When it came time to build a third standalone “Thor” feature, Marvel brass had a few different elements that they felt were necessary for inclusion, all the better to bolster the superhero’s solo power after the relative disappointment of “Thor: The Dark World.” Mostly, there needed to be more humor, the kind that could capitalize on star Chris Hemsworth’s growing acclaim as a comedian, but not feel out of place in the MCU as a whole. And perhaps the big guy needed a buddy, too, a fellow superhero also capable of teasing out both humor and pathos.
As Marvel president Kevin Feige explains, the franchise found an unlikely connection between those aims and a favorite piece of comic book lore. First up, though, “Thor: Ragnarok” needed to be its own thing, and get away from a predecessor that didn’t quite tap into what makes the Asgardian god so enjoyable to watch on the big screen.
(Some spoilers ahead for “Thor: Ragnarok.”)
For most film franchises, a feature like “Thor: The Dark World” — which made over $200 million domestically and is still listed as critically “Fresh” over at Rotten Tomatoes — would be considered a success, but it’s been a blemish on the MCU record since it debuted back in 2013, earning the franchise its worst reviews ever and pulling in the lowest box office for any of the series’ highly anticipated first sequels. Feige is the last person who would ever say that any MCU film was a misfire, but he will admit to the wealth of possibilities opened up by a third film, complete with some handy resetting.
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“It’s one of the great pleasures of getting to do additional stories with the same characters,” he said in an interview. “‘Thor: Ragnarok’ is a great version of that, taking what we’ve learned and improving upon it and trying something new and getting a chance to get a second or third chance is one of the great privileges of doing an ongoing series.”
Diplomatic as that answer may be, Marvel’s decision to try something new was obvious from the moment they picked director Taika Waititi to helm the film. A New Zealand filmmaker known for his charming and deeply amusing comedies like “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and the television series “Flight of the Conchords,” adding Waititi to the mix signaled early on that Marvel was definitely going for the laughs this time.
Last June, the filmmaker assured IndieWire that his “Thor” would come complete with his usual hallmarks. “The tone of my films is never full drama or full comedy,” Waititi said at the time. “It’s sort of a delicate balance between them.” He also promised to play up Hemsworth’s comedic sensibilities, which had peeked out during other MCU films, but had gotten even more play after a hosting turn on “Saturday Night Live” and an uproarious supporting role in the “Ghostbusters” remake. Marvel loved that.
“Every time we’ve found ourselves, like with ‘Captain America’ and with ‘Iron Man,’ making a third film in a series, we use it as an opportunity to do something very different,” Feige said. “To not just do more of the same, but to say, ‘Okay, the audience is willing to go with us, let’s take them to a unique place.’ The notion of allowing Chris Hemsworth to be funnier than we’d seen him before was definitely one of the ideas [that sparked ‘Thor: Ragnarok’].”
While Feige was quick to point out that Hemsworth has shown off his comedic and improvisational chops in those other MCU offerings, including the Avengers movies and even during some improvised scenes in “The Dark World,” he admitted that the earliest ideas around “Ragnarok” were built on a desire to really play up that part of his character. As he recalls, it was a situation of “saying, ‘Okay, people know he’s the God of Thunder, they know he’s a big badass superhero, that’s fine, let’s see this other side of him.'”
Feige and the Marvel brass also wanted to see who else from the franchise they could fit into the feature, another big change from “The Dark World,” which was primarily focused on Thor and the supporting characters from his first film, no other Avengers in sight. A long-standing gag from Hemsworth himself provided an in.
“There was some friendly rivalry that occurred over the years, as Hemsworth would point out that Captain America was getting a lot of other Avengers in his movies, and Thor wasn’t,” Feige said. “And how come Thor couldn’t get some of the other players to join his movies? There was always a half-serious aspect to that, but it did get us thinking, ‘Who would fit into this franchise? Who would fit into the world?'”
Beige said that their answer didn’t take long: Mark Ruffalo as Hulk, aided by a fan favorite comic book storyline that had long been rumored to factor into the MCU.
“Very quickly, we landed on the notion of Hulk and being able to utilize the two most powerful characters, being able to put them in conflict, taking a page out of a series called ‘Planet Hulk,’ where we meet Hulk as a gladiator on another planet, utilizing that as a story element of ‘Thor: Ragnarok,'” Feige explained. The “Planet Hulk” storyline was part of the “The Incredible Hulk” comic books in 2006 and 2007; written by Greg Pak, it follows the superhero after he’s exiled from Earth, ultimately landing on a dangerous planet where he’s forced to battle others, gladiator-style.
Dark as that storyline sounds, Feige — along with screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher L. Yost — saw a way for it to remain relatively light, envisioning the final product as a “sort of a buddy/road [trip] picture” involving Thor and Hulk, both attempting to get off the trash planet Sakaar, where they’re trapped by Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster. Forced to fight each other — yes, gladiator-style — the pair are unexpectedly reunited, and while Thor is initially challenged by Hulk’s “other guy” appearance, Bruce Banner does finally emerge, and the pair team up for an amusing adventure.
That Marvel would be so compelled to introduce the “Planet Hulk” storyline into MCU mythos has only further bolstered fan hopes that another standalone Hulk movie is on its way (“Thor: Ragnarok” prequel, anyone?). While it’s a complicated legal matter — Universal owns the rights to all solo Hulk films, and Ruffalo himself has said that’s why another Hulk-only film “will never happen” — Feige is characteristically cagey on what the future may hold, but he sure loves that people are still talking about.
“I think that back and forth continues, and I don’t know if it will ever happen,” Feige said when asked about the possibility of a solo Hulk film. “But I will tell you, it makes me very, very happy going from a world, ten years ago, when people were questioning the viability of Hulk in a standalone film, to getting asked every other interview, ‘When will there be another standalone Hulk?'”
After the fun “Thor: Ragnarok,” why not a different question: When will there be another standalone Thor?
“Thor: Ragnarok” opens in theaters nationwide November 3.