Over the last 10 years, various Marvel Studios executives and actors have been asked why there haven’t been more solo movies for The Hulk.
After 2003’s Ang Lee-directed Hulk was widely panned due to its unconventional approach, and 2008’s The Incredible Hulk failed to live up to the Iron Man standard of success, the character has been relegated to supporting status. In fact, after the character was recast (for the second time) and included in 2012’s The Avengers, everyone decided that yeah, maybe he worked better as a teammate than a solo star.
Not knowing what to do with a character hasn’t stopped Marvel from making multiple solo films featuring Thor. As played by Chris Hemsworth, the God of Thunder’s two solo outings to date have been a decidedly mixed bag. 2011’s Thor was a decent bit of drama that mixed comic book pulp with Shakespearean drama, the latter resulting from the influence of director Kenneth Branagh. At the other end of the spectrum is 2013’s Thor: The Dark World, which was dreary and slightly depressing, with a generic “ancient evil threatens the world” story that did no one any favors.
The marketing for the third movie, Thor: Ragnarok, which hits theaters today, promised something drastically different. With director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) at the helm, Marvel has taken a very different tack in the pitch it’s making to the audience. In particular, there are a few ways in which the studio’s tactics are looking to tap into what’s hot, what’s unique and what’s worked about the character’s other movies.
Bright and Funny Trumps Dark and Bleak
As I said, one of the primary issues taken by both critics and fans with The Dark World was that it was just super depressing. Everyone’s Very Serious about the thingee that the elf lord or whatever is trying to steal wait is that really what happened I’m not sure everyone looks alike and I can’t follow this convoluted back and forth from one realm to the next. That came through in the trailer, which never did really find a way to convey the basic story in an easily understandable way. Even Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, who was such campy fun in his first two appearances, was a downer, while other characters somberly warned about running out of time as the fabric of reality is about to be torn apart.
By contrast, the Ragnarok campaign has been filled with all colors of the rainbow from the very start. Most of the posters have featured bright yellows and oranges and blues and a title treatment that looks like it was pulled from the box of an Atari 2600 video game circa 1983.
Even before the marketing started, audiences got a sense that the tone of the movie would be different with the release of a short following Thor as he adapts to life with a new roommate.
And while the first trailer seemed at first like it was selling another super-serious story, that perception was broken the minute Thor yells “YES! We know each other. He’s a friend from work!” when Hulk breaks into the arena where they have to fight each other. That humor continued throughout the campaign.
Personal Stakes > End of the World Stakes
The first Thor was essentially an origin story. While Thor himself wasn’t new, he had to prove once more he was worthy of the powers he’d been stripped of. It was a journey of discovery and was sold as such, with a campaign that emphasized both that journey and the magical elements of the world the Asgardians inhabit. The Dark World’s campaign was all about setting up the world-saving battle that would pit Thor against … whoever that was, and was less interesting for that.
Ragnarok’s campaign once more turns the focus to a story that doesn’t have universe-shattering implications but is more about Thor himself and his attempts to extricate himself from the otherworldly exile he’s been forced into. Those attempts are both stories in and of themselves, as well as a means to an end—in this case, the need to stop Hela (Cate Blanchett) from finishing her destruction of Asgard. But the campaign never stops selling the movie as a personal journey, making the stakes of the story much more specific and therefore more interesting.
Embrace the Weird Guy in the Director’s Chair
One of the frequent criticisms leveled against franchise films is they chew up and spit out the eccentric, unique directors hired by the studios who own the IP. Directing two Avengers films nearly broke Joss Whedon. The Star Wars films have had multiple issues as Josh Trank was fired before he could even start, Gareth Edwards had Rogue One reshot and recut, Chris Miller and Phil Lord were replaced mid-shoot by Ron Howard on Solo, and Colin Trevorrow was let go from Episode IX in advance of production beginning. The list is long, and often these directors, acclaimed for their early original films, become background noise and are unimportant to selling the finished product.
Marvel has taken the opposite approach with Ragnarok. Waititi has been the public face of the campaign and the movie as a whole from the outset of publicity, even more so than Hemsworth or producer Kevin Feige. Well known, especially in the indie film world, for his eccentric sense of humor, Waititi has been out there stumping for the film and assuring fans that his cinematic voice remains intact here. This tactic bucks the seeming conventional wisdom that franchise directors are at best unimportant to a movie’s success and at worst a liability to be silenced. If you’re going to hire someone this out there, it only makes sense to let him do his thing.
Make the Supporting Cast Matter
One of the big problems with the solo Thor movies has been that the supporting characters aren’t all that engaging and interesting. Natalie Portman has done what she could as Dr. Jane Foster but hasn’t had much beyond inexplicable plot coincidences to work with. Stellan Skarsgård has delivered trite scientific phrases with gusto, and Kat Dennings has worked hard to be the comedy relief. All pale next to Hiddleston’s scenery-chewing as Loki, and most have been easily jettisoned for the team movies.
Those surrounding Thor in Ragnarok are much more compelling. Loki is back, of course, but so is Mark Ruffalo as Hulk/Bruce Banner, with their storyline adding a buddy-cop comedy element to the marketing. Blanchett as the antagonistic Goddess of Death is vamping it up like that one girl who dressed totally in black every day, even homecoming, in 1992. And Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie adds a much-needed bit of female warrior power, someone who’s working with Thor and the team but who answers to no man.
By presenting a drastically different tone than the dreary predecessor, and embracing a unique voice and tone in the campaign, Marvel is hoping to finally create an essential entry in the Thor film franchise. It may need to hit certain beats in order to pave the way for Infinity War and future Cinematic Universe, but it’s being sold more as a lighthearted space romp than a somber meditation on dark history of the world.
That could make a big difference at this weekend’s box office.