WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok, in theaters now.
After two years of waiting, lightning strikes a third time with the arrival this weekend of Thor: Ragnarok. While many love director Taika Waititi’s action-comedy, others aren't quite as enamored with that latter aspect -- y'know, the comedy. Some reviews note the jokes occasionally undercut dramatic moments, leaving the film without an emotional core, which has reignited discussion about the place of humor in Marvel Studios films.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has blended action, humor and drama since its inception in 2008 with Iron Man, which earned praise for bringing a lighthearted touch to the superhero genre, which had embraced a darker tone once more with Warner Bros.' Batman Begins. In subsequent years, levity became a signature element that helped to differentiate the MCU from the more serious Warner Bros. films based on DC Comics characters.
But such goodwill can only go so far for so long, and some fans have begun to sour on the jokes in recent Marvel releases. Avengers: Age of Ultron in particular received flak; just ask anyone about the recurring “Language!” gag. Arriving on the heels of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which took itself far more seriously while keeping the one-liners to a minimum -- or at the very least, less obnoxious than in other films -- it was easy to see why Joss Whedon’s writing might grate a little. Guardians of the Galaxy wasn’t short on humor, either, but it made a consistent effort to show audiences what it was about: great music, jokes, and a bunch of misfits coming together.
Age of Ultron is when some fans truly began to grow tired of the MCU’s high jinks. Since then, some have even considered the humor to be a weakness of the cinematic universe. They’ll often use it as an example of how the stakes in these films don’t really matter when a character will easily make a quip to make a moment of peril seem like little more than a fart in the wind.
But how does this specifically relate to Thor: Ragnarok? Its marketing has never sought to position the film as anything but an action-comedy. Whereas the advertised tone of other features might fluctuate from trailer to trailer and TV spot to TV spot -- see those for X-Men: Apocalypse or Batman v. Superman, for instance -- Ragnarok has been consistent throughout its promotion It’s a bonkers cosmic adventure from a filmmaker who embraces the offbeat. Waititi clearly loves comedy; the actors improvised four-fifths of their lines, with Jeff Goldblum singing a song the two of them made up on set. And, as the filmmaker has stated on Twitter, he wants to make people laugh more than anything else.
Despite what some fans might insist, however, this is the only route the Thor franchise could reasonably take. The 2011 original earned goodwill with its juxtaposition of Shakespearean melodrama and cosmic weirdness, but its sequel The Dark World made it clear that playing it more straight than silly would no longer work. (Still, the extended Portal gag in the third act is pretty clever and maybe the closest the film came to marrying the two tones perfectly.)
When compared to the Captain America and Iron Man franchises, which respectively shifted genres to spy thriller and tech terror with their sequels, the god of thunder’s solo outings felt like the odd man out. And, if we’re being honest, Chris Hemsworth’s comedic awakening with Ghostbusters and Vacation proved he’s more comfortable with humor than with drama. His previous dramatic works met with mixed reaction, but the revelation that he's incredibly funny practically makes you forget the likes of Blackhat and In the Heart of the Sea. Having him play Thor as an immature but noble doofus is more fun to watch than the jacked Shakespeare actor the previous Thor movies had him be.
It also must be said that Ragnarok's humor is, in itself, a very big change of pace from other MCU films. Where previous movies made up most of their humor by having characters insult one another or make references to media from years earlier, Thor: Ragnarok finds its laughs in the ridiculousness of its situation and the way the characters react it. This film doesn't have a mean bone in its body; characters have things happen to them that are funny, but it doesn't have the problem that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 did in regard to Mantis. The result is a movie that loves its characters and wants them to have a good time alongside the audience.
In theaters nationwide, director Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok stars Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Mark Ruffalo as Hulk, Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, Tom Hiddleston as Loki, Cate Blanchett as Hela, Jeff Goldblum as The Grandmaster, Idris Elba as Heimdall, Anthony Hopkins as Odin, and Karl Urban as Skurge.