Why Humor is at the Heart of Marvel’s Thor Movies

The trailer for Thor: Ragnarok opens with a meme. As Thor (Chris Hemsworth) dangles over flaming pits, fighting against the shackles restraining him, his voiceover says “Now I know what you’re thinking: How did this happen? Well, it’s kind of a long story.” It’s not quite the freeze-frame Twitter joke that’s plagued many a timeline, but it decidedly sets the tone of the teaser, where the stakes are clearly high but the style is blatantly goofy and proud of it.

Later in the trailer, scored to The Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin (a musical choice so delightfully obvious it’s a surprise the Thor series hasn’t used it before), we see Thor sent into battle to fight an unknown enemy. As the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, clad in colorful robes and make-up, and clearly loving every minute) announces his opponent, we see none other than the Hulk himself (Mark Ruffalo) barge into the arena, and Thor’s giddy reaction is a trailer highlight. “We know each other! He’s a friend from work,” he exclaims, and in that moment is everything that exemplifies the comedic appeal of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most underrated Avenger.

Thor has often struggled to rise above the increasingly crowded ensemble that makes up the ambitious expanded universe of The Avengers and beyond. His antagonistic relationship with Loki (Tom Hiddleston) formed a key backbone of the first Avengers film but most of the standout moments went to the rest of the team, while his part in Avengers: Age of Ultron seemed made up of little more than a studio mandated cave-diving expedition. In his own films, the issues with tone have continued.

At his most appealing, Thor is a victim of culture-clash and messy familial strife, battling his own ego to regain the mantle of hero. He’s the epitome of masculine strength, every inch the muscled leading man of Hollywood’s dream, but below the surface, Thor’s best elements are incredibly goofy, and the series excels when it embraces the inherent silliness of his story.

The first film in his series, directed by Kenneth Branagh, established those moments of self-conscious goofiness during Thor’s time on earth, smashing cups and guilelessly posing for photos, but those elements were forced to fight against the rigid structures of the Marvel perfected origin story. Thor: The Dark World suffered similarly, thanks to a forgettable stop-gap plot designed to plug the space between Avengers movies, but offered moments of rom-com style levity (and naked Stellan Skarsgard). Now, with Thor: Ragnarok, it seems the series, and Marvel at large, have let go of their fears over the creative legitimacy of silliness and allowed their hammer-wielding goofball the chance to stretch his comedic chops. When your plot is as silly as this, why not go all out?

Taika Waititi, the director of Thor: Ragnarok, is no stranger to comedy. Along with his work on Flight of the Conchords, he brought the world the hilarious mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, which showed the supernatural dark side of Wellington’s vampire flat-share scene, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, an affecting dramedy about an adopted child whose antics in the New Zealand bush launch a nationwide man-hunt. While his blockbuster experience is limited, he’s the ideal fit for exploring the untapped comedic potential of Thor. He’s already demonstrated that in the promotional skits, where Thor shares a house with an unwitting human and waits for Tony Stark’s carrier raven.

Waititi’s work is sharp in its mixing of the fantastical and the mundane (vampires arguing over washing the dishes, werewolves chastising one another for swearing, a god-like superhero grappling with being excluded from the Civil War fight), which is exactly what the Asgardian warrior needs (as well as Chris Hemsworth, whose talents as a cinematic funnyman are in desperate need of exploration following stand-out work in Ghostbusters).

Humor forms a necessary backbone of the entire Marvel universe: Tony Stark is a dry wit whose self-awareness of his own staggering ego gives him a sly edge over the competition, Captain America is an optimistic soul whose jokes are rooted in sincerity and true camaraderie, Black Widow and Hawkeye banter like old pals from a buddy-cop movie, the Guardians of the Galaxy embrace an anarchic B-Movie style that allows for a less serious take on a galaxy-ending conflict, and Thor is a fish-out-of-water turned screwball goof whose inherent earnestness goes up against the most bonkers of scenarios. As well as juggling myriad tones, styles and thematic ideas, Marvel’s willingness to keep a strain of levity throughout their universe has grounded it in a way that feels fresh and crucially human.

There is still a school of cinematic thought that sees “dark and edgy” as the go-to way of telling a story seriously. After Batman and Robin sank the comic book movie for a few years, Christopher Nolan’s reinvention of the Dark Knight brought DC’s iconic detective to the forefront, grounded in realism with noir and espionage as clear influences. The shadow of Nolan’s influence looms over the industry to this day, but what is often missing from those who follow his guide-book is the humor.

Thor 3 director Taika Waititi in What We Do in the Shadows
Taika Waititi in What We Do in the Shadows

While many wax lyrically about the unsettling darkness of Heath Ledger’s Joker, they seem to overlook how genuinely funny his interpretation of the character is (he does spend an extended scene in drag). Rather than spoiling the effect of one of pop culture’s great villains, his humor emphasizes his incredible rhetorical power and makes him all the scarier to audiences. Alfred makes loving jabs at Bruce’s work and that highlights their loving relationship. Selina disappears while Batman is talking to her and his moment of self-awareness reminds us that even the World’s Greatest Detective is still human.

DC movies, on the other hand, have stumbled in garnering critical approval following Nolan’s Batman trilogy, a problem many have attributed to what appears to be a reluctance to be funny. DC movies can come off so absorbed in a sea of concrete and overly ponderous emotional beats that it's hard for some critics and fans to connect. It’s clear this was a problem in the eyes of Warner Bros., who have worked to inject levity into the Justice League, as evidenced by the most recent trailer.

Even Logan, arguably the most political and emotionally heartbreaking superhero movie in years, still took the time to let its characters laugh, and for the audience to find those jokes amidst the bleakness of the characters’ situation. Humor does not signal childishness or a lack of seriousness, but its absence from a story rings loudly in audience’s ears. Overwhelming and unnatural seriousness in a genre built on whimsy isn’t just a turn-off for audiences; it can be exhausting to watch.

To laugh is to be human, and our greatest cinematic heroes are nothing if we do not buy into their inherent humanity. Thor is arguably the most cartoonish of the Avengers, but becomes the warmest and most endearing when he is allowed to embrace that strangeness. After several films where he has fought against the tide of mounting stakes and grimmer outlooks, it seems that he may finally get his moment of pure, unabashed silliness, with a story in line with his best characteristics. After all, if you can’t laugh at your co-worker being forced to fight you, gladiatorial style, for the amusement of Ziggy Stardust clad Jeff Goldblum, when can you?

NEXT: Thor Ragnarok: The Last Infinity Stone Destroys Asgard?

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