By Carter Glace, Staff Writer
It is no secret that “Thor” is the franchise Marvel has yet to figure out what to do with. Despite having two movies of solid critical and box office success leading up to this threequel, there was never a strong sense of what the “Thor” series was going for, thematically, tonally or artistically. Of the Marvel series that have more than one iteration, it is the only one that has failed to maintain a director for more than one. The “Iron Man” series has maintained its quippy, action/comedy/sci-fi tone throughout all three installments. The “Captain America” films have evolved greatly, but in a logical way that shows a sense of growing complexity. And the “Guardians” franchise has a distinct, vivid image of what it wants to be, courtesy of the distinct vision of James Gunn.
The “Thor” films, on the other hand, have not had a distinct vision, tone, or narrative arc for the character. But with “Thor: Ragnarok,” Taika Waititi has effectively soft rebooted the series, creating a unique, vibrant, irreverent, cosmic, Flash Gordon-esque romp. And it’s through this drastic evolution, that one consistent about the franchise becomes clear: Chris Hemsworth may be the MCU’s most talented and versatile actor.
Now, click-baity headline aside, of the main “Avengers” cast, no actor has had to change, evolve, and redefine what his character is and what his purpose is. I will continue to call Chris Evans the series MVP, making a character as arch and old-school as Captain America genuine, soulful and real. But his character is defined by being stoic and unchanging in his morals as the world becomes grey and complicated. Robert Downey, Jr. is probably the most popular actor in the franchise, but one who consistently serves as a sort of quipping tragic character, his flaw of obsessively trying to prevent conflict resulting in destruction both globally (“Age of Ultron”) and personally (“Civil War”). Mark Ruffalo is fantastic, but I don’t think we’ve seen him really grow and develop The Hulk until now, where he has created a personality for the green giant. Scarlett Johansson might be my favorite actor, one who remains consistent in being inconsistent with her changing, complicated alliances and goals (because she is a spy). And Hawkeye, much like his actor Jeremy Renner, just remains a working class, reliable presence.
“Thor” has thus far been in five Marvel movies, and his role and tone in those films have been so wildly different from each other. It is shocking when you sit down and look at it all.
The first “Thor”—which I hold up as an underappreciated Marvel film—is a fun balancing act between this mythic fantasy on Asgard and these comedic, alien fish out of water moments on Earth. Hemsworth alternates between his boastful and arrogant Shakespearean belts and moments of dumb, physical and verbal misunderstanding. And yet both sides of the film sparkle and pop in a broad fantasy sense, because Hemsworth sells the hell out of both the epic fantasy and 90’s romantic comedy. And in terms of the “Thor” canon, this is the one film that is distinctly his, a sort of sci-fi/fantasy fable about an arrogant hot head learning humility and what being a hero is beyond fighting and
Come time for “The Avengers,” Thor has been cast as the ‘serious one.’ Theoretically, this makes sense, given that he is the one with personal stakes as his brother is threatening to invade Earth. And yet re-watching the film, it’s so striking that most of the jokes centered around Thor are at him and about him, not with him. While the other characters get their shares of quips and zingers, Hemsworth has to play everything straight. And yet again, it works, because Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki have an genuinely affecting relationship, and given his turn to matured hero, you buy that he is taking this mission of cosmic importance seriously.
Then we reach what I’ve come to call the ‘Grey Period.’ This is where what Thor is or what Marvel wants him to be is unclear. “Thor: The Dark World” is honestly just as much Loki’s film as it is Thor’s. He is the one with the showy arc, the show stopping turn, and who ultimately has the big status quo change by the end of the film. Thor
remains the same throughout the film: Odin wants him to take the throne, but Thor
wants to remain as a sort of hero for the universe. And then he gets to stay doing
that. Nothing changes. But again, we buy into it because Hemsworth is an endless
fire of charisma, who you can’t help but enjoy in the role, and sells Thor as someone
most comfortable in his role as a cosmic peacekeeper.
And by the time we get to “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Thor has been reduced to a plot device. He’s allowed to cut loose a little more, the serious, stoic persona a little more casual with rapport and quips. But ultimately his character is lost during the ‘Hallucination Sequences,’ where everyone except Thor is given a glimpse into their fears. Steve worries that with all of his allies and friends gone, he can never truly go home. Natasha worries that, due to the literally scarring of her training, she can never free herself from her life as a killer. And Tony worries that he will not have prepared enough when the time comes for another cosmic threat, failing everyone. And while Thor sees the destruction of Asgard—a legitimate fear—the vision is mostly concerned with The Infinity Stones. So effectively, Thor’s only role in the film is to set up future movies and explain the looming threat on the horizon.
So with all of this baggage, all these different ideas and uses of Thor, Taika Waititi looked at all of it and decided to just blow it up. And by god, it works.
This version of the franchise more interested in irreverent humor, fanciful science fiction worlds, a heavy metal energy and painting-esque sequences of Viking action over bombastic soliloquies, epic drama, or foreboding darkness. And to match this new vision, Thor has become a ‘bro,’ a joke-y, quippy, cool guy. He plays off his journey to find The Infinity Stones as a joke. He routinely finds himself as the butt of jokes and caught in physical comedy sequences. He routinely undercuts serious moments with quips. This version of Thor is funny, broad, and just a little dumb.
It shouldn’t work. This version of Thor is such a dramatic change from everything else we have seen of the character that it should fail to work with audiences. And yet, it is wonderful, and it all ties back to Hemsworth as one of the most talented, flexible, and broadly skilled actors on the planet.
I feel comfortable calling him a master comedic actor at this point, because between this and “Ghostbusters,” he has proven that his physical presence as a trashy romance cover model and his wry, self-deprecating personality works wonders. This is the film that relishes in his biggest strengths: his physicality for both action and comedy, his wry charm, and seemingly endless energy.
Most importantly, all of this works because at the heart of the character, even with so many different takes and iterations and countless creative minds getting to chime in on what Thor is, Hemsworth has remained strong, genuine, and committed. Above all, he has created a character who, wants to be a hero, is confident in his abilities to do that, and wears his heart on his sleeve. From the long and winding road that Thor takes, from arrogant Shakespearean protagonist to plot device to comedic action hero, feels believable and logical because Chris Hemsworth has the talent and skill to make each one work, and the earnestness to make you believe in every step along the way. And that is one of the best things about “Thor: Ragnarok:” it is finally a great film for a one of the Marvel Universe’s most skilled artists.