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Stars dish on 'Thor: Ragnarok': Will humor improve the series?

The first two stand-alone 'Thor' movies were far from failures, but they did less well at the box office than their Marvel brethren and received fairly negative reviews from critics. What will happen with 'Ragnarok'?

'Thor: The Dark World' stars Chris Hemsworth (l.) and Anthony Hopkins (r.).
Jay Maidment/Walt Disney Studios/AP | Caption

The actors starring in the upcoming Marvel movie “Thor: Ragnarok” recently revealed more details about their characters and the plot of the film, hinting at a lighter, quirkier tone. As Neil Gaiman’s “Norse Mythology,” which also explores the adventures of mythological characters such as Thor and Loki, has become a bestseller, will “Ragnarok” do better critically and at the box-office than the two previous standalone “Thor” films, “Thor” and “Thor: The Dark World”?

“Thor: Ragnarok” features the return of actors Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Tom Hiddleston as Loki and will also star Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, and Jeff Goldblum, among others.

Mr. Hemsworth told Entertainment Weekly that even the actors were sometimes taken aback by the mood director Taika Waititi, who has helmed films including the comedy "What We Do in the Shadows," imparts on the film. "Taika has such a quirky, left-of-field sense of humor, which forced all the characters and the tone of the whole story to head in a new direction,” Hemsworth said. “Each day we were like, ‘Are we pushing it too far? Are we allowed to have this much fun?’ ”

“Ragnarok,” which will be released in November, will arrive as Marvel continues to rule Hollywood. It’s been nine years since the studio released “Iron Man,” which launched the Marvel cinematic universe as we know it, and the latest Marvel installments regularly rule the box office, with one of the most recent, 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War,” becoming the third-highest-grossing film of the year. The most recent, "Doctor Strange," followed at number 13 for 2016.

The previous standalone “Thor” movies, however, have encountered some trouble compared to other Marvel films. To be clear, any Marvel movie that’s lower-ranking financially than others is still usually a hit – the first “Thor” movie grossed more than $181 million when it came out in 2011, which let it become the tenth-highest-grossing movie of the year. But out of the 14 films counted in the Marvel cinematic universe, the two “Thor” standalone movies are near the bottom of the list when ranked for domestic box office gross, with “Thor” coming in at number 11 out of that 14 and 2013’s “Thor: The Dark World” ranking at number 10. 

In addition, both “Thor” and “Thor: The Dark World” received mostly negative reviews from critics, with the first holding a score of 57 out of 100 on the review aggregator site Metacritic and the second scoring 54 out of 100.

Why were the movies less critically well-received than installments such as “Captain America: The First Avenger” (which is also one of the lower-grossing Marvel films) or the first “Iron Man” film?

There’s obviously interest in Norse mythology, the basis for the movies, judging by the recent success of Mr. Gaiman’s book “Norse Mythology,” which finds the bestselling author retelling, well, Norse myths. The book is currently ranked at number one on the IndieBound fiction bestseller list for the week of March 9.

Yet with the first movie, film critic Roger Ebert, for one, found the Norse mythology characters ill-suited for the movie. “Thor to begin with is not an interesting character,” Mr. Ebert wrote. “The gods of Greek, Roman and Norse mythology share the same problem, which is that what you see is what you get. They're defined by their attributes, not their personalities.”

It remains to be seen whether Mr. Waititi was able to inject more substance into the characters than the directors of the previous "Thor" films, but Ms. Blanchett hints at least a touch of character backstory in describing her role, Hela, Goddess of Death.

“She’s been locked away for millennia getting more and more cross, and then, with a mistake, she gets unleashed and she ain’t getting back in that box,” Blanchett told Entertainment Weekly.

Other critics of the earlier films were confused by the comic-based rendering of Asgard, where Thor and Loki hail from, though those criticisms likey have more to do with the comic adaptation of the mythological gods to fit the superhero universe than the films' rendering of the comics.

When reviewing “Thor: The Dark World,” Washington Post critic Michael O’Sullivan wrote, “If Thor’s homeland of Asgard has the technology to defend itself from space invaders with long-range artillery and jet fighters, as we see in the film, why do Asgardian foot soldiers still run around with medieval swords and daggers?... Are Thor and his family divine or aren’t they?... Ow, my head.”

Miami Herald writer Rene Rodriguez was also baffled at some points when reviewing “Dark World.” “Thor, both on the screen and on the page, has never been much for plausible physics, but ‘Thor: The Dark World’ turns the series into a mish-mash of ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Flash Gordon,’” he wrote. “Is this science fiction? Mythology? Physics? Mostly, it’s just nonsense, even by comic-book standards.”

Critics also had difficulties with other aspects of both films, with Ebert writing of the first “Thor” movie, “The failure of ‘Thor’ begins at the story level” and Mr. O’Sullivan calling “Dark World” “kind of slow to get going and featur[ing] too many undeveloped threads.” 

We'll see if the humor that Hemsworth referred to for the new film earns "Ragnarok" better reviews than its predecessors.

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