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The Evolution of Thor, Marvel’s Mainstay

Unlike most of Marvel’s original Avengers, Thor is still in the spotlight—and the key to the character’s longevity is his capacity to change

Marvel Studios/Ringer illustration

The first time the titular God of Thunder appears in 2011’s Thor, the Asgardian hero is obscured by a swirling cloud of dust after landing in New Mexico. As a result, he is struck by a van and knocked out cold before even getting the chance to introduce himself. The next time Chris Hemsworth’s Thor appears, though, it’s on the day that the prince of Asgard is to be crowned its new king.

As Thor struts his way through Odin’s throne room, past a crowd of adoring Asgardians, he flips his ancient, mystical hammer in the air as if it were a toy, roaring back at his fans and relishing the spotlight. When a group of Frost Giants are caught stealing from Asgard’s weapons vault moments later, interrupting Thor’s coronation, the prince decides to act against his father’s wishes and leads a small team of warriors to the Frost Giants’ homeworld to essentially start a war. The God of Thunder acts like a petulant child when Odin intervenes and reprimands him for his disobedience, and in turn, Thor is exiled to Earth so that he can learn to become worthy of his mighty hammer and the power that comes with it.

The Thor that will return for an eighth MCU film appearance (excluding cameo-sized roles) later this week in Thor: Love and Thunder has changed tremendously from the one first seen in those introductory Thor scenes. In his first two solo movies, Thor and 2013’s The Dark World, Thor shifts from being an arrogant manchild who cares only about glory and succeeding his father to the Asgardian throne to, well, still being an arrogant manchild—but at least one who becomes capable of subordinating his selfish desires to the greater good, and understanding that he is better suited to be Asgard’s protector than its king. But while the character was still figuring out what sort of god he wanted to be, Marvel Studios was trying to decide what to do with the Thor franchise after two lackluster films.

In Thor, Marvel chose Kenneth Branagh to set the tone for the franchise and its star, bringing in the noted Shakespearean filmmaker and actor to lend his dramatic touch to the ancient world of Asgard and its royal family. (In an interview with The Washington Post in 2011, Branagh even likened Thor to the reckless Prince Hal and Loki to his Hotspur in Henry IV, and he saw similar themes and conflicts in Thor as Hamlet and Henry V.) For The Dark World, the studio turned to future Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins, but she left the project over concerns about the script and was replaced by Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor. Even then, the movie that Taylor made was not at all the one he had envisioned or wanted to see himself. In the first two Thor films, the franchise felt aimless, and the growth of its lead character was stifled. The movies were often too dramatic and self-serious for their own good, caught in a strange tonal midpoint between The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars; Thor’s story had heavy fantasy and sci-fi elements, unfolding on various planets in modern times. The fact that characters would speak as if they were written by the Bard didn’t help, either.

And then, for the third installment, Thor: Ragnarok, Marvel called on Taika Waititi to direct.

“[Thor] is the franchise that has the least amount of identity,” Waititi told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the release of Ragnarok in 2017. “It sort of doesn’t know what it is yet. So I came in saying, ‘Well it could be THIS.’ … I ignored the source material and even the first two films and tried to do my own thing.”

Even before Ragnarok hit theaters to near-universal acclaim and an improved performance at the box office compared to its predecessors, fans could see Hemsworth’s Thor in a new light and witnessed the impending tonal shift for the franchise in a pair of mockumentary-style short films directed by Waititi and released in 2016 and 2017. The two-part Team Thor series reveals what the God of Thunder was up to while he was sidelined in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War—namely, how he moved to Australia and roomed with some guy named Darryl. But above all, the shorts were a showcase for the hero’s underutilized secret weapon: his humor.

Comedy is key to the success of Ragnarok, and Marvel selected Waititi, whose previous credits included What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, to lead the charge in creating this tonal shift. “[Marvel Studios] wanted it to be a departure from what they had done before,” Waititi told THR in the same 2017 interview. “And Chris had wanted to do something that felt less familiar. The secret weapon to all of this was letting Chris be more himself, because he is very funny and that part of Thor was not exploited in the right ways. I know he wanted to do more in the other movies, but there are just so many characters. And the other ones, like Iron Man, have already been established a bit stronger.”

Speaking to ET Canada ahead of the release of Ragnarok, Hemsworth expressed similar sentiments about a need for change when asked about his past MCU appearances: “They were all a lot of fun, but I just became a little sick of what I was doing,” Hemsworth explained. “It became too familiar, I felt like I’d built these walls on what the character’s expectations were and what he could and couldn’t do. So in [Ragnarok], we just sort of broke the mold, and anything that was familiar, we just threw it out the window and tried something different.”

In Thor and The Dark World, much of the movies’ comedic relief was entrusted to supporting players like Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), while Thor’s chances to be funny were rather few and far between. But Waititi keyed in on those sparing moments from the character, such as when Thor smashed a coffee cup with glee in Thor, or when he casually hung his hammer on a coat rack in The Dark World, both of which were improvised by Hemsworth, according to Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. In Ragnarok, Funny Thor is unleashed in full force, while characters that never really worked in previous movies, like the Warriors Three, die quick deaths to make room for the likes of Korg, the rock warrior voiced by Waititi, and the Grandmaster, an absurd villain embodied by Jeff Goldblum, who’s basically playing himself.

Few moments in Ragnarok serve as a better representation of the difference between the former Thor films and the character’s new comedic direction than the early scene that sees Thor returning to Asgard to discover that Loki has disguised himself as Odin. After making a fool of Surtur, the fire demon, Thor arrives in Asgard to find a theatrical production in progress that depicts the death of Loki. With Matt Damon, Luke Hemsworth, and Sam Neill playing Asgardian actors, the in-world performance is melodramatic and wildly over the top. It also happens to be a spoof of Loki’s actual (faked) death from The Dark World, which was unironically just as melodramatic. Ragnarok even goes as far as using some of the same lines.

The reimagination of Thor in Ragnarok brought new life to the franchise, and to the character as well, as Thor’s new comedic side followed him into Infinity War and Endgame as he left his hyperdramatic image further behind. (Fortunately, the misguided Fat Thor phase that transpired between Waititi’s films comes to an end early in Love and Thunder.) It’s also a big reason, with Love and Thunder, Thor will become the first MCU franchise to earn a fourth installment.

Even with Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) gone, Hemsworth’s Thor remains, and the latest entry in the Thor saga looks to recreate everything that worked in Ragnarok while reinventing itself in new ways. There are flying goats and new gods, and Natalie Portman returns as Jane Foster after sitting out Ragnarok—and this time, she plays a role that allows her to be much more than Thor’s love interest. In Love and Thunder, Foster is set to pick up Odinson’s broken, famed hammer and become the Mighty Thor herself.

On Friday, Thor’s journey continues, and the evolutions of both the character and the franchise are ongoing. Those bleached eyebrows may be long gone, but if Love and Thunder can build off of the success of Ragnarok, and if Hemsworth gets his wish to remain in the role, Thor might just stick around for whatever apocalyptic crossover event awaits the MCU in the years to come.