I’ll openly admit that the first two Thor films left me feeling rather flat. And not just because they were fairly boring. No, the biggest reason their distinct lack of remarkability wore me down is that they were always frustratingly close to hitting a much greater, more creative potential that they seemed annoyingly scared to reach for.
Back in those Phase One and Two days, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was still just finding its feet. When Thor: The Dark World was released, we were still six months away from the genre-bending shake-up of the Cold War-tinged Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Guardians of the Galaxy was nearly a year off. Only the indie-tinged dramedy wit of Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 had really hinted at more experimental ambitions.
Thus, we got two Thor films that promised much but ultimately delivered somewhat neutered safe-bets. We got visions of grandiose space-fantasy in Asgard, propping up films that consistently felt too strong a drawback to more traditional superheroics on Earth, where presumably audiences could relate more easily to the scenario, and feel more empathy for the encroaching threat. We got flashes of Chris Hemsworth’s considerable comic chops, but in films that too often swerved around the character’s inherent goofiness in favour of knowingly brash cockiness and the occasional fish-out-of-water juxtaposition. And with the charisma-vacuum of Natalie Portman’s pathologically dull Jane as Thor’s chief, non-Loki foil, the character’s vast entertainment potential was yet further mired.
But good Lord, that new Thor: Ragnarok trailer. It’s the rallying cry of a studio that really could no longer give but the tiniest of fucks for expectation. The freshest, funniest, and most bravely bonkers Marvel trailer in years, it channels – after a few years of what have felt like, if not dull, then certainly safe and logical extensions of the MCU mythos – a concentrated, lava-hot shot of precisely what made Marvel movies such a vital and important venture in the first place. The lack of care for existing genre convention. The focus on character and off-kilter fun. The sheer, unbridled, punk invention of it all (insofar as any multimillion dollar movie from a global corporation can deliver such a thing). In short, all the things that made Marvel comics themselves so important when Stan Lee started shaking things up in the early ‘60s.
In the current, dramatically-minded superhero movie ecosystem (in which the Avengers are at war with each other, and the DC movies seem intent on making everything feel more doom-laden just by existing), the aesthetic of the trailer alone is like a triple-espresso to the eyeball on a long morning commute. It could have gone wrong. It could have gone Suicide Squad wrong. You don’t just assume the right to use Led Zeppelin and ‘80s-style hologram fonts. And you certainly don’t get to use either without looking silly and try-hard indeed unless you really know what you’re doing.
But the Ragnarok trailer earns it all. By steering so hard into what the cinematic Thor should always have been, and doing so with such glee, with that important balance of knowing awareness free from contrivance or irony, it earns the right to every ludicrous excess it presents. Because it’s doing everything it does so completely earnestly, simply because these excesses are the Right and Most Awesome way of dealing with this material.
Because let’s think about what we have in Thor. We have a magic space-Viking with a hammer that only he is magic enough to lift (and a method of flight built around throwing said hammer really hard and not letting go), who fights magic space-elves, giants, and inter-dimensional aliens. He travels using a bridge made of rainbows, speaks in pseudo-Shakespearean twang, and once, for a time, was a frog.
With Ragnarok looking to embrace all that silliness (apart from the frog bit), it now seems that the early, disappointing Thor movies were not the product of an unsuitable lead character (though he does arguably need someone to bounce off, in order to really emphasise his uniquely goofy brand of heroism), but rather the victim of logistics.
They had to be made early in the MCU’s life in order to set up the Asgardian’s role in The Avengers, but that alas meant that they had to be made before Marvel was confident that audiences would accept space-magic-Marvel’s full, psychedelic scope. They had to be made before Guardians of the Galaxy blew the lid off the giddy, garish, bizarre space-opera side of the Marvel Universe, and before Doctor Strange got just plain weird. They had to be made before Marvel got braver about attracting more eclectic – and more specifically comedic – writers and directors to the fold, or could cultivate the reputation for treating such diverse talent well, Joss Whedon’s latter-day sadness notwithstanding. They had to be made before Thor’s own, weird kinks had been properly established and leveraged into different superheroic relationships throughout multiple cross-over outings.
For all of these reasons Marvel had to play it safe. But it’s now clear that Marvel knows it no longer has to. Thor: Ragnarok feels for all the world like the lunatic product of The Chronicles of Riddick, Star Wars, Guardians, and Masters of the Universe. The kind of grand, free-wheeling, knowingly excessive sci-fi spectacle that recalls the coke-and-lasers fuelled grandiosity of mid-‘80s, mid-budget Hollywood in the post Star Wars genre boom, albeit big, and glossy, and expensive, and good. The kind of movie that a passionate, ambition-over-quality schlock studio like Cannon would have made, had they possessed the money and the talent.
This is great news not just for Thor, but for the MCU in general. Because just as things were beginning to feel a little predictable, just as alien apocalypses were starting to feel standard; as once-exciting heroes were beginning to settle into tropes of their own, and major story arcs looked to be coming to a head with nowhere in particular to go afterward, Marvel seems to be pulling the rug away again. Having steadily and carefully raised the bar on what mainstream audiences will accept over the last near-decade, hooking viewers in with heart and personality before gradually turning up the weirdness-dial, it seems the studio is finally in the place it wanted to be all along. The place where the full gamut of its comic-book content is acceptable, all bets are off, and it can deliver whatever it wants, with whatever tone it likes, with total confidence. ie. The place where it can deliver a trailer like Thor: Ragnarok, and get the most universally positive, snark-free response it has enjoyed in a good long while.
In hindsight, yeah, things were never going to be the same after they made Howard the Duck canon again.