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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Film Land - How Do You Solve a Problem Like Thor?

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Edited by Robert Beach

I have a lot of tangents that develop as I do these articles, and one of the most prominent ones has become “how do you solve a problem like Thor?” It’s a question that’s hung around Marvel’s neck like a dead weight ever since 2013 when Thor: The Dark World’s derailment came to a crushing finale. Thor's mighty sequel hammer lost to Hunger Games: Catching Fire at the box office. 

Overall, it’s easy to see how Thor ended up on the fringes of Marvel’s slate. The first Thor was a refreshing and fun fantasy comedy. It served as the world’s introduction to Marvel’s cosmic mythology and acted as the most child-friendly Marvel superhero production. 

Since then, Guardians of the Galaxy has come in as the new face of Marvel cosmic, and the Studio has reclaimed (Editor's Note: joint custody) the rights to Spider-Man to make it their kid-friendly franchise. Even Thor’s possible role as a mystics and magic franchise is teetering now that Dr. Strange and Iron Fist are on the way.  

It also doesn’t help that Chris Hemsworth has proved himself the least versatile of the main Marvel actors. With all that looming overhead, I still ask "how do you solve a problem like Thor?" And the answer from Thor: Ragnarok seems to be this: just make it a Hulk movie. 

Okay, that’s obviously excessive, but, to be fair, acknowledge that Thor is probably the least-interesting element of his film series. Deciding to bring in some Marvel heavyweights like Hulk, in addition to cool Thor supporting characters like Valkyrie, is a smart way to sidestep the inevitable question of how to make Thor unique within the Marvel stable. It’s the same lateral move made with Civil War, which is a good thing to crib from in this instance. 

At this point, we’re nearly ten years into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and we’ve had enough installments for the powers that be to learn from their failures and success.  

The Captain America trilogy is easily Marvel’s greatest solo success story, and a big part of that success is each new Cap film reinvents its genre and focus: from pulp adventure to political thriller to family drama. Taking Thor in a new direction rather than just sitting on the science fantasy sub-genre is a great move even if that new direction isn’t quite as new as Cap’s explorations. 

That’s the other smart move to come out of Thor: Ragnarok’s revamp. It’s decision to explore genres already established by the Marvel canon. This is speculation, but the set-up of this film so far is deeply reminiscent of Guardians of the Galaxy.  

Stuff like space gladiators, alien gamblers, and (presumably) picking up the Infinity Stones plotline all feel very much culled from the same playbook as Guardians. That way they take the weirder ideas of the original Star Trek and blow them up to epic proportions. 

Obviously, the Thor films have always had space opera sci-fi aesthetics on their mind, but this seems like the first one to use the conceit of Asgard being an alien planet to explore the universe at large rather than sticking to the nine realms. What’s more, the inclusion of the Grand Master strikes me as a parallel to the Collector’s appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy as they’re both part of the larger group known as Elders of the Universe. Even though Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Thor: Ragnarok are coming out the same year, doubling down on sci-fi weirdness and space operatics strikes me as a good move, especially given Thor’s science fantasy antics weren’t selling.

Finally, moving away from Thor and towards the Hulk, doubling the film up with both characters is the best conceivable way to pull off a Planet Hulk movie. If you’re not familiar with it, Planet Hulk was a super popular mid-2000s Marvel storyline wherein a group of Earth heroes shot Hulk into space. His ship ends up going off course and lands on a deadly alien world full of things that are about Hulk-level strength. From there, it becomes something of a Spartacus-type story as Hulk is captured, enslaved as a gladiator. Later, he escapes and leads a rebellion that eventually conquers the planet. 

It’s a good comic and a middling animated feature that’s mainly notable for acting as a soft reboot of the Hulk continuity. Before this story, the Hulk (along with a lot of Marvel properties) had been languishing in the doldrums of mediocrity. Planet Hulk wiped the slate clean of the previous status quo and reinvigorated the franchise. It also set the stage for the very popular follow-up event to 2005’s Civil War: World War Hulk. Hulk returned to Earth seeking revenge on the heroes. 

While fans have clamored for a Planet Hulk movie for years, it was never going to happen without massive changes. The problem with Planet Hulk is that Bruce Banner is barely in it, and everything on the planet is inhuman (Editor's Note: non-human, not "Inhuman"). This means pulling off a Planet Hulk movie would require Avatar-levels of CG work, a complete in-universe reworking of how the Hulk operates so that he could speak and emote more freely, and shelling out for Mark Ruffalo while barely getting him on screen.  

Even without all that other stuff, the midpoint of the story, and most popular battle sequence, of the whole comic is a gladiatorial throw down between Hulk and Silver Surfer, adding yet another wrinkle to be resolved. All of that is why we were never going to see a Planet Hulk movie, but it's also worth considering we didn’t want to.  

As good as the comic is, you don’t need to shell out for the whole scope of Hulk’s adventures and alien comrades unless you also plan to have him attack Earth, which Marvel clearly isn’t because World War Hulk offers even more difficult challenges.  Dropping the alien planet and revolution stuff for Gladiator Hulk, which was always everyone’s favorite part of the original comic makes a ton of sense. 

I’m not sure if I have a real point to make here other than just taking stock of where we are regarding Marvel’s last phase 1 franchise. It’s impossible to tell from this far out whether or not any of this stuff will pay off, but it’s a pretty impressive gamble. It makes it seem like Marvel is far more open to a different approach that’s not as restricted by their blockbuster formula as previous films. 

Most of all, it cements how much Marvel has mastered the art of comic adaptations, realizing that the best form of adaptation is to take the popular parts without feeling beholden to the exact details. That’s been Marvel’s cadence since the beginning of phase 2. Now, it’s being used to repair their failing franchises, rather than just bolster their pre-existing success. 

Thor: Ragnarok is scheduled for release November 3rd, 2017

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