The Redefinition of Character in ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

Thor Ragnarok Strongest Avenger

17 films into the MCU and the House of Ideas is still fine-tuning its two heaviest hitters.

“My hair is not to be meddled with!” Unable to defend his golden locks from the master of the mystic arts, The God of Thunder indeed didn’t have a prayer of surviving Stan Lee’s alien barber when he came clipping later on down the line. The new ‘do is no insignificant thing. Hair is a precious attribute, just ask Metallica.

We like our superheroes to stay on brand. Characters are allowed a costume change here or there, but eventually, they must get back into the old tights. Ok, sure, Iron Man can have as many armors as he can replicate, but that speaks specifically to his nature. If we first met a hero with a beard or a long flowing mane, that’s the mental impression forever scarred on our brain. Deviation from design is the quickest route to fanboy outcry. Superman without red underwear? Blasphemous. The less said about his brief electric blue period, the better.

Thor is a Norse god. He’s THE Norse god. Whether we’re admiring the graphic detail of some trash fantasy novel, studying a classroom text, or convincing ourselves of Vincent D’Onofrio’s validity in The Adventures of Babysitting, the character has always been in need of Vidal Sassoon. He’s Samson. To rob him of his tresses is to strip him of his bitchin’ Point Break style.

Thor Haircut

Right from the get-go, Thor: Ragnarok feels unlike anything else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The voice of director Taika Waititi is strong, and while he’s quick to highlight the absurdity of the comic book narrative, it is also obvious that he has a deep-rooted love for these buffoons. The success of the Guardians of the Galaxy films showed that the audience was ok with weirdo humor and a cosmic color palate. Waititi takes that permission and cranks Ragnarok’s four-color vibe all the way to eleven.

The film is quick to dismiss/wrap-up the loose ends left dangling in Age of Ultron and The Dark World. Trapped inside an underworld cage, narrating his misadventures between movies to a skeleton, Thor discloses that he’s given up on the magical mystery tour surrounding those Infinity Stone things. His visions of Ragnarok have led him to fight the fire demon Surtur mano a mano.

Armageddon gets nipped in the bud after a quick spin with Mjolnir and Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” A hot tip from the doomsayer reveals Loki masquerading under the guise of Odin, and Thor returns home to crash his brother’s masturbatory community theater. Back to Midgard with Doctor Strange, his sneaky theft of a strand of hair, and the Asgardian siblings are finally thrust into the plot Waititi is interested in telling.

Thor Dragon

Way back in Phase One, Marvel Studios introduced The Mighty Thor by banishing his mythologically earnest POV into our antagonistically cynical realm. The rom-com spine was a safe structure to test the waters of what many considered at the time to be a superhero concept too strange for the public taste. The Dark World attempted to reverse the fish-out-of-water concept by dragging Jane Foster into a full-blown fantasy adventure. Ragnarok rips Thor from his comfortable surroundings once more, taking further measure to crush his sense of worthiness.

Brah, you’re not the first-born. That throne you’ve denied your whole life is not your rightful place, and that hammer that used to pull you off (planet) had a master before you. Your dad has faded from existence leaving you a kingdom built on bloodshed.

Hela, the sister of Thor and the Goddess of Death, steps triumphantly out of her prison. She reduces Mjolnir to pebbles and hitches a ride on the Rainbow Bridge back to Asgard. She’s ready to reign goth eternal.

Thor Hela

At one point along the road to the apocalypse, the screenplay for Thor: Ragnarok was said to be the darkest entry in the MCU. Obviously, that was not the film Kevin Feige wanted, and in hiring Taika Waititi, he assured that even a film climaxing with the destruction of Asgard would be the franchise zaniest endeavor. Ragnarok pays lip service to the doom and gloom plaguing the brooding hero, but Waititi is here for Bing Crosby and Bob Hope road movie that is “Planet Hulk.”

Rewatching Ragnarok, I was drumming my fingers in anticipation of Sakaar. I don’t care about Hela’s domination of The Warrior’s Three, or her plan to awaken the army of darkness. I’m here for the Jack Kirby light show. I’m here for the Contest of Champions and the stable of alien freaks ground into chum for The Innnccrereeeeeddiiiibbblllleee Hul-

“He’s a friend from work!” I mean, seriously, is there a more joyous scene in the entire series of films? Shedding Thor of every defining feature of coolness and then plopping him into an arena to be pummeled by the Hulk is everything wonderful about a shared universe compressed into ten minutes of gladiatorial combat. In a short window, Waititi builds from the natural antagonism first seen in The Avengers, takes a few pot shots at Natasha’s low-setting sun lullaby from Age of Ultron, and ultimately exposes Hulk as a separate entity from Banner.

