We’re at movie number 17 in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, folks. Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok is that latest addition to that latticework of shared-universe storytelling, and you may find yourself nervous about attending due to the fact that you don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of the films that came before. Hell, at this point, even if you’ve seen all of ’em, you might be worried that your memory banks have overloaded and that you’ve lost some details. Fret not, friends! We have a quick primer for one and all on the specific MCU stuff you need to know before stepping into the multiplex.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth)
We first met the title character in 2011’s Kenneth Branagh–helmed Thor and he’s been a core MCU character ever since. He’s a god from a far-off place called Asgard (we’ll get to that in a minute) who has repeatedly ventured to Earth (which he and his Asgardian ilk call Midgard) to fight evil and go on adventures. He’s superhumanly strong and has a magical hammer named Mjølnir that can hit things very hard, allows him to fly, and can only be lifted by people the hammer deems “worthy.” His dad is the king of Asgard, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), so Thor is also known as Odinson. It’s never exactly clear what Thor’s status as a god consists of — since he’s not from this world and has superhuman abilities, is he some kind of humanoid alien? — but you shouldn’t worry too much about that. He has a passionate frenemyship with his mischievous adoptive brother Loki (more on him later), and used to be lovey-dovey with a scientist named Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). He joined the nascent Avengers team in 2012’s The Avengers, and in 2013’s Thor: The Dark World, he saw Loki seemingly die a hero in his arms. We last saw him in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, where he had a mystical vision and flew away from Earth to search for some superpowerful rocks called the Infinity Stones, but you don’t really need to know what’s up with them in order to appreciate Ragnarok.
Loki (Tom Hiddleston)
Loki and Thor are almost inseparable, narratively. Each character works best when held in contrast with the other. Loki is the slender child of a brutish creature called Laufey, but was left to die as an infant due to his tininess and weakness. He was found and adopted by Odin (stay tuned for deets on him) and raised as Thor’s raven-haired brother. He’s not outright sadistic, but he’s certainly power hungry and has resented his adoptive bro for centuries. He arranged for Thor to be exiled to Earth in Thor, then tried to help sinister alien dictator Thanos take over Earth in The Avengers. We found him imprisoned for his crimes at the beginning of The Dark World, but he changed his ways temporarily and helped avert Armageddon at Thor’s side in that film. He faked his death at the end and arranged to secretly steal the Asgardian throne from Odin under the guise of a spell that made him look like dear old adoptive dad. You never really know what he’s gonna do next, other than look gorgeously rodentine while doing it.
Asgard and the Asgardians
As we already said, it’s sorta unclear what, exactly, Asgard is, other than a magical realm that floats in space. It’s one of the so-called Nine Realms, an interlinked network of other spots, but we don’t see any of the other ones in Ragnarok other than Midgard, a.k.a. Earth. It’s shaped like a disc with a landscape on top of it, rather than a round planet. Its people are regarded to be generally peaceful and pleasant, despite being led by capable warriors with mystical superstrength. Chief among those folks are Thor, Loki, Odin, and Queen Frigga (Rene Russo), the latter of whom died in The Dark World. Other big-name residents include the bold Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and the so-called Warriors Three: swashbuckling Fandral (Joshua Dallas, then Zachary Levi), serious-minded Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), and jovial Volstagg (Ray Stevenson). Asgard is also home to the Bifrost Bridge, a contraption that allows its steward to transport people throughout the Nine Realms. The Bifrost’s original helmer was kind Heimdall (Idris Elba), who could see anywhere in the universe and whose sword activated the machine, but as you enter the theater, keep in mind that Loki has never particularly liked him, and that Loki’s secretly in charge of Asgard at this point.
Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)
Honestly, you could just watch Doctor Strange’s scene in Ragnarok and go, “Oh, okay, that’s a sorcerer of some kind,” and you’d be fine. But if you want more detail, here it is. Last year’s Doctor Strange introduced us to the astoundingly named Dr. Stephen Strange, a cocky surgeon laid low after an accident cost him the use of his hands. He subsequently traveled abroad to seek a way to repair himself and was taught mystic arts that made him a great mage. He saved reality from destruction and set up shop in a massive home office located at 177A Bleecker Street. After the main action of Doctor Strange, we got a scene wherein he conversed with Thor about helping the latter with a problem of some kind. Despite having been humbled by his accident, he’s still a bit of a dick.
The Hulk / Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo)
Another one of the founding Avengers, the Incredible Hulk is a massive, green rage-monster whom we first saw in the MCU’s least-discussed movie, 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. His alter ego is meek Bruce Banner, a scientist who was subject to a self-induced experiment gone awry and thus developed his Hulk identity. He Hulks out when he loses control of his emotions, so he’s gotta keep himself on an even keel, and when he’s in his emerald destroyer mode, it’s a challenge to bring him back to humanity. Also, when he’s Hulking, Banner gets dumber and doesn’t really remember what happens after he recovers. In Age of Ultron, we learned that he’d formed a bond with Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. the superspy Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and that she was able to coax him into Banner form by uttering variations on the phrase, “Sun’s getting real low” — a kind of lullaby for a creature run amok. Banner got sick of turning into the Hulk, but took one last stab at saving the world in that film. Afterward, he remained in Hulk form and decided he wanted to be left alone, so he flew off in one of the Avengers’ flying Quinjet vehicles. No one knew where he was headed, nor could they track him, so we haven’t seen the guy since.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe
It’s probably worth noting that we’re only two movies away from the entire MCU being thrown into chaos in next May’s Avengers: Infinity War. The aforementioned Thanos (Josh Brolin) has been collecting the aforementioned Infinity Stones (which, oddly enough, often look more like glowing blobs of energy, rather than stones) and putting them into a golden glove called the Infinity Gauntlet. None of that directly comes up in Ragnarok, but if you stick around for the credits, you might be glad you knew about it.