With the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) growing at an accelerated pace on both the big and small screens, it’s easy to forget that Chris Hemsworth’s god of thunder has only so far been given two standalone movies, despite being a founding Avenger and marketing mainstay. So with Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok hurtling over the horizon toward us, what better time is there to look back at the blond bombshell’s previous solo outings and see how they stand up in the cold, hard light of Marvel’s Phase Three?
While Nick Fury’s lock-picking cameo at the end of Iron Man laid the foundation for his eclectic supergroup, it wasn’t until the closing moments of Tony Stark’s 2010 sequel that we got our first glimpse of Asgardian goodness, the lone Mjölnir in (and most likely, responsible for) an impact-crater in New Mexico. Twelve months later, the legendary lump hammer was reunited with its rightful owner in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, as small-town America met Norse mythology head on.
And what an entertaining collision that turned out to be. Thor was the origins-tale in which our protagonist went from irresponsible man-child to impetuous man-teenager, getting lost on Earth so that he could find who he was meant to be on Asgard. Set in the present day, our hero didn’t get to display quite the level of derring-do we saw from the Second World War-era Captain America but he was fun and, more surprisingly, funny. Hemsworth’s boisterous comic timing balanced out the theatrical pomp of Tom Hiddleston and Anthony Hopkins on one side of the Rainbow Bridge, and the overwound responsibility of Natalie Portman and Clark Gregg on the other.
Branagh’s lightness of touch here should not be undervalued, effortlessly weaving the threads of adventure, comedy and drama, but not neglecting the larger tapestry of the MCU. Notably, Thor saw the low-key introduction of Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye as a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative, just as Iron Man 2 had brought Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow into the mix without fanfare. It’s arguable that this approach robbed the two ‘supporting Avengers’ of their own spotlights of course, but that’s nothing a couple of spin-off TV mini-series couldn’t remedy at some point.
Naturally, a post-Avengers sequel followed, with the directorial reins being picked up by Alan Taylor. Just as The Winter Soldier would take Captain America down a more taciturn path, the screenplay for Thor: The Dark World tried its damnedest to live up to that title. Gone was the fish-out-of-water comedy and along came brooding glances and Viking longboat funerals. If Thor was a journey into heroic adolescence, the follow-up was the unwelcome wake-up call of adulthood. Yet even with this earnest approach to character-building, the film lacks the narrative purpose of its predecessor. With the exception of ‘that one character’ who finds themselves buying the farm and another who ends up missing-in-action, there’s the feeling that not much has really changed as the credits roll.
As well as the more sombre tone, The Dark World brought another disconnect to the previously established MCU with its non-human key characters and brisk planet-hopping. The film felt a bit ‘out there’ at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight this was a prototype for James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, even going so far as to introduce Benicio del Toro’s ‘The Collector’ to audiences. Guardians carries the same restless sensibility as Taylor’s chapter but remembers to laugh consistently along the way, utilising the wise-cracks that had apparently been lost between Thor’s first two entries.
And now we seem to have come full circle stylistically, with the trailer for Thor: Ragnarok wearing the love for the Guardians’ disco-infused adventure proudly on its neon-coloured sleeve. Waititi’s enthusiasm for the project on social media is clear; the battle at the end of the world should be enormous fun, if nothing else…