With the release of Avengers: Endgame just hours away, a lot of the internet is doing its best to create clickbait-y articles on anything Marvel-related. A popular topic? Ranking the previous 21 Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films to find the “definitive” best. Of course, there is no real greatest movie in the MCU – art being subjective. While I make no secret of my hate for Thor: The Dark World, I have no problem if you enjoy it. On the contrary – I’m glad someone does.
But one thing I noticed on several lists (including this one and this one) was the tendency to place the original 2011 Kenneth Branagh film Thor right down by its maligned successor. And to this I say: Really? This comes as a real surprise to me, as I was in college when Thor was first released and I remember it being really well received. So much so in fact that Disney banked on Thor helping sell the Avengers – putting him front and center in the film’s first teaser:
Granted – I don’t believe the effects for the Hulk (and probably a lot of the Iron Man sequences) were finished when this teaser was released – but still. At a time when the MCU was young (a mere four films), Thor delivered success on what was the studio’s first huge risk. Without Thor – or more precisely Branagh’s version of it – we might never have journeyed further into obscure corners of Marvel’s universe (so long Guardians of the Galaxy and Dr. Strange).
So, if I may also state my opinion on this particular Marvel movie, let me defend Thor as a solid top-of-the-line Marvel film and discuss why it might have fallen in some people’s estimation in the years since it has been released.
Bringing Humanity to the Fantastic
When Thor came out, Marvel’s “villain problem” was already in full swing. Iron Monger, Abomination, Whiplash – these were the headline baddies of the MCU. Despite strong casting in each film, these villains still boiled down to essentially evil versions of the hero, who wanted to be bad because…it was something to do?
And these were all films that were grounded in reality. Imagine how nervous the studio executives must have been waiting for Thor, thinking “Man, they’ve been killing us on these villains – just wait until they see the alien in green spandex.”
But Loki was a triumph, hopping to the top of the Marvel villain list not because of his powers or Tom Hiddleston’s performance (although that helped a lot), but because of his humanity. In four movies, Branagh was the first director to ask: “What if my villain was sympathetic?” In the nearly 20 films since Thor came out, Marvel directors have only asked that question a couple more times – and gotten villains like Killmonger as a result.
Loki, however, in just one piece of the greater humanity going on in Thor. Marvel was smart when it came to hiring Branagh, knowing that he was one of the few directors who could make the stilted dialogue of Asgard sound real and believable. The result is a believable relationship between Thor and his father Odin, one that is full of teenage rebellion and growing maturity.
In addition, Branagh is able to use Thor’s “regional” dialect to add humor to his scenes on Earth, drawing natural comedy out of scenes like a breakfast and a trip to a pet shop. For those wondering why it’s important to have grandiose characters speak with gravitas -watch Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, where he made the decision to have all speak with internet lingo. It’s…it’s something.
By making Thor funny, Branagh made him human. Yeah, Thor’s tough and he blusters a ton, but really he has no clue what he’s doing. That’s a really relatable struggle.
A Stellar Vision of the Universe
Marvel has done space several times, but – in my opinion – it’s never looked as majestic as it has in Thor. A lot of this is intentional. I don’t think James Gunn had breath-taking beauty on the mind when he was designing backdrops to Guardians of the Galaxy. However, what makes me sad is that Branagh’s vision turned out to be unique not just to the Thor movies – but only his Thor movie in general. Alan Taylor smudged everything into a murky mess in The Dark World and Taika Waititi was too busy injecting lasers and everything 80s into Ragnarok.
Branagh’s design, from the shining towers of Asgard to the numerous astrological bodies invites a sense of wonder for the cosmos. It challenges the audience to guess at the possibilities of life beyond our own – not just alien life but advanced civilizations in general. It is a hopeful look out into the unknown – and something I wish had come to categorize the Thor films, rather than being a one-off.
Oh yeah – and Patrick’s Doyle’s score is fantastic in helping convey the mood.
