Looking back on Marvel’s Phase 1, it’s hard to see how the MCU ever got to be as big as it was. Between having sold off most of their key franchises to rival movie studios, the studio’s inexperience at actually making movies and the merely solid quality of a lot of these movies, it was set up to be a good franchise, even a generally great one, but not anything like what it quickly turned into.
The mega-franchise really only had one mega-hit until The Avengers in Iron Man. Most people didn’t remember The Incredible Hulk, most didn’t care for Iron Man 2 and Captain America never quite reached the level of Iron Man’s popularity until Phase 2. And then there was Thor.
There is an argument to be made that Thor, not Iron Man 2, is actually the weakest movie of Marvel’s pre-Avengers era of movies. There’s just not a lot about it that works when all is said and done. Jane Foster, far from the gender-swapped Thor from the recent comics, was rather unremarkable as an audience surrogate. The fish-out-of-water storyline, divorced from Asgard – the most interesting aspect of the franchise – never quite worked with its lead character. The pacing is truncated, the third act rushed and the pre-climax showdown against the Destroyer felt strangely inconsequential. And even though the interplay between the other franchises became increasing apparent in this film, they still didn’t feel especially meaningful from the outside looking in.
That is of course not to say that the movie was bad by any means. It’s actually quite good, just in the same way that Iron Man 2 is. It is a solid action-comedy with a phenomenally cast lead, gorgeous visuals and consistently strong direction. It might not be especially better than the average blockbuster that came out alongside it at the time, but neither was it any worse.
In the end, though, Thor is better remembered and regarded than Iron Man 2 despite being exactly as good of a movie as its immediate forebear. And while the product was ultimately the same one that was peddled the Summer before, it’s not hard to see exactly why Thor rose above Iron Man 2.
For one, Thor immediately feels far more consequential than the second Iron Man did. It was Marvel’s first tentative foray into the cosmic fringes of its universe: showing that not just world-spanning narratives and alien characters were possible to bring to the big screen, but that all of the weird mythological appropriation, magic and legendary artifacts that have been the bread and butter of the comics for decades were fair game in the movies.
Thor wasn’t just an alien superhero, but a literal, flesh-and-blood god straight from the annals of ancient religions. His arch nemesis was a god. Most of his supporting cast were gods as well, and if they weren’t, and even the ones that weren’t were certainly close enough as far as us regular mortals were concerned. He used his magic hammer to fly around like Superman and his villain was a sorcerous, would-be despot with a claim to the throne.
Whereas Iron Man 2 spun its wheels in place for 90 minutes and rested on the laurels of the first movie, Thor did considerable legwork to expand the MCU into bold and interesting new directions. Even beyond bringing the cosmic to Earth, it introduced an interesting new superhero that felt genuinely different from anything else we had seen on the big screen before. Even if it seemed shoe-horned into the narrative, SHIELD was revealed to be a far bigger player in the world than had been let on until this point.
And then, of course, this movie solved Marvel’s so-called villain problem. Because they lacked many of their key franchises, they lacked many of their key villains. Everything from Doctor Doom to Magneto to the Green Goblin (and many, many more) were not available. The only villains that we had seen in the franchise thus-far were Iron Monger, Abomination and Whiplash, none of which were exactly top-tier bad guys. There was legitimate concern about whether they had anybody interesting to throw at their roster of B-list heroes.
Loki put all of these concerns to rest. Arguably the most interesting character in this movie, he was the breakout star from Phase 1: a charismatic, sympathetic and immeasurably dangerous villain cut from the same cloth that Netflix’s Kingpin would be years later. His illusory magic and dark sense of humor made him infinitely fun to watch while his relationship with his adopted brother was both compelling and unknowable: a constant, engrossing mystery that you never quite knew for certain how it would play out.
All of this was framed perfectly by esteemed director Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of the film as a Shakespearian tragedy. Although he and the studio fought constantly, eventually leading to the director’s exit from the franchise. There is no denying, however, that the result was a poignant, intensely personal family tragedy that played out across the cosmos.
For all of its many faults – and trust me, there are many of them – the reason why Thor ultimately works is that it knows exactly what it is and embraces it wholeheartedly. The franchise is fun, light-hearted and silly, but it’s never afraid to own that reality. It is bright and colorful and, most importantly, fun to watch in a way that not even the other early Marvel movies are. And the fact that Marvel has recently learned heavily into their most bizarre facets – from Ragnarok to Guardians of the Galaxy – is the direct result of this film’s ability to go off in its own direction.