Thor had always had a tricky place within the MCU. He doesn’t have clearly defined features like Tony Stark or Steve Rogers. Yes, he’s noble and heroic, but he’s also harder to describe, in part because he’s such a bizarre character (he’s a demigod space alien), but also because Marvel landed on a unique performer like Chris Hemsworth. Hemsworth fits the bill physically for the character, but over the years, he’s shown that he’s a comically gifted actor who shines brightest when he’s allowed to just be funny. And yet the first two Thor movies aren’t exactly sure how to use him. They give him moments to be humorous, but they seems ambivalent about leaning into the comedy as if that would diminish the seriousness of the situation. Director Taika Waititi had no such reservations with Thor: Ragnarok.
The guiding principle of Thor: Ragnarok is to always go for the joke. There are a few serious themes lying beneath the surface, but more than anything, Ragnarok is a raucous comedy that uses Hemsworth’s humor to full effect. And this willingness to just go for the joke at the cost of everything else shows a newfound freedom for the MCU. It would have been easy to let the movie follow up on Thor’s quest for the Infinity Stones, and instead in the first five minutes he casually mentions to a skeleton that he didn’t find any. His journey has instead taken him towards visions of “Ragnarok”, an apocalyptic event that will wipe out Asgard. That would seem like a fairly dire vision, and yet Thor, and the film, is pretty much all jokes.
Previous Thor movies were predicated on either Thor’s relationship to ruling Asgard or being a fish-out-of-water. Remove both of those aspects, and you see where Waititi has the freedom to basically put his comic voice (which you can clearly see from his previous movies like What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople) into Thor’s mouth. For some, this could easily be jarring. He’s now cracking wise and being the butt of slapstick humor, but the question Ragnarok asks within the larger MCU is whether or not characters must always be confined to what they’ve been before?
On the one hand, I can sympathize with fans of the first two Thor movies. If you like the relationship between Thor and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) as well as the kind of stories those movies are telling about grandiose Asgardian royalty, then Ragnarok is almost a violent reorientation into something completely new. It’s so different from the previous Thor movies it might as well be a reboot of sorts, completely uninterested in what came before and eager to rewrite everything from the characters’ personalities to the history of Asgard.
And yet I wouldn’t go so far as to say Waititi is completely uninterested in the past of the MCU. Instead, Ragnarok seems eager to take what works and build upon it while discarding the rest. So, for example, without feeling much connection to the Warriors Three, Waititi doesn’t hesitate to use them as quick cannon fodder for Hela (Cate Blanchett). That may seem cold, but let’s be honest—do we really know anything about them beyond “They’re Thor’s buddies?” They’re defined more by their physical traits than their personalities, so are we feeling the loss because they were rich, interesting characters, or simply because they were familiar? That Thor himself doesn’t take time to mourn them is a bit odd, but it’s not too surprising that Waititi has little patience for these supporting characters.