Thor: Ragnarok is not only the best received and most successful of all the Thor films, it’s also the movie that saved Marvel’s Thor franchise. It’s easy to dismiss Taika Waititi’s film as comedic fun, but his soft-reboot of Asgard was a lot smarter than that.
Before Ragnarok, Thor was an ill-defined if likable meathead of a character, used primarily for punching and occasionally fish-out-of-water jokes made at his expense. But now? Thor’s become one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most bankable stars, with Ragnarok breaking into the top ten highest earning MCU movies. It’s the third best reviewed MCU movie, with much of the praise going to Chris Hemsworth’s enthusiastically fun portrayal and Taika Waititi’s stlylish direction.
Thor is now poised to become the shared universe’s lead entering Marvel’s Phase Four, taking up the mantle from his fellow Avengers, Iron Man/Tony Stark and Captain America/Steve Rogers. But without the work made to improve the character and rehabilitate his franchise with Ragnarok and later Avengers: Infinity War, none of this would have been possible.
Phase One of the MCU was a testing ground for ideas, establishing the characters who would form The Avengers and lead Marvel’s shared universe. Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor became franchise superstars, but by Phase Two, Thor began lagging behind. Both Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier were improvements on the previous entries, moving their lead characters into new and interesting territory, while Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man expanded the MCU with new quirky characters and different stakes. Thor: The Dark World, however, was an utter mess.
Before The Dark World, Kenneth Branagh’s Thor had given the character a solid foundation in his introduction, but when Marvel sought Branagh for the followup, he refused, citing “creative differences.” Marvel then secured Patty Jenkins to direct, but she too left after clashing with Marvel (going on to direct Wonder Woman to great success). Eventually, Alan Taylor of Game of Thrones fame was brought on to helm Thor’s second picture but his experience on the project was “particularly wrenching,” claiming that during post-production, “it turned into a different movie.” Marvel had no idea what to do with the franchise, resulting in The Dark World having a lackluster story, forgettable villain, poor use of the Asgardian elements, and absolutely zero development or growth for its main character.
Following The Dark World, there was little enthusiasm for Thor from either audiences or Marvel. His arc in Avengers: Age of Ultron was nonsensical and his role as the window to the MCU’s cosmic side was supplanted by the Guardians. If Thor was going to continue to be an integral part of the MCU in Phase Three and beyond, the character and his franchise needed a complete overhaul. And that’s exactly what Chris Hemsworth wanted, claiming himself that he wanted a Thor movie in the vein of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
After two solo films and two other MCU appearances, Thor remained a stagnant character, changing very little from one film to the next. Thor’s supporting cast was largely forgettable and his close ties to Earth, while important early on, were now restrictive and limiting. Most of all, the Thor films weren’t as fun as they should be, neither producing stellar action or truly memorable moments to make them stand apart from the rest of the MCU.
Thor: Ragnarok took aim at these issues, jettisoning what wasn’t working and keeping what did. In hiring indie director Taika Waititi, Marvel committed to a vision for the character and the franchise where the tone was silly but the stakes still mattered. Ragnarok stripped Thor of his comfortable status quo, sending him on an adventure to an other-worldly place, alongside new and interesting characters, and without his hammer – forcing Thor to recognize that he and not his hammer was the source of his power Mjolnir had just helped him focus it. The result was a film that was transformative for the character, infusing the Thor franchise with an attitude and visual style it never had before.
Ragnarok went on to earn more at the box office than either of the previous Thorfilms, thanks in large part to the new elements and change in tone. The marketing, too, leaned heavily on the film’s playfulness, which made it more appealing to a wider audience. Thor was now a highly bankable property for Marvel, and come Avengers: Infinity War, Odinson would have a role to go along with his elevated status.