Time was, you could binge every entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a single marathon session. That was a simpler era — now, you’d need to set aside days to digest the 29 movies, 19 TV shows, and eight short films that currently make up the franchise. Fortunately, there’s a quicker and easier way to relive the entire history of the MCU: You could just rewatch the stand-alone Thor movies.
Not only can you knock over these four flicks in less than eight hours, you’ll also enjoy a Bifrost-quick journey through the evolution of Marvel Studios’ shared universe itself. It’s not just that each movie — including the latest, Thor: Love and Thunder — lays vital narrative groundwork for the wider franchise. It’s that these Chris Hemsworth-headlined blockbusters perfectly embody the creative milestones and missteps that characterized the MCU’s four major story groupings, or Phases, to date. This is no accident — each of the Odinson’s four solo outings was released in a different phase of the MCU, so it’s only natural that they reflect their respective eras.
To paraphrase the first chapter heading in Batman: Year One, Thor’s story is the story of the MCU — what it is and how it came to be.
Phase One: Experimentation
Revisited today, 2011’s Thor is emblematic of the ways Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and those around him worked to nail down the MCU template through Phase One. There’s a lot here that’s instantly, recognizably in line with what later became the franchise’s distinctive brand of storytelling, but there’s plenty missing, too.
Most obviously, with Thor, Marvel Studios seems a little uncertain about exactly what kind of tone it’s trying to strike. Director Kenneth Branagh handles the fantasy adventure and fish-out-of-water comedy elements equally well, but the movie crunches gears whenever it’s forced to shift between the two. The way Branagh and Marvel manage Thor’s obligatory foreshadowing of future MCU projects (shoutout to Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye cameo!) is about as clumsy as it gets, too. Then there’s the underwhelming third act, which — like most of the Phase One movies — asks us to invest in the God of Thunder’s efforts to foil an evil scheme that doesn’t actually threaten any of our friends on Earth or Asgard.
Yet for all these shortcomings, Thor is a hugely influential addition to this first and most experimental phase of the MCU. Although its approach seems restrained compared to a Spandex-fest like Avengers: Endgame, Thor nevertheless represents Marvel Studios drawing a line in the sand in terms of how unapologetically it wanted to tackle its source material. Magic hammers, rainbow bridges, flowing capes, and horned helmets were declared to be acceptable in the universe Marvel was building. The self-conscious faux-science and all-leather jumpsuits of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise were not.
Thor also delivers the MCU’s first truly great villain in the form of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. Thor’s adopted sibling is a complex creation who looms large over Phase One, and he sets a standard the studio has rarely equaled, much less surpassed. Hiddleston brings a Shakespearean edge to Loki’s antics, something no doubt encouraged by Branagh, who built his career performing and staging celebrated screen adaptations of the Bard’s plays. His work on Thor epitomizes what the MCU was and is capable of when the person hired to call the shots is actually calling the shots. For all Thor’s superhero sheen, it still feels like something only Branagh could’ve made, while still being very much keyed into the overarching “formation of the Avengers” subplot that defines Phase One.
Ultimately, though, Hemsworth is the one who makes Thor work — and who further validated Marvel Studios’ risky approach to casting throughout Phase One. Hiring a relative unknown like Hemsworth to headline a $150 million picture was a big gamble that paid off. The Aussie actor instantly won over audiences with his uncommon gifts for comedy and action, proving he was the right guy for the job the moment he appeared on screen. Just as with Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man and Chris Evans in Captain America: The First Avenger, Marvel casting Hemsworth was a validation of the studios’ commitment to hiring the right people for the role, no matter how well-known they were in Hollywood at the time.
Thor isn’t perfect, but like the phase it belongs to, it proved that the formula for the perfect MCU movie was within Marvel’s reach.
Phase Two: Difficult transitions
Unfortunately, Thor: The Dark World was not that movie. On the contrary, this 2013 follow-up is widely considered not just the worst Thor film, but also the worst release of Phase Two.
The Dark World is the poster child for the studio’s short-lived push to go, well, darker. In certain instances, the graver, higher-stakes approach worked — most notably in 2014, when the Russo brothers injected a gritty espionage-thriller vibe into Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But the same approach just condemns Thor to an overwrought, tonally muddled sophomore adventure predominantly set in dreary locations, which director Alan Taylor seemingly borrowed from his previous gig on Game of Thrones.
