REVIEW: ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ should be a model for the whole Marvel franchise

 Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth in  Thor: Ragnarok , directed by Taika Waititi.

Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth in Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi.

I get it. At certain points, people want to have superheroes fight gritty, relevant battles. There’s an interest in having the comic-book world echo our own. But for my money, the real fun in this genre lies in movies like Thor: Ragnarok. This is a superhero film that’s barely concerned with the usual save-the-world ritual; it prefers to crack a few jokes, blast us with some rainbow-coloured craziness, and call it a day.

Ragnarok is an outlier in many ways. It’s easily the best Thor film to date, despite being the third entry in the solo films starring the character. It transforms Thor into a new version of the God of Thunder, one who has learned from his mistakes (for the most part) and achieved a healthy amount of self-awareness. And it finally acknowledges that the best parts of the Thor story were the ones on Asgard and the other interstellar realms; seeing Thor on Earth has limited appeal. Though leave it to Ragnarok to also find a way to make one of the two key Earth-bound scenes some of the funniest in the series.

The movie opens with an almost Deadpool-esque soliloquy from Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who’s investigating the prophesized doom of his home realm of Asgard, the cataclysm of the title. No sooner does Thor return home does he discover that his half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has hidden away their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and taken his spot as king of Asgard. Thor busts up Loki’s party, but in his effort to track down Odin, he ends up clashing with the sister he never knew, Hela the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett), who has her own ideas about the leadership of the realm.

 Loki (Tom Hiddleston) trades blows with Valkyrie (Thompson)

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) trades blows with Valkyrie (Thompson)

Thor ends up in captivity on the planet Sakaar, forced to fight in a gladiatorial arena for the pleasure of the immortal Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). However, Thor finds an ally there he didn’t expect (a reunion that’s no secret to anyone who’s seen the trailer). If Thor can find a way to corral the big green guy, and maybe bring a few other Asgardians along for the ride, he may be able to save his people from Hela before it’s too late.

Anyone who knows the previous movies (What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) by Ragnarok’s director, Taika Waititi, will recognize the style of humour here instantly. There’s a deadpan, bantering quality to the writing that I loved, seemingly born just a much via improvisation than by a writer’s room. Waititi also doubles down on the wacky possibilities of his outer-space setting, resulting in some space-time gags that wouldn’t be out of place in Doctor Who. One of my favourites involved a weird mashup of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the scary tunnel scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – yes, you read that right. It’s awesome.

Waititi seems like the ideal person to draw out the comedy that’s only been hinted at in the Thor character for so long. In previous appearances, Thor was presented as a hothead with little understanding of his role in the grand scheme of things. He relied on humans like Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) or Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) to figure out the finer details of the plot. In the new film, Thor doesn’t lose sight of his responsibility to Asgard, but also doesn’t pass up a chance at a one-liner or wry observation. In films past, Thor would have been the last character I’d expect to achieve some meaningful development, but maybe all it took was the right mix of talent in front and behind the camera.

 Cate Blanchett as Hela and Karl Urban as Skurge.

Cate Blanchett as Hela and Karl Urban as Skurge.

As Hela, Blanchett can’t craft a deeply nuanced or relatable villain, but Blanchett makes up for it by going completely gonzo with her performance. Stalking around in a green and black catsuit, with a horned helmet that materializes when she pulls back her hair, Blanchett devours every scene she’s in. The other newcomers also acquit themselves very well. Every Goldblum appearance is delicious, Tessa Thompson (as Valkyrie) makes a strong case for a future release focusing on a female-only team of Avengers, and Waititi himself sneaks in a fun sidekick performance as Korg, a rocky alien with a New Zealand accent.

Marvel films are at their worst when they allow themselves to become stuck in self-seriousness, and it’s something that’s always made it hard for me to enjoy either the Captain America films (yes, even Winter Soldier) or the team-up Avengers outings. If you’re going to be basing a movie on a series of comics, you might as well embrace the sheer zaniness that the source material often encourages (remember when Thor became a frog?!) rather than edge too closely to a problematic re-framing of American politics (looking at you, Civil War). If the rest of the franchise’s films ended up more like Thor: Ragnarok, I’d be a happy moviegoer – and maybe even a true Marvel fan.

Thor: Ragnarok gets three and half stars out of four.

 
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Stray thoughts

  • I was almost embarrassed by how much I laughed at those first-act cameos in the play performed for Odin/Loki
  • The “I’ve been falling for 30 minutes!” line was another favourite
  • In fact, the whole scene at Doctor Strange’s HQ was jam-packed with great moments. Was the teleporting a reference to that classic Henry & Aaron promotional sketch?