November 2, 2017
Even though he’s a central character in the 17-film-and-counting Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor never seems to deliver the goods, and his solo films have been the worst in the MCU. Actor Chris Hemsworth’s mighty God of Thunder is constantly out-shined by his adopted-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) amid enjoyable but underwhelming and often forgettable outings. This trend ends now as director Taika Waititi has done the impossible – he made Thor the star. How? By taking the absolute piss out of everyone and embracing the inherent weirdness of the titular space god, creating a near-perfect film.
The last time audiences saw Thor was in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron when he left Earth in search of the Infinity Stones, cosmic plot devices largely used throughout the MCU. Catching up with Thor two years later, his search has come up empty, but he has discovered that the prophecy of Ragnarok – the ultimate destruction of Asgard, his home – is nearing fruition. Directly tied to Ragnarok is Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, whose return to Asgard is both imminent and unstoppable. So great is her might that, upon facing her, Thor finds himself banished to a distant planet known as Sakaar: a waste dump of a planet run by a devilishly decadent celestial being named the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Captured and enslaved, Thor is to fight in gladiatorial combat against the Grandmaster’s own champion: Thor’s friend from work, the incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). With Hela on Asgard and time running out until Ragnarok, Thor must escape the Grandmaster, gather whatever forces he can, and turn the tide against Hela in order to save his people and prevent Ragnarok.
Marvel Studios is known for taking on directors whose unique styles can mesh well with their grandiose visions. So it’s not too surprising that Marvel Studios hand-picked Waititi, whose prior work with the critically successful comedies Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What we Do in the Shadows demonstrates a quirkiness that, it turns out, fits perfectly within the MCU. Working from a script by a trio of veteran Marvel writers, and pulling heavily from the design work of Jack Kirby– a comic writer and artist whose artwork from the ‘60s and ‘70s featured the interstellar psychedelia– the studio had the makings of a grand production. Audiences are brought fully into the Norsian adventure as the world of Ragnarok leaps off the screen.
All the technical aspects aside, what you, dear reader, want to know is: does it deliver what the trailers promised? YAAAASSSSSSSSS. Waititi and his team made a film that feels uniquely fresh by broadly removing seriousness or dread. Ragnarok feels less like the world-ending cookie-cutter melodrama superhero flicks succumb to, and more like a revitalizing agent. The jokes aren’t as awkwardly forced as in this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2; rather, they’re natural, free-flowing, and fit each scene without suffocating the life out of it.
Which brings us to the best part of Ragnarok – it knows that Thor works best when he’s bouncing off someone else, so it gives him Loki, the Grandmaster, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Skurge (Kal Urban), Heimdall (Idris Elba), and Hela. By giving Thor proper foils that come in and out of the story, Thor gets to shine and each character is given their due. A particularly difficult task as Ragnarok features a revolving door of characters, making balance for all tricky, yet accomplished beautifully.
Unlike most MCU films, Ragnarok possesses smaller stakes than the trailers let on. Asgard may be on the precipice of destruction, but the larger narrative focus is on interpersonal relationships. Hemworth, Hiddelston, Elba, and Sir Anthony Hopkins, returning as Odin, are each given moments throughout Ragnarok that move both the main story and their individual character arcs forward. Ruffalo, whose inclusion feels partly as a way to placate audiences who desire more Hulk on-screen, is also wisely given more to do than just smash.
New additions Thompson, Urban, and Blanchett are also offered moments to shine. Thompson, a talented actress seen previously in Creed and Dear White People, serves – gratefully – not as a love interest, but as a lost warrior trying to survive. Urban’s Skurge is a less pivotal character; yet, through subtle movements and choices, Urban conveys great depth and internal turmoil. Blanchett has the toughest task as a villain in the MCU. While many may not remember the character once the credits roll, her performance is fantastic. Her threats to take the throne, which Blanchett laces with menace and peril, bear a strong link to the overarching theme that runs throughout the Thor trilogy, bringing the narrative full circle.
As utterly fantastic as Ragnarok is, it’s not without a few problems. Blanchett steals nearly every scene she’s in, but Hela largely falls into the category of most MCU antagonists, existing simply to prop up the hero. Goldblum’s Grandmaster, while entertaining, just feels like you’re watching Goldblum be himself. This is delightful but superficial, especially when we’ve seen other celestials in the Guardians series who make much stronger impacts. Audiences are also introduced to new character Korg, a significant participant in the Planet Hulk comic series but whose throwaway involvement here is essentially to add more comedy to a film overflowing with naturally comical moments.
Without a doubt, Thor: Ragnarok is a superb addition to the MCU and the best of the Thor trilogy. Waititi has found a way to portray Thor as the mighty hero he is through a story that’s as honest and hilarious as it is completely bizarre. If director James Gunn (Guardians series) set the stage for wild space odysseys and director Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange) opened the door for mystical adventures, Taikia Waititi blows the doors off the hinges, sets fire to it, and builds something completely new in this, the wildest MCU adventure yet.
Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5