?
The first Thor film premiered just as the MCU was beginning to gather steam. Although The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2 were creative disappointments, they demonstrated that Marvel was taking its Cinematic Universe rather seriously, and that an Avengers film was not far off. Thor, however, was a far more audacious character than Iron Man or Hulk, and it would take a special level of care and dedication to ensure that a film adaptation of the character would turn out right.
And indeed, there are some aspects which Thor handles quite well. Handing the title role to Australian actor Chris Hemsworth (largely unknown to American audiences, outside of his brief appearance in JJ Abrams’ first Star Trek film) proved a wise move, as the actor displayed more than enough charisma to deliver the Old English dialogue without making it sound wooden or forced. A talented supporting cast, including Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman, and Idris Elba, populated the worlds of both Earth and Asgard nicely. And director Kenneth Branagh – known for his large-scale and visually sweeping work – was the perfect choice to bring Thor’s homeworld to life.
But all the talent both behind and in front of the camera could not disguise the fact that Thor was, at its heart, a setup film, introducing characters and themes who would go on to play meaty roles in the following year’s Avengers epic. Thor hasn’t proper time to carve out its own identity before its main character is whisked off to Earth. From there, we get a few fleeting moments of character-building (mostly between Thor and Portman’s Jane) and fish-out-of-water comedy (Thor smashing an emptied coffee mug and demanding “Another!”) before the plot abruptly kicks in again. We need time for Loki, time for SHIELD, and time for Laufey. Thor is so busy trying to set up different venues of entertainment that it often forgets to entertain, period.
When the first Thor clicks – when Hemsworth and Portman have time to properly play off one another, when the camera is given time to sweep lovingly over the hallowed world of Asgard – the film can be something to behold. Unfortunately, those moments of joy are not frequent enough to fully compensate for the film’s overreliance on Avengers bait.
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
At least the first Thor had a structural backbone that was firm enough to sustain a feature film. The second installment hasn’t even got that. Instead, we have a series of ham-handed expository scenes that less deepen the Thor mythos than muddle it, punctuated by the occasional dull action setpiece or forced one-liner.
The story is as generic among the most generic of the MCU, with Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith (a fun baddie in the comics, here turned into just another maniacal villain) hatching a plan that will wreak havoc on Earth and Asgard. Malekith resides in the titular Dark World, which certainly lives up to its name – the scenes spent on his side of the realm are drab and uninvolving, largely thanks to the dimly-lit and unpleasant-looking scenery.
The director’s chair is this time filled by Alan Taylor, a TV veteran whose work includes episodes of Homicide, The Sopranos, and Mad Men. But he’s perhaps best known for his Game of Thrones work, and some hoped that the scope and majesty of Westeros could easily transfer to the scope and majesty of Asgard. Alas, there is little to distinguish Asgard here, at least from its portrayal in the first film – the freshness and wonder have dissipated, replaced with a generic action-adventure tale that ultimate serves as a lengthy tease for future Marvel films.
Thor: The Dark World is not a total failure – any scene with Loki, and particularly when he’s allowed to interact with Thor, is a delight. But it represents the downside of serialized cinema, when each installment must work to be its own “event.” The Dark World feels less like an event than a plot-needed transition, and the result is far from momentous.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
I grew hesitant when first hearing that a third Thor film was in the works. While the MCU had slowly developed into one of mainstream cinema’s most daring endeavors, the God of Thunder seemed to be an eternal sore spot. (It also didn’t help that, not long after The Dark World’s release, Marvel retired the original Thor from its comics line and let Jane Foster take the helm. Suddenly, a male Thor seemed behind the times.)
But thankfully, third time was at last the charm. While Ragnarok may not rank among the very best of Marvel’s films, it stands as proof that, in the proper hands, even the strangest and most unusual of characters can be properly adapted to film.
Those hands in this case belong to Taika Waititi, a New Zealand director who – much like Hemsworth – was not well-known to American audiences before he took up the hammer. Waititi’s unorthodox directing sensibilities (he directs his films with a loose feel, often with improvised dialogue) translated well into the world of Thor, finally allowing the actors and story room to breathe.
The plot features shades of the third Iron Man film – hero stranded in a distant locale without the use of his weapons – but the mood is far more reflective of the fourth Star Trek: A normally serious series making a sharp turn towards the comedic. The laughs come quickly and rarely miss the mark, be the punchlines delivered by Hemsworth, Hiddleston, or an affable rock-creature voiced by Waititi.
The goosey-loosey vibe is felt across the casting list, including series newcomers like Jeff Goldblum and Tessa Thompson. And Cate Blanchett turns in fine work as the villainous Hela, Thor’s evil sister. (The decision to make Thor and Hela related is among the better changes that the MCU has made from the comic-book source material, allowing the interactions between the two characters to maintain an acidic personal edge.) The Thor franchise is finally allowed to let its hair down (or, in the case of Thor himself, get it cut off by a gratuitous cameo), and the resulting film is pure, hilarious fun.
Would Thor: Ragnarok be as surprising and/or effective in its humor if its two predecessors had not made such efforts to take the mythology seriously? Perhaps not. But that’s all part of the joy – after so much time prodding over a half-baked appetizer and bland main course, our patience is at last rewarded with a welcome and sumptuous dessert.
The first two Thor films are available on DVD and for digital download. The third is currently playing in theaters.