The Marvel Cinematic Universe is set to expand in some interesting new directions with the release of Thor: Ragnarok. Not only are we basically getting a Planet Hulk adaptation squeezed into our Thor sequel, the film is tackling one of the most fascinating pieces of Thor’s mythology – Ragnarok. This is very fertile ground for the MCU. Ragnarok is a vital piece of Thor’s story, and it’s been at the heart of many of the best Thor storylines over the past few decades.
While I recommend reading Arnold Blumberg’s Ragnarok Explained feature for more on this particular Thor trope, the gist is that Thor and his fellow gods are constantly under the threat of extinction. As in classic Norse mythology, the gods of Asgard are bound by a cycle of death and rebirth that unfolds every couple thousand years. The exact catalyst and circumstances may change, but the end result is usually the same.
It’s not difficult to see why Ragnarok is such great fodder for Thor stories. The stakes literally couldn’t be higher when Ragnarok is invoked. It’s an existential threat to Thor and his people. If Ragnarok isn’t averted, the gods fall and the walls of Asgard come crashing down. It makes the plight of heroes like Spider-Man and Wolverine seem trifling by comparison. And it’s a looming threat that never seems to lose its luster. Thor’s rogues gallery is full of grand, cosmic destroyers, from the Fire Demon Surtur to the god-devouring Mangog to the queen of death herself, Hela. Every clash with one of these villains brings about the possibility of another Ragnarok.
What appeals to me most about the concept is the idea that Ragnarok represents a sort of finality you rarely find in superhero comics. Mainstream superheroes are perpetually trapped in the middle act of a never-ending story. They’re rarely allowed to retire, grow old and die. Or if they do, it’s only a matter of time before the status quo returns and they’re somehow restored to full health and active duty. Spider-Man’s story is never going to end. Wolverine’s story is never going to end. But for the likes of Thor, Odin, Loki and the Warriors Three, Ragnarok represents a potential end. It may be part of a perpetual cycle, but there’s no guarantee these characters will return unchanged at the next revolution of the wheel.
This was best illustrated in Michael Avon Oeming and Andrea DiVito’s 2004 storyline “Thor: Ragnarok,” which legitimately lived up to its name by chronicling the fall of the Norse gods in one final, cataclysmic battle. Thor watched his kingdom be destroyed and confronted the beings who feed off the energy generated by the Ragnarok cycle. In the end, he alone remained to bear witness to the devastation and rest until the time of the gods came again. Marvel kept Thor completely out of the picture for over two years, an act that would be unthinkable for a character like Spider-Man.
Obviously, that finality only stretches so far. These days, Thor and his fellow Asgardians are back in action and confronting new cosmic calamities. But even so, the events of the previous Ragnarok played a huge role in shaping the franchise for years to come. Thor served as king. Asgard became a floating kingdom on the mortal plane. Loki was reborn not as a fiendish adult but a child determined to be a hero. Ragnarok didn’t end Thor’s story, but it did profoundly change it, and for the better. And as writer Jason Aaron continues to add new layers to his sweeping Thor saga and builds towards another potential Ragnarok, there’s no telling what state the Ten Realms will be in by the time he’s done.
Basically, Ragnarok is as critical to Thor’s mythology as the Thor/Loki dynamic and the enchanted hammer Mjolnir. Every great Thor run, from the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby material to Walt Simonson’s Mighty Thor saga to Kieron Gillen’s Journey Into Mystery to the aforementioned Thor: Ragnarok comic, has dealt with the concept in some way or another. It’s simply too dramatically rich and compelling to ignore.
That’s why the early reviews for the Thor: Ragnarok movie leave me feeling disappointed. Critics are praising the film for its lighthearted, adventurous tone and the way it kicks off a major new character arc for Hulk. But most seem to agree that it’s not a particularly deep film. And many reviewers, (including our own Jim Vejvoda) bemoan the fact that the nonstop barrage of humor often undercuts the more dramatic elements. I was hoping director Taika Waititi would channel the tragedy and scope of the comic book Ragnarok tales. Instead, he appears to have crafted a fun romp starring Thor and Hulk as two space buddies. Still an appealing proposition, and likely one that’s best for Marvel’s bottom line, but it’s hard not to wonder what might have been.
But the good news is that there’s always another opportunity to explore the Ragnarok conflict. The cycle will come along again, just as it always does in the comics. And no matter what version of Thor we’re following, the knowledge that the end is always looming for he and his kind gives his adventures a sense of gravitas. Thor’s adventures have added meaning knowing that his end is preordained.
“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly column from Jesse Schedeen that focuses on the world of comics. You can see more of his thoughts on comics and pop culture by following @jschedeen on Twitter, or Kicksplode on MyIGN.