It also doesn’t help that The Dark World is saddled with a truly forgettable villain, another MCU Phase Two mistake that not even certified bangers like Guardians of the Galaxy avoided. This time, it’s poor Christopher Eccleston who takes the fall as dark elf Malekith, the victim of too many reshoots and not enough screen time. As with his fellow Phase Two antagonists Ronan the Accuser, Ultron, and Yellowjacket, the audience knows what Malekith wants; we just aren’t given any reason to care.
Yet The Dark World’s murky tone and nonentity villain are really just symptoms of arguably the biggest problem with the MCU’s Phase Two: the studio’s approach to directors. Taylor wasn’t the first choice to helm the movie — he only landed the gig after Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins left, offering the usual “creative differences” excuse. This was the first instance of Marvel clashing with a high-profile auteur over their vision for an MCU film. It wouldn’t be the last, either — Edgar Wright later bowed out of Ant-Man, while Taylor and Age of Ultron director Joss Whedon butted heads with studio executives during post-production on their movies, too.
In spite of a few bright spots, the MCU was, like Thor, in a dark place in Phase Two. And then, just like that, everything changed.
Phase Three: Third time’s a charm
It was as if someone flipped a switch at Marvel Studios just as the MCU’s third phase began — and no film reflects this reversal of fortune more acutely than Thor: Ragnarok.
Where Thor: The Dark World is the product of a studio stumbling over itself, Ragnarok is Marvel at its most assured. The third (and arguably best) Thor movie marked the moment when Marvel finally understood exactly what kind of movies it wanted to make, and who it wanted to make them with. The story-group mandates of the previous phase ended, replaced by greater trust in individual talent.
Sure, Feige and company still favored more of a “showrunner” approach to the franchise, and there was certainly a sense from films like Captain America: Civil War that Marvel Studios had a default narrative and visual house style. But more than any other Phase Three movie, Ragnarok proved the studio was willing to compromise with filmmakers who wanted to work outside this box. When director Taika Waititi asked to scrap the sequel’s original setup, teased in Age of Ultron, Marvel didn’t bat an eye. Nor did they do so when the New Zealand filmmaker started pulling together a glitter-bomb blockbuster to make even Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn blush.
Yet for all that Ragnarok was unmistakably the product of Waititi’s unique filmmaking sensibilities, it also represented the MCU template refined across the last three phases at last achieving its final form. Now, there was a measured approach to the franchise meta-narrative — a newfound openness to bend space rock-related plot points to suit the story at hand and not the other way around. There was a well-realized villain, Cate Blanchett’s camp icon Hela. Most importantly of all, for better or worse, everybody involved finally accepted that the MCU was an action-comedy franchise, forever ending its frankly exhausting identity crisis.
Phase Three was the Golden Age of the MCU — and nowhere did that gold shine brighter (or in a wider array of colors) than in Thor: Ragnarok.
Phase Four: Destination unknown?
All of which brings us to Thor: Love and Thunder and the MCU’s Phase Four, which is scheduled to conclude in November with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Certain trends have started to crystallize as this phase draws to a close — and as expected, all of them are present to some extent in the fourth Thor film.
The biggest complaint you can lob at both Love and Thunder and Phase Four is that they feel a bit aimless. For fans, there’s plenty of enjoyment to be found in both, but not enough to fully shake the sense that the people at the top don’t entirely know where they’re heading or why. It’s as if Marvel Studios’ 14-year quest to crack the MCU code has, ironically, left them equipped to make exactly the kind of movie they’re no longer interested in making. And so Feige and his team continue to crank out new films that halfheartedly adhere to the old formula — not to mention TV shows barely capable of following it — while they figure out how to mobilize the overarching “Multiverse Saga” narrative meant to unite Phases Four to Six in the same way the “Infinity Saga” brought vague coherence to Phases One to Three.
Sure, occasionally they strike it big with this approach. Spider-Man: No Way Home made a fortune, as did Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, in spite of its divisive, horror-lite approach. But there’s a sense that the MCU is in crisis — forced to recycle its greatest hits in projects like Love and Thunder, while being keenly aware that fans are growing tired of superhero-movie cover songs. Marvel is clearly experimenting with change by embracing elements of other genres. But it’s starting to discover there are limits to even the flexibility learned in Phase Three. After all, how do you retrain a studio and a fan base to accept a new kind of MCU movie after weaning both on the same recipe for more than a decade?
It’s a tough question, and we’ll have to wait until Phase Five for answers — and possibly Thor 5 along with it.