How Marvel Studios took Thor from zero to hero

Key Points
  • Marvel Studios overhauled its Thor franchise after the first sequel generated only a tepid response from fans and critics.
  • Marvel is marketing "Thor: Ragnarok" as an intergalactic buddy comedy featuring fan favorites Hulk and Loki.
  • The threequel is generating positive buzz on social media, boasts the best reviews among Marvel movies and is tracking for a $100 million-plus U.S. debut at the box office.
An image from "Thor: Ragnarok"
Source: Marvel

Thor's battle with the goddess of death in "Thor: Ragnarok" looks poised to breathe new life into a franchise that has garnered lukewarm reviews and underwhelming ticket sales.

The threequel marks the thunder god's first standalone film since 2013's moody "The Dark World" failed to excite critics and moviegoers. Disney and its Marvel Studios appear to have learned their lesson: Instead of another bleak epic, they've opted for a rollicking intergalactic buddy comedy.

While the movie revolves around the goddess Hela's invasion of Asgard, Marvel has been marketing the comedic chops of leading man Chris Hemsworth as a downtrodden Thor in exile.

The strategy appears like it will pay off. Heading into its opening weekend, "Thor: Ragnarok" is the best-reviewed movie in Marvel's series of 17 interconnected films. It is generating more conversation on social media than the Warner Bros. superhero team-up "Justice League," according to .

More importantly, it's tracking for a $100 million-plus U.S. debut at the box office. It took in an estimated $12 million to $14 million in Thursday night early shows, beating or matching breakout superhero hits such as "Deadpool" and "Guardians of the Galaxy," Deadline reported.

"It's somewhat unprecedented for an early November movie release to have a shot at a $100 million opening," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore.

If the trend holds, that would represent a big improvement over "Thor: The Dark World," the most poorly reviewed Marvel Studios movie on ratings aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes. It also posted the second-lowest global box office haul out of the 11 movies that make up the second and third waves of Marvel films.

To be fair, "Thor: The Dark World" went on to earn $677.5 million worldwide. But it only managed to out-earn "Thor" by about $200 million. The first Captain America sequel beat the original by $343 million. "Iron Man 3" bested "Iron Man 2" by nearly $600 million.

For Thor's threequel, Marvel tapped director Taika Waititi, a New Zealand filmmaker known for helming independent comedies.

The studio infused the trailers with a retro vibe reminiscent of "Flash Gordon" and "Buck Rogers," complete with a Led Zeppelin soundtrack. Marvel highlighted Hemsworth's rapport with actors Mark Ruffalo and Tom Hiddleston, who play Thor's teammate Hulk and evil brother Loki, respectively.

The overhaul shows that Disney and Marvel can be nimble when the formula for a franchise isn't working, said Dergarabedian.

"They didn't wait 10 years to sort of reinvent the Thor franchise. They were able to just turn on a dime and create something totally new out of the Thor franchise that was totally unexpected," he told CNBC.

That tone is resonating with fans. Sentiment around digital content for "Thor: Ragnarok" has been 42 percent positive and just 1 percent negative between Oct. 2 and Nov. 2, according to marketing technology firm Amobee.

About a quarter of engagement with that content over the last month suggests fans think the film looks like "fun." Nearly 40 percent of the engagement is Hulk-related, suggesting the buddy comedy angle is paying off.

"Understanding why a movie's marketing campaign is connecting with audiences is critical to being able to adjust what aspect of the film's messaging should be amplified, and with what segment of the audience," said Jonathan Cohen, principal brand analyst at Amobee.

Social data also indicates Marvel has successfully positioned "Thor: Ragnarok" as a prequel to its hotly anticipated "Avengers: Infinity War," which will unite virtually every character in the Marvel cinematic universe. About 20 percent of digital content engagement mentioned the Avengers sequel, Amobee reports.

If Hemsworth wants to reprise the role, there may be plenty of demand for another Thor sequel in the fourth wave of Marvel films.