Thor Vs Hulk

Finally, in Thor: Ragnarok, we understand that Bruce Banner does not simply lose control of his senses and change into a big green rage monster. The Gamma accident he experienced during the opening credits of his solo film truly TRANSFORMED him into The Hulk. “Hulk is always Hulk.” Banner is always Banner. And they hate each other.

As we discussed fifteen weeks ago, the inability of previous adaptations to accept The Hulk as his own man, with his wants and desires, is a big reason why the character has floundered. Ragnarok embracing these two beings elevates the comedy and the tragedy of this creation. Waititi delights in Thor’s belittling of Banner in front of Hulk and vice versa. At the same time, watching Hulk punch himself repeatedly to keep his rage up as he diminishes back into Banner from the sight of Natasha’s video call is heartbreaking. Both personalities have a right to live. The Hulk’s struggle for recognition is the solo movie we need, not Banner learning to regulate his calm.

Thor: Ragnarok is a little miracle of a movie. It’s easily the funniest film in the franchise. As much as I praise the vision of the directors witnessed in Iron Man 3 and Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok plays like a Taika Waititi film first and a Marvel movie second. He picks up two of their most mishandled action figures, frees them of their usual accessories, and redefines their appeal. Thor is not the God of Hammers; he’s the mother frickin’ God of Thunder. Cue “Immigrant Song.”

Thor Tessa

What Thor: Ragnarok Contributes to the MCU:

  • Valkyrie – Tessa Thompson is as much a revelation to the Marvel Universe as Tom Hiddleston was in the original film. As the disgraced Valkyrie warrior drowning her failures away in the bottle, Thompson masters nobility with a DGAF style. She owns Thor, and I hope we’re at a point in the MCU where her character could spin-off into her adventure.
  • Hela – I love Cate Blanchett and her appetite for scenery chewing. Granted, her plot is mostly a distraction from the beautiful madness occurring on Sakaar. Not necessarily wasted, but I am hoping the rumors surrounding this Goddess of Death’s relationship with Thanos pan out to be true. She’s a perfect fit for the evil mistress that whispers treachery into The Mad Titan’s ear.
  • Korg – “Piss off ghost.” Taika Waititi squeezes into the mo-cap suit to portray one of the bit players from the “Planet Hulk” storyline. The wannabe revolutionary earns laughter from nearly ever line of dialogue he utters, and I somehow don’t hate him when he punctuates the destruction of Asgard with a joke. After all, Asgard is not a place; it’s a people. So get over yourself, Brad.
  • The Grandmaster – Ladies and gentlemen, Jeff Goldblum. The Willy Wonka of Sakaar, The Grandmaster, is an ancient creature who finds joys in the manipulation of his subjects. And according to a painting at the Guardians of the Galaxy ride in California Adventure, he’s related to that other cosmic rascal, The Collector. Huh. Benicio Del Toro and Jeff Goldblum in the same scene? Yes, please, and thank you. Similar to Korg, everything The Grandmaster says and does is brilliant and lovely. Yes, he’s just doing that Goldblum thing, but that seems to be the epitome of alien life anyway.

The Warriors Three

What Thor: Ragnarok Withholds from the MCU:

  • The Warriors Three – Poor bastards. While Heimdall gets a few action beats in the forests of Asgard, The Warriors Three are easily dispatched by Hela with barely a whisper. Oh well. As much as we may love these guys from the comics, the films never quite knew what to do with them. It’s a bit of a bummer, but nothing I’ll lose sleep over either.
  • Skurge the Executioner – Another epic character from the Walt Simonson run of the books. They manage to squeeze his iconic M-16 showdown into the film, but like The Warriors Three, Karl Urban’s tormented executioner is not given much time to make an impact. I love his look, I love his skeezy attitude, but he deserved better.
  • Odin – Is he dead, or just chillin’ in Valhalla?

The Mighty Thor

Further Reading:

The Mighty Thor Issue #133” by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby – The truth is that the comic book runs to read immediately after immersing yourself in Thor: Ragnarok is the Walt Simonson series from the eighties. I already ranted about its brilliance last year. So let’s dig into some classic Kirby instead with this perfect single issue. This is where Thor and the Recorder (a robot alien who records the history of the universe for his people) encounter Ego, The Living Planet for the first time. He’s about as friendly as the Kurt Russell version in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, attacking the two invaders with antibodies before swearing to sever all ties with the rest of the universe. The main draw here is Jack Kirby’s unique illustrative flavor. Each panel is like tripping beyond the infinite of 2001: A Space Odyssey. So much so that when Marvel won the rights to Kubrick’s film, they put Jack on adaptation duties.

Ragnarok Surtur

Read more from our series on the Marvel Cinematic Universe:

PHASE ONE

PHASE TWO

PHASE THREE

More to Read:

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.