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Thor: Ragnarok inventively put the “universe” into Marvel Cinematic Universe

<i>Thor: Ragnarok</i> inventively put the “universe” into Marvel Cinematic Universe
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The Marvel Moment

At the end of this month, Avengers: Endgame will bring to a head Marvel’s decade-long experiment in shared-universe storytelling. To mark the occasion, The A.V. Club is revisiting all 21 movies in this mega-franchise through a single, significant scene in each: not the best or most memorable scene, necessarily, but the one that says something about the MCU as an ongoing blockbuster phenomenon. This is The Marvel Moment.

The Thor branch of the Avengers franchise was rejuvenated by Thunder God movie number three, Thor: Ragnarok. Director and Flight Of The Conchords alum Taika Waititi brought some sorely needed dry humor that would have certainly benefited the previous films in the series, Thor and Thor: The Dark World. But for all of Ragnarok’s fun with “Immigrant Song” and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) bickering and Hela (Cate Blanchett) rocking those antlers, at its heart the movie is very much about home and a sense of place. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) starts out wanting to save his beloved Asgard from Ragnarok, the event that will bring the home of the gods to its end. But as Odin (Anthony Hopkins) tells us, Asgard is not a place, but a people, and Thor’s home will remain intact as long as its residents stay together, apocalypse or no.

Along with its widely cited villain problem, the MCU has also had a bit of an issue with settings. Airplane hangers, sleek hideaways like the Avengers complex, and stainless steel laboratories aren’t the most imaginative or inspiring backdrops. Thor: Ragnarok took a page from the successful Guardians movies by heading to outer space, bypassing boring old Earth except for a quick visit at Dr. Strange’s house, in favor of picturesque Asgard and the even more impressive Sakaar.

Sakaar was already familiar to fans of the “Planet Hulk” storyline in the comics. After Hulk gets a bit too destructive, attacking Las Vegas, the Illuminati (featuring such Marvel leaders as Reed Richards, Professor X, Dr. Strange, and Iron Man) send him off in a space shuttle, which crashes on Sakaar, where he becomes a competitive warrior. Other than an animated movie, Thor: Ragnarok is the closest Planet Hulk fans have come to seeing the story on the screen; the MCU has a habit of working in nods to iconic comic book arcs, sometimes in the margins of its movies.

To introduce Sakaar, the movie plays up Ragnarok’s “home” theme, leading by bad example. Before this, Thor (and the movie) travels through the familiar settings of Asgard and Earth. But after getting captured on Sakaar, Thor is strapped into a chair and forced to travel through a trippy interplanetary light show presentation that defines this planet as clearly unlike anything we’ve seen before. Thor is told, “You are home, and there’s no going back,” to the spot-on tune of “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, and learns that Sakaar is “a collection point for all lost and unloved things, like you… here, you are valuable, here you are loved.”

We soon meet the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, in a delightful no-fucks-given performance), who rules over the garbage planet that looks like an abandoned sci-fi toy store. In the Sakaar presentation, we learn that all Sakaarians are his supposedly beloved property. Unlike Earth or even Asgard, Sakaar has a candy-colored palette and a fun but fucked-up pastime: Its enslaved residents’ favorite activity is watching the Hulk kill his contenders in a gladiatorial colosseum. Thor will try to win Hulk over by offering to get him back to Earth, but why would Hulk want to go there? On Sakaar, he’s a star. On Earth, everyone hates him.

The leadoff line to the Sakaar presentation is the homelike mantra of “Fear not, you are found.” Everyone needs to belong somewhere—even if that place is really messed up. Thor points out that Sakaar is perfect for Loki, for example, as it’s “savage, chaotic, lawless… you can do great here.” Whereas he considers the place “stupid” and “hideous.” “Red, white, just pick a color,” he remarks, pointing to a typical retina-singeing example of Sakaar decor. Even the ship Thor and the de-Hulked Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) steal to escape the planet doesn’t have any weapons, because it’s primarily used for the Grandmaster’s parties and orgies—though it does have fireworks and a clubby soundtrack.

During the escape from Sakaar, Thor is in a huge hurry to rush back and save Asgard, not realizing that the physical place (but not the spirit) is already beyond saving. He’s able to draw Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) to his quest by playing on her Asgardian loyalty, which also makes Skurge (Karl Urban) turn on Hela in the end. The hedonistic Sakaarians have no such loyalty toward their home; the threat “You’ll never get out of here” is tossed around quite a bit, as the planet is basically a party prison. Splashily introduced, Sakaar is really a point of comparison, the hellhole that shows through contrast why real homes like Asgard and Earth are superior. But it’s also a really enjoyable, inventive place to visit, injecting the MCU with a welcome dose of interplanetary imagination.