On May 2, 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born. The release of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man was the first part in a story that’s now sprawled over a decade, almost two dozen movies, and changed film history as we know it. However, all of that might not have played out the same way had it not been for what happened a few years later, and almost exactly 10 years ago: the release of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor.
On May 6, 2011, Thor—starring relatively unknown actors Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston—was released in theaters in the United States. The film was number one at the box office for its first two weeks and ended up grossing almost $500 million worldwide. It wasn’t quite the smash hit that some of Marvel’s later films became, but it was a success, and Thor has since continued on as a big part of the overall franchise. In fact, he’ll be the first Marvel Studios superhero to extend his solo adventures past a trilogy; his fourth film, Thor: Love and Thunder, directed by Taika Waititi, opens next year.
As for why we think Thor is almost as important to the creation of the MCU as Iron Man, that answer is two-fold. The first part is easy: it went cosmic. The previous Marvel films (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Iron Man 2) were all Earth-based. Thor took the story away from Earth, showing that the MCU was actually a “universe.” Without Thor, you don’t get Thanos, you don’t get the Guardians of the Galaxy, you don’t get Captain Marvel, the upcoming Eternals, etc. That’s pretty crucial. But the biggest reason is fearless, game-changing casting. Think about it. Iron Man had Robert Downey Jr., who’d been laying low for awhile in Hollywood after some difficult years but was still a well-known name. Incredible Hulk had Edward Norton, a multiple Oscar nominee who’d been in Hollywood since the mid-‘90s. They were both established stars.
Marvel’s Thor did fill its ranks with a few major stars—Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins—but they weren’t the leads; the main characters were played by Hemsworth and Hiddleston. Before Thor, did you know who either of those guys were? Probably not. Hemsworth had a small but crucial role in J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek; he was also in hundreds of episodes of the Australian soap opera Home and Away. So he was working, but still a newcomer to Hollywood. Hiddleston’s biggest credit was—well, he kind of didn’t have one. He was on a British drama named Wallander (alongside Thor director Branagh) and a British comedy called Suburban Shootout. Neither of which, to our knowledge, ever made any significant impact outside of the UK.
While both Hemsworth and Hiddleston certainly had fans and following overseas, Thor brought them to the forefront in Hollywood, showing off their tremendous talents. Since then? Holy crap. You’d be hard-pressed to find two more beloved actors in the MCU and the film world at large. Fans love them and both have blown up outside of Marvel. Hiddleston’s worked with acclaimed directors like Jim Jarmusch, Steven Spielberg, and Guillermo del Toro, while Hemsworth is a bona fide action and comedy star, with films like Netflix’s Extraction, the Ghostbusters reboot, and the upcoming Furiosa prequel.
By featuring actors who weren’t established stars, Thor was the MCU film that put the comic book characters, and not the actors, at the forefront. As a result, the film in turn made stars out of its heroes and villains. It’s a trend that has come to define Marvel Studios; from Chris Evans to Brie Larson to Chadwick Boseman and Elizabeth Olsen, the MCU turned actors you kind of knew into household names—megastars even. Thor was an entertaining film that brought one of Marvel Comics’ biggest characters to life in a way many probably thought impossible, but because of how it all came together its legacy will live on outside of fiction for years to come.
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