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How THOR RAGNAROK Fundamentally Changes the MCU’s Possibilities

Thor: Ragnarok, including all its fan-pleasing Jeff Goldblum moments, has the potential to fundamentally change the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There are some major narrative shifts that push the MCU to unexpected places, but the palpable shift has more to do with how the movie feels. A tonal shift toward lawless possibility flows through every frame of Thor: Ragnarok and now the rest of the MCU can share that potential for unhinged experimentalism.

Ragnarok represents the end to the third set of trilogies in the MCU, after the three films in the Iron Man and Captain America franchises. The Thor franchise has combined silly gags with positively Shakespearean overtones that engage with themes about betrayal, familial dynamics, and impossibly huge headgear. Sure, there was fun, but there were also lots of eye-rolling theatrics. The second Thor film was called Thor: The Dark World, for crying out loud, and is arguably the dreariest entry in the entire MCU canon.

But Ragnarok veers in a new direction, undercutting these patterns and tropes, creating an atmosphere of possibility in the episodic regimen of the MCU. The film is light, buoyant, colorful and downright hilarious. Its joyousness is infectious and largely the reason for its impressive critical and commercial response. No matter how serious a scene, it’s always carefully alleviated, which makes for better punchlines and a more pleasant viewing experience. None of the heart is gone, only the bluster. If an experiment in tone has produced the success of Ragnarok, what else could Marvel play with in their dense canon?

Most of this creative U-turn has been attributed to director Taika Waititi, an idiosyncratic filmmaker whose charming and sweet indie Hunt for the Wilderpeople secured him the job. (He also worked on the story for Disney’s animated hit Moana.) It seems that his sensibilities–encouraging actors to improvise, leaning into Jack Kirby’s retro-futuristic color schemes– largely play into why the movie feels so singular. It’s not just that Thor Ragnarok is different from other entries in the Thor series – it’s different from every other Marvel movie, period.

Waititi’s story also augments his welcome changes to what the MCU can do. At the end of Ragnarok, Asgard is gone. Now, Thor no longer has to shuttle back and forth between earth and home: they are one in the same. While we will miss Thor’s Splash-like fish-out-of-water routine, but this development also means less halfhearted explanations as to why Thor isn’t around as much (“Oh he’s off in Asgard doing such-and-such”) and more engagement with the central conflicts of the MCU. Plus Thor’s developments as a character could inject an additional layer of complexity to future films.

Perhaps most significantly, by the end of the movie, Thor’s lost an eye. Barring whatever happened to War Machine following the events of Captain America: Civil War (we still don’t know!), this is the most major transformation of any hero in the MCU. It proves that its possible to harm Thor, maybe even kill him. Like soon. Like maybe before the two-part Avengers: Infinity War saga (and Hemsworth’s initial multi-film deal) is over in the summer of 2019.

Just as Ragnarok cultivated a vibrant new aesthetic in the MCU, the film’s narrative introduced an exciting level of uncertainty and volatility. Now that certain rules have been bent–not broken–where else can Marvel expand their rigid universe? While the third Guardians of the Galaxy chapter may not be an intense psychodrama, the precedent for creative deviation can only lead to better stories.

Image: Marvel Studios

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