Thor: Ragnarok is the kick in the ass that Marvel has been desperately needing. Even though it won’t be a huge cataclysmic change in the immediate future, it springboards off of the foundation laid by Doctor Strange and the Guardians of the Galaxy movies to be weird and quirky in faraway places while swinging hard at the emotional payoff that huge, sprawling cinematic universes have been promising. It misses some, hits others, but it is an unbelievable amount of fun along the way.
The comic inspiration is fairly clear in Planet Hulk and Contest of Champions, but the tone is impressively more specific. Do you remember that moment from the first Thor when Thor (Chris Hemsworth) throws that cup of coffee on the ground? Director Taika Waititi took that and turned it into 130 minutes of goofs and battles and muscles, all infused with the brand a comedy he became known for in Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows.
It picks up from Avengers: Age of Ultron where both Thor and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) basically pick up and disappear from the events on Earth. It turns out Thor has been bopping around the universe searching for the remaining Infinity Stones, only to find out that Ragnarök, the Norse war to end all wars/the world in general, is looming tall over Asgard. Returning home, he finds out that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is alive, his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is in hiding, and he has a secret sister named Hela (Cate Blanchett).
The immense complication hiding in that, however, is that Hela is the goddess of death, and one thing leads to another and Thor finds himself on a distant planet where gladiatorial combat is the way of the world. It may be rather straightforward, but that’s actually one of the strengths of the film. It manages to break apart the components and various intents into discrete sections so that when it all comes crashing back together, it feels momentous.
It makes it clear what is happening to Asgard while Thor is gone versus what’s happening on this new planet Sakaar under the rule of the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) while Thor is there. This framework plays directly into the ongoing MCU experiment of dipping into various film genres, giving this movie a prison break feeling. A lot of the tropes are there, and while they’re quite familiar (they are tropes, after all), the particular slant that Waititi takes with them is fresh and funny. People are really going to like Korg, a rock-based alien gladiator who befriends Thor.
Perhaps most noteworthy throughout these trials and tribulations is that Waititi, Hemsworth, and the screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost manage to finally characterize the demigod as someone interesting rather than someone that is simply interesting to see in new places. His relationships with his father and his brother are given depth and factor into both how the story unfolds and eventually resolves. We even see how his relationship with himself is slightly broken, a tragic schism breaking between the way he is and the way he wants to be.
The movie smartly floats it all atop a bed of jokes and laughs, though, making the traditionally most boring part of the MCU into the most entertaining. There’s a running gag, for instance, regarding Thor’s God of Thunder epithet that eventually becomes the thing that saves him. It’s a remarkable feat that is emblematic of the deft hand that handles pretty much the entire movie as whole.
Most notably is the ability for Waititi to employ the improvisation and physical comedy chops of his cast. He has a knack for taking something absurd and making it play as the logical conclusion of someone’s slight but critical failing as a person. And as we saw from the promotional videos of Thor with his roommate Darryl, Hemsworth has great comedic timing. It makes this stiff and dumb blonde chunk of lightning feel terrifically natural and inviting.
Unfortunately, with all the lighthearted jabs in the movie, it does suffer a bit from bathos. There are a few emotional turning points in the story that are severely undercut but a joke that immediately follows it, akin to the tear-wiping scene in Doctor Strange. Luckily, it never reaches that point of absolutely ruining the point of the scene, but it’s enough to where the gravity of it all can’t quite find purchase with the audience.
This pushes the utilization of the immense talent on hand down as well, though. Blanchett, one of the greatest actors alive or dead, is mostly only given the opportunity to flex her menace, though she does that with incredible vigor. The same goes for Ruffalo, though to a lesser extent since he gets to play with the seemingly impossible task of imbuing the Hulk with tenderness and vulnerability. And the underuse of Goldblum’s flagrant Grandmaster is downright shameful. (And let’s not even get into the serial stiff-arm given to Idris Elba.) But what meat these and other cast members are given, they chew the hell out of what they can.
Tessa Thompson is especially impressive as Scrapper 142. Her swaggering yet faulty indifference is entrancing, drawing you into a turn that reveals her as a prodigious badass. Surprisingly, Karl Urban as Skurge also makes a good showing. Not that Urban isn’t a good actor but more that his character arc is somewhat predictable and he isn’t a major player in particular. These two ostensibly side characters give even the wings of the story some solid heft.
The visuals, though, of the movie lend a greater grandiosity that sort of tricks you into these underutilized actors accomplishing more than they are. The strangely ethereal, cosmic 80s-drenched colors bleed into everything. While James Gunn has pushed Guardians into an overblown acid trip, Waititi has melted Jack Kirby’s alien designs into a jar full of chromed out rainbows and poured it back out. And those motion comic style of those valkyrie flashbacks? Simply stupendous.
Thor: Ragnarok is a triumph, though it won’t affect the sort of change in the MCU you’d like it to. It takes a dull punchline character and puts him in the middle of cosmic-level drama with multiple worlds on the line while making him funny and approachable and genuine. It should be a lesson in analyzing the history of a character (a drag) and carefully shaping it back into something with depth and purpose (the question of innate or cultivated heroism). You might be tempted to sleep on this film.
Final Score: 9 out of 10