In 2008, the superhero movie genre turned on its head. Christopher Nolan’s masterwork The Dark Knight brought a hyper-realistic, gritty style to the Batman series that earned massive critical acclaim and received eight Oscar nominations (and a posthumous win for its star, Heath Ledger). The very same year, Marvel churned out Iron Man, the colorful, family-friendly, ticket-selling beast that launched the multi-billion dollar MCU. At the time, NPR’s Bob Mondello said of Iron Man, “If every superhero franchise had a Robert Downey Jr., the genre might actually be watchable again.”
Well, Mondello was definitely right about one thing: The hunt was on for every superhero movie to try to recreate the formula that proved so successful for the genre in 2008. DC and Warner Bros. embarked on a very dark period with another Nolan-directed Batman film (2012’s The Dark Knight Rises) and the launch of its own cinematic universe; the films that make up the latter—Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, David Ayer’s Suicide Squad—have made billions of dollars despite dismal reviews. (Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman is the DC outlier, earning critical acclaim and huge box-office returns.) Marvel, on the other hand, continued its cinematic universe, linking its various star-fronted films in a much more organized and splashy way.
And so, superhero flicks have become a predictable events for the last five years, with a huge tentpole release hitting theaters literally every other month. Marvel would add more superheroes and more CGI, DC would add more Zack Snyder and slow-motion camerawork. It became exhausting, and the fun was over as soon as it began. Superhero movies became suddenly boring. Only Hollywood could add enough CGI to put you to sleep.
But if anything can be gained from the overabundance of superhero movies for nearly a decade, it’s that practice makes perfect. Very carefully, Marvel peppered a tiny bit of alternation into its annual lineup. Guardians of the Galaxy was more of a comedy space opera than superhero movie, removed from the rest of the inter-dimensional worms or whatever was attacking the Avengers. Dr. Strange was like some sort of stoned Harry Potter for grown-ups. And this year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming was a teen drama disguised as a comic book movie, with truly lovable supporting characters beyond the hero on the title card. More importantly, Marvel started to embrace compelling narratives, clever writing, visual creativity, and structure beyond cramming a bunch of action figure sales and CGI into two-hour epics.
Thor Ragnarok—starring the character I once considered the worst Marvel property—marks a unique moment of harmony for Marvel. It’s a film that has everything I just mentioned. It’s an entirely unexpected story, which finds Thor and Loki dropped onto a trash planet lorded over by some kind of ’80s glam sci-fi version of Jeff Goldblum, known as the Grandmaster, who shows up as a flickering hologram in the middle of towers of garbage. It has an idiosyncratic style that distinguishes it from not only Marvel films, but a lot of other big-budget flicks this year.
That’s thanks to indie New Zealand director Taika Waititi, whose playful visual taste gives Thor Ragnarok something more akin to a Wes Anderson-directed comic book movie in space. Like Guardians and Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor Ragnarok spares room to develop the side characters alongside Thor. Goldblum is a delight, Cate Blanchett is the villain you’ve always wanted, Tom Hiddleston is the most likable yet as Loki, and Tessa Thompson is so fantastic as Valkyrie that she should get her own spin-off. Even the Waititi-voiced Korg—who is probably the most memorable character, in spite of his little screen time—is going to become the internet’s most beloved Marvel character since Groot.
But tying them all together is Chris Hemsworth, whose comedy chops Waititi somehow willed out of nowhere. Suddenly Thor, who once could be described as a strangely attractive meathead holding a hammer, has an actual personality. Yes, even the God of Thunder is flawed, quirky, and approachable—even if his gratuitous shirtless scene would suggest otherwise.
Marvel, for the first time in like forever, is taking huge creative risks. While the previous Avengers flicks have felt they were crafted in the same corporate manufacturing plant, created not for mass entertainment but for fast-food tie-ins and toy sales, Thor Ragnarok shows a more personal touch—as if it were bought from a very expensive Etsy store.
In order for it to survive, the superhero genre desperately needs to experiment with the sameness that’s carried it for nearly a decade. The perfect formula in 2008 isn’t going to be the same answer in 2017; moving forward (and looking ahead to the very promising Black Panther, out next year), it’s clear that the next trend is taking risks—something that comes with the superhero territory.