The Wasted Potential of Asgard
So, what happened to Thor to help dull fan enthusiasm? How did Asgard turn from an exciting new world to a dull, silly place with no characters or interesting things happening? Well…I hate to beat a dead horse but…it all happened in Thor: the Dark World.
A lot of negative reviews I see for the 2011 original talk about the Warriors Three and Sif as dull, interchangeable characters. On one level, they are kinda right. After all, in a movie that has to introduce the whole Thor universe, Branagh wisely focuses on Thor, Loki, and Odin for his Asgard main trio. He does only have two hours. But – while Sif and the Warriors Three aren’t the focus, they still feel like characters. There’s enough to get the sense that there’s a history there.
Let me put it another way: Look at Black Panther. That movie is great – but who is the focus on in Wakanda? Okoye? W’Kabi? Not really. They’re pretty one-note characters. Even their relationship is only a couple lines. BUT – there’s enough there to give you a sense of a history. Your curiosity is peaked and you want to know more.
That’s the sequel’s job. A task that Alan Taylor just wasn’t up for. Rather than use Dark World to further develop Asgard, Taylor merely reinforces what we saw before. Yes – Sif and the Warriors Three return but they are even more relegated to the side – swept away by a script that doesn’t care about developing them. And – if your script doesn’t care then your audience won’t care.
It’s that simple.
So – by the time we got to Ragnarok, no one was interested or cared what happened to the Warriors Three. Despite being Thor’s best friends, they were unceremoniously killed off – and Sif died off-screen.
By abandoning Asgard’s characters, Marvel made it really hard to care about Asgard. At least Ryan Coogler is coming back for Black Panther 2 – so I don’t have to worry about the same thing happening to Wakanda.
How Selling Loki Killed the Dark World
When a studio is left in charge (rather than a creative individual), bad things happen. Decisions are no longer made based on storytelling but on market testing. I hate this because market testing doesn’t always ask the right questions. While it was no secret that Loki was one of the larger highlights from Thor, I don’t think the answer was “more Loki!”
But that’s what we got. People loved Loki – they loved him in Thor, they loved him in The Avengers – why not just keep giving the people what they love, right? It’s the same logic that turned Pirates of the Caribbean from one fun film into a five-movie slog. Whatever decisions were made regarding the writing of Dark World, Loki was clearly given top priority. It explains why he got the film’s one good scene, while Thor just mopes half the movie away in an Asgardian snuggie.
It also may explain (at least partly) what happened to Patty Jenkins’ Thor sequel. When she finally opened up about what she wanted to do, Jenkins stated:
“I pitched them that I wanted to do Romeo and Juliet. I wanted Jane to be stuck on Earth and Thor to be stuck where he is. And Thor to be forbidden to come and save Jane because Earth doesn’t matter. And then by coming to save her… they end up discovering that Malekith is hiding the dark energy inside of Earth because he knows that Odin doesn’t care about Earth, and so he’s using Odin’s disinterest in Earth to trick him.”
Wow – a Thor movie centered around its two main characters? Man…wouldn’t that have been something. But notice anything? The name “Loki” doesn’t come up once. It’s unclear if the trickster god would have been in Jenkins’ film at all. And this was something that probably didn’t sit well with the Marvel leadership. Jenkins went on, saying:
“It was painful and sad because I really loved those guys and I loved the idea of us making a Thor together, but it’s one of those things. You have to make sure that the movie you want to make is fully the right movie for that studio too. It was heartbreaking, but I also knew that it was good… I knew that it was good because I didn’t think I could make a great film out of their script.”
So there you have it. Confirmation that the studio wrote the script, and not the director. And they did so with the most market-testing logic at hand. People loved Loki – more of that. People though Kat Dennings was funny – give her a sidekick. Earth is cheaper to film than Asgard – more Earth please.
That is how a universe dies, and why I believe Thor has fizzled in some audience member’s minds since 2011. It can be hard to remember the promise of a first film if the subsequent series does not deliver. It’s also easy to dismiss characters who never got the chance to develop as silly and boring. Thor is a personal favorite of mine, and I’m genuinely sad to see what happened to it.
But hey – at least Ragnarok was fun…right?