I Saw ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ in 1989, Back When it Was Called ‘Arena’

Chris Tilly
Movies Marvel
Movies Marvel

While watching Thor: Ragnarok, I had a strange sense of déjà vû. And not just because it’s loosely based on the Planet Hulk comics. It was as if I’d seen that story played out onscreen before. Thor fighting Hulk in a battle to the death is reminiscent of everything from Gladiator to John Carter to Star Trek episode The Gamesters of Triskelion.

But it was more than that. I felt like I’d seen something that was literally about aliens fighting other aliens for the pleasure of some cackling overlord. And then I found it, on Netflix, over the weekend.

Arena is a Charles Band production from 1989, about an intergalactic tournament in which alien gladiators do battle in a huge stadium. And the similarities with Thor: Ragnarok don’t end there…

Intergalactic Boxing = Contest of Champions

Like the ‘Contest of Champions’ in Thor: Ragnarok — which pits great warriors from all over the universe against each other — Arena focusses on intergalactic boxing matches that take place inside the titular stadium.

Intergalactic boxing.

Aliens rock up from all over the galaxy endeavouring to defeat all-comers and be crowned champion of the universe. No human has won in 50 years, but when a worthy challenger — who looks quite a bit like Thor (see below) — comes along, all bets are off.

Contest of Champions.

As with Ragnarok, the fights are one-on-one bouts, and much like Grandmaster seems to influence Thor’s fight with Hulk, so the Arena fisticuffs can be fixed, with a handicapping system allowing results to be sabotaged.

Steve Armstrong = Thor

Paul Satterfield as Steve Armstrong.

In Arena, the hero is square-jawed all-American Steve Armstrong, played by Paul Satterfield. He’s tall, muscular, and good at fighting, with a background in martial arts that he uses to great effect. He’s competing to earn himself a ticket off the space station on which he’s trapped. And he isn’t too bright, falling for the bad guy’s girl and getting poisoned for his stupidity.

Chris Hemsworth as Thor.

In Ragnarok, the hero is square-jawed all-Asgardian Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth. He’s tall, muscular, and good at fighting, though initially struggles without his trusty hammer by his side. Thor is fighting to get himself off Planet Sakaar. And he isn’t too bright, which is clear from most of the things he says and does during the movie.

Rogor = Grandmaster

Marc Alaimo as Rogor.

In Arena, Rogor (Marc Alaimo) is a crime boss and casino owner who pretty much runs the space station on which the fights take place. He has a private box overlooking the stadium in which the gladiators do battle. And he has a favourite fighter in the shape of Horn, whom he also happens to manage. Rogor will do whatever it takes to ensure his warrior wins.

Jeff Goldblum as Grandmaster.

In Ragnarok, Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) is the ruler of Sakaar; a tyrant who likes nothing more than collecting together species and forcing them to fight to the death. He has a private box overlooking the stadium in which the gladiators do battle. And he has a favourite fighter in the shape of Hulk, whose success keeps his oppressed people happy, meaning he’ll do whatever it takes to keep the Green Goliath on top.

Horn = Hulk

Michael Deak as Horn.

Horn is the Arena’s mightiest warning, though he’s little more than a man-sized troll, and actually not that hard to defeat.

Mark Ruffalo as Hulk.

Hulk is the Contest of Champions’ greatest warrior, and being a gigantic, rage-filled monster, he’s hard as nails.

Weezil = Loki

Armin Shimerman as Weezil.

Weezil (Armin Shimerman) is a conniving creep. He’s also Rogor’s right-hand alien, enforcer, and general dogsbody. He wants Horn to win to please his master, so it’s Weezil who sets about sabotaging that handicapping system during the film’s finale. But he eventually gets his comeuppance.

Tom Hiddleston as Loki.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is the God of Mischief, and stuck on Sakaar alongside his brother Thor. But while the God of Thunder wants to return to Asgard, Loki isn’t so sure. He befriends Grandmaster, and does his bidding, eventually betraying his brother. But Loki eventually gets his comeuppance.

Arena doesn’t have the budget, the effects, or the many sub-plots of Thor: Ragnarok. And it isn’t nearly as good. But the similarities are nevertheless there, so much so that you wonder if the writers and director Taika Waititi watched the film while they were plundering Planet Hulk for ideas. Either way, it certainly makes a fun companion piece.

Thor: Ragnarok is in cinemas now.

Chris Tilly
FANDOM Managing Editor in the UK. At this point my life is a combination of 1980s horror movies, Crystal Palace football matches, and episodes of I'm Alan Partridge. The first series. When he was in the travel tavern. Not the one after.
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