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Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi, is the best Thor solo movie — and also the most divergent from Marvel Comics. It marks the point at which the comics' God of Thunder and the movies' God of Thunder have separated ways, and there's no going back. But is this actually a good thing for the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
Note: major spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok follow.
The Movies And Comics Now Differ On The Source Of Thor's Powers
Ragnarok contains many references to Jason Aaron's current Marvel Comics run, most notably Hela's power-set (which is lifted straight from Aaron's character Gorr, known as the God-Butcher). Curiously enough, though, it also contains a major and important difference.
In the comics, Thor's power has been increasingly tied to his enchanted hammer, Mjolnir. In fact, in The Mighty Thor #12, Marvel rewrote the history of the God of Thunder, revealing just how special Mjolnir truly is. It turns out that, aeons ago, Odin confronted a cosmic force known as the God Tempest. This galactic storm was powerful enough to tear whole planets apart, and Odin the All-Father confronted it when it threatened Immortal Asgard. Finally, Odin used dark and primeval magic to trap the God Tempest within the Uru, which he had the Dwarves forge into Mjolnir.
Mjolnir was reimagined as an equal to Odin himself, a power so great that it can do harm to even the Phoenix Force. What's more, because the power of Thor is actually contained within Mjolnir, anyone who the hammer deems worthy gains that power. Back in 2014, Marvel Comics stunned fans when it revealed a new female Thor, eventually identified as Jane Foster. Because Mjolnir views Jane as worthy, she wields the power of Thor.
The contrast with Thor: Ragnarok couldn't be more explicit. In the film, Odin's spirit challenges Thor — Is he the God of Thunder, or the God of Hammer? The movie stresses that Mjolnir simply focused Thor's own innate power, allowing him to control it. Ultimately, Thor learns that his power lay within him all along. Embracing his divine identity, Thor unleashes all the power of the storm against Hela and her armies.
Both are attempts to tackle the same underlying question: where does Thor's power lie? But the comics and the movie arrive at very different conclusions.
In the comics, the power lies in Mjolnir. In the film, it lies in Thor himself. In the comics, whoever bears Mjolnir gains the power of Thor. In the film, Mjolnir is destroyed, but Thor still retains his own innate power. That means, among other things, that we can never see another wield Thor's power in the MCU. We'll never have a female Thor.
The Illusion Of Change
Jason Aaron's four-year Marvel Comics arc seems to be coming to a close, and fans have a good sense of how it will be resolved. Soon, Thor will wield Mjolnir — or a version of Mjolnir — once again. We don't yet know what that will mean for Jane Foster, but the odds don't look good that she'll make it out of the Aaron run alive.
It's all to do with a basic principle of comics called "the Illusion of Change." This was an idea conceived by Stan Lee himself back in the early days of Marvel Comics, and Peter David explains it like this:
"Make it seem as if things were changing in the life of a character … but, in point of fact, have them remain exactly the same. It’s a terrific theory, and creators and publishers still abide by it."
David points to the example of Peter Parker. Spider-Man went from high school to college, but he was still a student. Supporting love interests Betty Brant and Liz Allen were replaced by Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane. Nemesis Flash Thompson stepped out, and in came nemesis Harry Osborn. The hero's life may have changed, but the broad-brush strokes remained the same. When Marvel eventually decided to change the character's entire arc by having him marry Mary Jane, they spent the best part of the next decade trying to write that out. Ultimately, they decided to have Peter do a deal with the devil in order to save Aunt May's life, at the cost of his marriage. Real, lasting change had been implemented — and Marvel ultimately rejected it.
In contrast, Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok actually transforms the character of Thor. There's no going back from the third Thor film. The God of Thunder is King of Asgard, albeit of a nomadic race who are seeking a new home. His enchanted hammer is destroyed, but he's learned the power lies within him. And he's even lost an eye! Ragnarok rejects the concept of "the Illusion of Change," instead embracing real change, and thus transforming the entire #MCU.
There's a sense in which the movies could never get away with this idea anyway. After all, actors age and contracts expire. There will come a day when the MCU will have to survive without Chris Hemsworth's Thor, and that day may be sooner than we'd like to think. At that point, Marvel Studios will either have to write the character out completely, or reboot the timeline.
Before Ragnarok, they had another option. They could have taken the "Legacy Hero" approach, revealed that the power lay within Mjolnir, and introduced us to another who was worthy of the power of Thor. Now, thanks to Taika Waititi, that direction is no longer available.
Ragnarok has launched the movies in a very different direction to the comics, and there's no going back. The film's perspective on Thor's power is diametrically opposed to everything #Marvel has been doing in the comics for the last four years, and it leaves Thor in a changed role that the comics can never have him occupy. While there are sure to be homages, from this point on the overall direction of the Thor franchise must blaze its own trail.