The Thor franchise may be the most unbalanced in all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), home to what is perhaps the worst film in the whole MCU (Thor: The Dark World) as well as one of the stronger and more distinctive origin stories. Counting those two films and the Avengers movies, Thor: Ragnarok would be the fifth appearance of the God of Lightning, at it was entirely possible that the character and the particular comedic tone surrounding him would start to feel a little stale. Fortunately, we have Taika Waititi – a visionary comedic filmmaker perfectly at home playing in the MCU’s ever-expanding sandbox.
Like James Gunn accomplished with Guardians of the Galaxy, Waititi brings his particular brand of sarcasm and irreverent humor to Thor: Ragnarok. Fans of Waititi’s previous works sang praises for the director, but even the most vocal cheerleaders couldn’t have guessed that Taika Waititi would fit Thor’s world so perfectly. The result is the stuff of dreams: a remarkable melding of science fiction, fantasy, and comedy that is the equal of any other film in the MCU.
As it always is in the MCU, Thor: Ragnarok starts with the characters. We have a bunch of folk returning for a second (or third, or fourth) go-around, but a few new faces show up and surprise as well.
The main returning characters should surprise no one (especially thanks to the Hulk-centric marketing): Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and Hulk / Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) all reprise their roles from the previous films. But, each character is tweaked slightly, the result of various developments that exist to give them an arc, both in this film and throughout the overall story line. This allows Loki, Thor, and Hulk to all feel fresh, despite appearing in multiple previous films. Thor is more cavalier, less proper and regal. Loki feels less serious somehow, more comfortable with joking and embracing the possibility that he could be something more than just a trickster. Hulk is more of a character, actually speaking and expressing himself in ways beyond, “HULK SMASH”, a strong development helps strengthen the suggestion that Hulk is starting to overcome Bruce’s ability to maintain control.
The new characters are mostly villains in one form or another. Hela (Cate Blanchett) is the big-bad, there’s a fire demon named Surtur who is a bigger-bad, a henchman named Skurge (Karl Urban), and even a few weird-bads like the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). We also get a couple of new allies, most notably Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie character, Scrapper 142. Of these, Blanchett and Goldblum are clear standouts. Goldblum is refreshing and eccentric in a way that Kurt Russell’s character from Guardians Vol. 2 was missing sorely, and it is to be expected. I don’t think Goldblum could have played it any other way, but for The Grandmaster, it is just perfect. Blanchett performs the part of a villain well, but I do wish that there was more for her character to do (more on that later).
Part of that is the fault of the plot, which feels a little thin. After Thor defeats Surtur and prevents Ragnarok, he returns to Asgard and hunts down his father with Loki. Then, Hela shows up and throws some knives, effortlessly besting the brothers and banishing them to The Grandmasters planet of Sakaar, where some fights break out until Thor finds a way to escape. It is basically Hela threatening Asgard, Thor and Loki crash-landing on a planet, and a bunch of pseudo-threats that our heroes dodge easily. It can be a really fun in certain areas, but it can also feel like wheel-spinning at times.
Visually, the film is full of color, vivid and bright. Asgard has always been a wonderful setting for expressing those colorful comic tones, and Sakaar’s haphazard hodge-podge of galactic refuse only adds to the same aesthetic. Similarly, the special effects of the film do a great job of blending the science fiction and the fantasy like we are accustomed to on Asgard and in the other Galactic Marvel movies (Guardians and Dr. Strange). From a visual standpoint, there isn’t much to complain about.
The same is true of the fights – from a visual point everything looks great. But, in the context of the stakes and the overall interest in the fight, Thor: Ragnarok leaves quite a bit to be desired. The Thor/Hulk fight that is responsible for one of the greatest teaser trailers of the modern era works better in small doses. Once it actually gets off the ground, it becomes pretty clear that there’s nowhere for it to go, which is probably why it ends with a whimpering cut to black. The fight is staged and paced well enough to make it feel more impactful than the Airport Scene from Captain America: Civil War, but not by much.
The climactic fight adds a better collection of stakes and feels less predictable. The denizens of Asgard are placed in the crossfire, making it clear that our heroes are fighting to protect them. This is a common technique in the Marvel films, and always works pretty well. The large fight against Hela and her wolf can be pretty cool at times, but I do wish that Hela’s powers were more complex than “she throws knives all cool”. Still, I appreciate that the ending of Thor: Ragnarok is a little different – a tweak on the “Destroy the Whole World” that is so often the default climax of these films.
For many, Thor: Ragnarok will be seen as a fresh direction for the Marvel films, mostly on account of its kooky tone and story structure. Others may see the familiar plot beats and wish that the film went even further off-brand into more challenging territory. But, in a year that boasts one of the greatest collections of superhero films ever (regardless of the evaluation of The Justice League later this month), Thor: Ragnarok can hold its head high.
So there’s Thor: Ragnarok, Marvel’s second 2017 entry, a year that has seen multiple fantastic comic book films (a definite improvement over 2016). I still think that my favorite one was the first to be released this year, Logan, but Wonder Woman may have the single best sequence of the lot. What are your opinions? Did you have a favorite? Is “Superhero Fatigue” a thing, or just an excuse for a sequence of shit movies leaving audiences uninspired?