(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In this edition: Thor: Ragnarok reinvents the God of Thunder through a Maori lens.)
Thor’s first solo film, Thor, narrowly missed a coherent character arc. His second, Thor: The Dark World, didn’t give him one at all. For a number of years, the God of Thunder was, at once, one of the most popular Avengers, and one of the least narratively interesting. That is until New Zealand’s Taika Waititi was given carte blanche to re-imagine the character and his world.
Waititi’s film not only course-corrects Thor’s prior installments, it does so while leaning heavily into the delightfully bizarre Jack Kirby designs of Marvel’s 1960s golden age. It’s an oddball of a movie, featuring everything from a giant undead wolf, a naked Hulk and a kindly rock monster, to the best drag-inspired comic villainess since Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy. More importantly, it features Jeff Goldblum’s The Grandmaster, a character so zany and eccentric that you momentarily forget he’s a human trafficker who has people killed for sport.
Which is, in essence, the thesis of Thor: Ragnarok. It’s comedy about the effects of downplaying colonialism, made by an unapologetically Maori filmmaker.
The God of Thunder 2.0
Even before Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) third outing, Waititi began messing around with the character. The What We Do in The Shadows director crafted a pair of comedic mockumentary shorts detailing Thor’s absence during Captain America: Civil War and his flat in Australia with his roommate Daryl. Before we knew it, the God of Thunder had been entirely rewritten. Gone was his detached stoicism with the occasionally vulnerable flourish, now replaced by a bone-headed albeit well-meaning arrogance. He was now an amalgam of modern Earth-bound tropes — the privileged man-child, the self-assured “bro” — thus permanently bridging the two worlds he once straddled.
The absurdity of Thor’s presence in the MCU usually stemmed from interactions between his old-world regality and the supposed normalcy of the modern west. Either one functioned normally in isolation, but the joke was always how these two worlds were disconnected, told mostly through fish-out-of-water scenarios. However, given how little of Thor: Ragnarok takes place on Earth, Waititi chose instead to lean into the absurdity of Thor himself and the inherent ridiculousness of Asgard, in order to comment on the western world.
Both Thor and Thor: The Dark World failed to put Asgard into any kind of contemporary context. The kingdom’s technology may be futuristic, but everything underlying its fantasy is distinctly archaic, drawn from Earth-bound mythology and regal constructs. Its monarch Odin (Anthony Hopkins), for instance, makes constant reference to having conquered other realms; this is a universe at war, or at the very least, one shaped by its effects.
At its core, Thor is a franchise about a warring people led by a (once) warmongering prince, and yet war itself was mostly relegated to the margins. It’s something neither Odin, the king of Asgard, nor Thor, the ruler incumbent, had substantially confronted until now.
The Asgardians 2.0
Anthony Hopkins’ layered performances in the first two Thor films makes Odin far more interesting in retrospect. What we learn about him in Ragnarok re-contextualizes the guilt Hopkins ferries behind his eyes. We had thus far only been shown a selective history of Asgard, as told by Odin himself, like the time they saved Earth from the Frost Giants or when they stopped the Dark Elves from using the Aether, and their generally heroic place in the cosmos.
What we did not see however, were these tales from the point of view of the conquered, or why Asgard came into conflict with these peoples in the first place. This remains the case in Thor: Ragnarok — most revelations and realizations about Asgard lack this dramatic heft, since they come from the Asgardians themselves — but the film does take the series in new direction by having Odin, now on his deathbed, introspect his war crimes.
Waititi allows his Asgardian leads to have interior lives beyond their positions in the hierarchy. Thor, for instance, is now a cocky bastard who greets trouble with a wry smile, but his hardened disposition occasionally gives way to bumbling insecurity. His actions feel more heroic than before, but he’s still the Thor of his introductory film, an arrogant, destructive warmonger, albeit with a naturalistic twist. He’s like something out of the Asgardian The Office. Waititi taps in to Chris Hemsworth’s timing and comedic innocence, framing Thor in a way previous films didn’t seem to — in that his arrogance and heroism needn’t be mutually exclusive.
Heimdall (Idris Elba) is now a rebellious warrior, rather than simply a gatekeeper. His old position is filled by Skurge (Karl Urban), a janitor rising through the ranks so he can collect junk from other worlds. He’s a thief with a conscience, who falls in line with the murderous Hela (Cate Blanchett) before eventually finding the courage to rebel. And while minor players like the Warriors Three are swiftly done away with, Waititi also manages to course-correct a character who was already one of Marvel’s most beloved:
The God of Mischief 2.0
Like the new Thor, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is similarly fleshed out in a way that rewrites his previous appearance. Usurping the throne while disguised as Odin in Thor: The Dark World was a strange narrative decision. At his core, the God of Mischief is prone to aggrandizing himself, so much so that he made both his redemption scheme in Thor and his conquest in The Avengers as public as possible. Ruling from the shadows simply would not serve his purpose.
Loki desires an audience, so Waititi has him use his father’s position to build statues in his own honour, depicting himself with outstretched, welcoming arms. Loki even puts on plays retelling his supposed martyrdom (he’s played by Matt Damon; Hemsworth’s brother Liam plays Thor), in which Loki’s dying words are presented as sincere, rather than the ruse they truly were.
It’s fitting that Loki’s theatricality translates to a love of literal theatre. This very showmanship eventual catalyzes his turn to good towards the end of the film. Once Loki is pre-emptively betrayed (before he can betray Thor for the umpteenth time), the sting of failure makes him re-orient his approach. His panache however, remains intact.
Loki never stops seeking glory. Like Thor, his regal haughtiness makes him who he is. Besides, having Loki retain his arrogance, rather than shedding it, offers more comedic and dramatic potential. This time, when Loki returns to Asgard, his outstretched arms are those of a holy saviour announcing his arrival. He steals the spotlight, even while ferrying Asgardians to safety as their country is razed to the ground.
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