Out of Marvel’s big three, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor has always gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to his own movies. While Thor and The Dark World were not without their charm, there’s no denying that Asgard is bizarrely the least interesting corner of the MCU. With Thor: Ragnarok however, the studio has flipped the sub-franchise on its head, tossing out the dry grandeur and “Shakespeare-in-the-park” dialogue of the first two films, and handing the reins to New Zealand director and indie-darling Taika Waititi (Boy, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople). The result is a bombastic sci-fi/fantasy/comedy hybrid that is immensely entertaining and irreverent. It’s a change that finally gives Thor the sort of high-adventure the character has always demanded, but in the process sacrifices a bit of the character work and emotional weight we’ve come to expect from the studio.
On paper, Rangarok should be one of the heavier movies in Marvel’s saga. Not only does the third movie in Thor’s trilogy introduce some massive status quo changes ahead of Avengers: Infinity War (just a few months away now), but the plot itself deals with Cate Blanchett’s Hela, the goddess of death, emerging from darkness to trigger Asgard’s long-prophesized destruction before gaining the power she needs to lead a chaotic campaign across the universe. It also picks up where we left off in The Dark World, with Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) having faked his death so as to seize the throne by posing as his adoptive father Odin (Anthony Hopkins).
What makes Ragnarok such an oddity is that all of the big ideas and implications of Marvel’s greater story arc are really just set dressing for the pulpy escapades Thor hammers his way through. Waititi is clearly more interested in embracing the swashbuckling nature of the character and does his absolute best not to get bogged down in all the high-concept family drama that was front and center of the previous films. Tonally, Ragnarok almost feels more connected to 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy than anything else (maybe even more so than its own sequel). While the tonal shift is definitely jarring, it represents the beauty of the MCU’s episodic structure. As they have long done with their comics, Marvel seems more and more willing to hand a critical chapter of their franchise over to a creator to make it utterly their own while still moving their story forward.
While Waititi’s style does bring with it some problems (which we’ll get to shortly), he proves an inspired choice to give us a movie that captures the sheer metal-ness of Kirby and Lee’s creation. You’ll see Thor battle a colossal rocket-propelled dragon across a molten panorama, as well as him tearing through a fleet of spaceships with his bare hands in a high-speed chase across the junkyard world of Sakaar. And despite the stakes, he couldn’t be giddier about the whole thing. Much like Iron Man 3 let us see Tony Stark at his Tony-est, Ragnarok cuts to the core of who Thor is; a big, dumb brawler whose heroics are maybe a little bit more about his sense of adventure than they are saving the day.
Hemsworth himself is clearly having a blast here. While he’s been able to enjoy some quiet laughs as a God-out-of-water in previous movies, this rollicking reinvention of his character, along with the film’s heavily improvised dialogue, allows him to take the spotlight as a genuinely comedic lead. It’s hardly a turn that is pushing his emotional depth, but after four movies of Thor with a Norse pole up his butt, it’s great to see Hemsworth relishing in the character’s charm and bravado. It’s also made me far more excited to see Thor back knocking around with the Avengers again in Infinity War than I would have expected between the utterly forgettable The Dark World and him having almost nothing to do in Age of Ultron.
One of the biggest issues in the previous two entries was the poorly developed supporting players, with comic favorites like Heimdall (Idris Elba) or Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) reduced to glorified extras. Ragnarok still shares this criticism when it comes to Thor’s fellow Asgardians, but makes up for it with the fun and eclectic characters our hero meets across Sakaar (where we spend most of the run-time). Jeff Goldblum’s villainous Grandmaster turns out to be much more fun than the trailers gave him credit for, and Tessa Thompson immediately jumps out as the hard-drinking bruiser Valkyrie.
Marvel mainstays Tom Hiddleston and Mark Ruffalo also get to have some fun adventuring around with Thor as Loki and Bruce Banner/Hulk respectively. In both cases though it feels like they are mostly there to plant seeds for some meatier examination in future films. But it’s undoubtedly Taika Waititi’s own small, but utterly charming role as the rock-monster revolutionary Korg (think The Thing from fantastic four as dreamt up by Flight of the Conchords) that steals the show.
Cate Blanchett’s Hela fares a little better than most Marvel big bads, enjoying some snappy dialogue here and there, a cool character design and boasting a power set that makes her feel like a genuinely unbeatable threat (at least when you have a hero whose strategy is mostly made up of punching and throwing tools at people). She also brings with her some interesting concepts that raise questions about what kind of a man Odin was and exactly what Asgard’s role in the universe has been. Sadly, the film spends no time or effort exploring them, ensuring Blanchett doesn’t have much room to transcend the rest of the hammy obstacles Marvel has thrown at its heroes.
Which brings us to Ragnarok’s biggest problem: it doesn’t really care that much about Asgard or the things happening to it. While Waititi delights in the journey he takes his heroes through, any time he has to go back to Asgard, or even talk about the A-plot, it almost feels like a chore. This is most evident throughout the extremely rushed first act, which feels almost desperate to get through all the setup and drop Thor into Sakaar. Waititi’s cheeky flare is the film’s biggest asset, but his indifference to the greater story does prove a distraction. With all the damage Hela is doing to Asgard (and those aforementioned supporting characters), the levity and jokes just don’t feel right in a few too many key points along the film. Ultimately, Waititi is better at directing comedy than he is big action and melodrama.
As genuinely hilarious as Ragnarok can be, probably ranking up there as one of Marvel’s funniest entries (one poorly executed extended cameo aside), it’s not just the comedy that makes it a success. The swagger, the colourful visuals, the crazy concepts and the endearing characters all come together to give this film a sense of identity and personality that breathes life into Marvel’s most stagnant property. No doubt this will split fans, and those looking for the sort of character evolution and story payoff we saw in Civil War could be in for disappointment. But if you’ve been waiting for a Thor movie that’s actually fun, this crazy cosmic adventure could be just what the doctor ordered.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10