On the set of Thor: Ragnarok, producer Brad Winterbaum went on record comparing the third Thor movie to 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. “Much like Winter Soldier took a lot of ideas off the playing field to make it harder on the Avengers in Ultron, [Ragnarok is] a similar thing,” said Winterbaum. “The whole cosmic world of the MCU was… you had Thanos, and you had Chitauri, and you have threats from above coming. But you also have Asgard, you also have these protective forces out there too… we make it much harder for those protections to come help our heroes as we enter [Avengers 3].”
The comparison’s a big one to make because, aside from Winter Soldier being so beloved, that movie really changed a lot for the Earthbound heroes. We saw the downfall of the organization S.H.I.E.L.D. to the terrorist group Hydra (who’d infiltrated American politics to the upper echelons in a longfield coup over decades). The status quo for Captain America, Iron Man and co. was irrevocably altered, forcing them to become more accountable as the Avengers and removing the network of resources they previously had at their disposal.
In contrast, Thor’s outings have infamously had very minimal effect on the MCU as a whole. Despite introducing us to the Odinson, Loki and the city of Asgard, neither previous installment added much to the overall canon apart from a few Easter eggs for comics fans. The cosmic side, which was Thor’s “realm” when he first joined the Avengers, has since taken over by the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, both of which have dealt with the looming threat of Thanos and the mystery of the Infinity Stones much more directly.
Now that Thor: Ragnarok is in theaters, it’s interesting to consider what Ragnarok means in light of the producer’s comments. There are some big ramifications from the events of the titular end-of-days that Thor, and soon the rest of the Avengers, are going to have to reckon with. And the use of the word Ragnarok in the title has both literal and figurative connotations for the wider universe, drawing from Marvel’s print history as well as the Norse roots of the term.
Looking at it literally, the consequences are obvious: Asgard has been destroyed, displacing thousands of people and leaving them stranded with Thor, Heimdall, Loki, Hulk and Valkyrie onboard a spaceship. Tragic as this is, it’s very in-keeping with the comics as, like the movie, a prophecy foretells the demise of Asgard for it to be reborn again. The ancient city engages in a cycle, over and over, with this being just another rebirth for the realm. The film avoids going into the loftier mythology attached to this (primordial beings feed off the energy emitted by Asgard’s destruction – it’s weird) but it does play into the idea that Asgard is something more than a metropolis with the phrase “Asgard is not a place, it’s a people”.
Thor, like Steve Rogers in the second Captain America, finds himself without the safety net he’d grown used to. Now he holds the throne for a population looking to him to find where they’ll start building Asgard anew. Setting a course for Earth, the only other safe place Thor can think of, their ship is intercepted by Thanos’ per the post-credits scene. Although this may have surprised many audience members, it was heavily hinted in the movie that Loki has stolen the Tesseract from Odin’s vault. Loki plays nice at the end, but this is the trickster God we’re talking about, and a former employee of Thanos’. The likely setup is that Loki took the Tesseract thinking Asgard’s destruction would provide enough of an alibi, and Thanos tracked the energy of the space stone therein to their ship.
This all feeds into the deeper reading one can take from the movie. In Norse lore, Ragnarok refers to a “Twilight of the Gods” (or “Doom of the Gods,” depending on the interpretation). There’s a lot of history attached to the term that points to different strains of European folklore, but the really relevant part here is that it’s the downfall of the established order, leaving only a few left to begin rebuilding. As per the base story, a series of events lead to a great battle in which many of the Gods are killed and the known world is submerged. Only two remain, then, to regrow the world’s population once again. It’s not a stretch to think of Marvel’s heroes, the Avengers and the Guardians, as a set of pseudo-deities that have taken it upon themselves to protect the universe from evil. And considering we’re coming up to 20 movies since the first Iron Man in 2008, one could say we’re almost overdue for our great battle.
Sure, it may be arrogant for Marvel Studios to draw such a direct line between their cinematic universe and literal Gods, but who’s to argue when the entire modern movie landscape is aping their structure to try and replicate their success? Most of the headline characters are household brands now. Hel, Thor: Ragnarok has already matched the worldwide gross of the first film, and it’s only been out a week. That’s pretty God-like. And when you consider the road we’ve taken to get here, and all the discussion about what Marvel will do next or what shape Infinity War and Avengers 4 will take, it’s hard to believe that we’re actually about to find out.
If Ragnarok accomplishes just one thing, it’s making it clear that things are about to change and the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it is starting to shift. Nothing is sacred and that includes our favorite heroes. The MCU has begun to burn, and some will die, whether out of necessity to the story or because the actors want to do other things. But some will survive and they’ll begin putting together the next chapter and new heroes and villains will form new stories and explore new places. After all, the MCU isn’t a people, it’s a place, and it must be reborn in order to truly flourish.
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