Just when you thought the MCU was out of surprises, director Taika Waititi and company deliver one of the best superhero movies of the decade- Thor Ragnarok.
These days a brand new Marvel can be seen somewhat like a must. Just like a long-running television series you’ve come too far to quite – where later seasons disappoint even as individual episodes are capable of shining – the bulk of films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe often feel like they’re taking up valuable real estate in your heart that could otherwise be spent on indie movies or prestige television. So I wouldn’t have been surprised to discover that Thor Ragnarok movie was fine; what I wasn’t ready for, however, was one of the more fun comedies of the year, regardless of setting.
Thor Ragnarok movie takes place after the events of Thor: The Dark World, with a dimension-trotting Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returning to Asgard to discover his father (Anthony Hopkins) missing, his brother (Tom Hiddleston) still alive, and his sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) planning the death of the entire universe. In the ensuing battle, Thor is left for dead on a remote planet with Valkyrie (Tess Thompson) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and made to fight for the entertainment of The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Together with his ragtag band of Revengers, Thor must figure out how to persuade his new allies into fight in his name, escape from The Grandmaster’s prison, stop the unstoppable Hela, and protect the innocents of Asgard from complete and utter destruction. Oh, and he must also execute all of this without his hammer Mjolnir, who Hela breaks almost instantly. Throw in a nebbish rock monster (Taika Waiti), a hesitant executioner (Karl Urban), and the missing-in-action Heimdall (Idris Elba), and you’ve got one fantastic space adventure, not to mention about five pounds of movie in a three-pound bag.
Given how many times we’ve seen Chris Hemsworth suited up as the God of Thunder, it was somewhat of a surprise to hear early reviewers describe Thor: Ragnarok as the movie where Hemsworth finally locked into the character. They were right. Thor has always seen at his most amusing when he is an arrogant (but well-meaning) mimbo, and Thor Ragnarok allows the star to play to his absolute strengths. Meanwhile, Tessa Thompson is a welcome jolt of energy to the film’s supporting cast. Every move that Valkyrie makes fits perfectly with the cartoonish violence and humor of the film; should Hemsworth hang up his tattered red cape at the end of the Avengers films, then Thompson proves herself more than capable of taking over the franchise in his stead. Her character is swaggering arrogance and sauciness in equal amounts, and the screen rather literally lights up whenever she shows up.
Totally, Thor Ragnarok is a step above anything we’ve ever seen from Marvel. Fans of Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Things We Do in the Shadows know that Taika Waititi has a comedy styling all his own – best described, perhaps, as big set-ups followed by gentle punchlines – and Thor: Ragnarok holds nothing back when it comes to showcasing its director’s personality. The movie starts with a record scratch, pauses twice for comedic effect as a chained Thor helplessly spins around to face his captor, and then turns to Karl Urban playing with a Shake Weight to impress eligible Asgardian bachelorettes. This all occurs in the first 10 minutes. There are callouts to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, a tongue-in-cheek cameo from one Hemsworth brother, and a Jeff Goldblum performance that riffs so hard on the actor’s own public persona that it’s almost shocking the film didn’t collapse into itself like a dying star. This is a comedy first and foremost, and one that treats every story beat from the other Thor movies as fair game for riffing.
Perhaps what impresses the most about Thor Ragnarok ‘s comedy, however, is how capably Waititi and his writers maintain the film’s humor against the not-insignificant demands of the story. Fans loved Guardians of the Galaxy because it marked the beginning of something new in the Marvel universe, but Thor Ragnarok is more interested in bringing closure to the franchise than spinning it off into uncharted territory. Secondary characters – characters who have battled alongside Thor since the first film – are unfortunately killed off after only seconds of appearing, and the film ends with such a crucial change to the Thor universe that whatever follows cannot possibly be more of the same. In this manner, the manic energy of Thor Ragnarok is almost sweetened by the sound of the minutes ticking down on these particular characters. Thor Ragnarok is the first movie to entirely embrace the end of the MCU as we know it, and given how little we’ve been made to care about Thor up to this point, the entire affair is surprisingly effective.
Which isn’t to say that everything in Thor Ragnarok works. While the movie successes in juggling its competing narratives much better than expected, there’s still too many characters and not enough movie to give everyone their time in the spotlight. The odd person out in Thor Ragnarok is Cate Blanchett, who seems to have been brought in specifically to compensate for her character’s minimal development. Marvel may not have the best villains, but they’ve always banked on the idea that bringing in A+ acting talent will allow them to wallpaper over any cracks in the screenplay, and here Blanchett is no exception. Given carte blanche (get it?) to take on the campy supervillain performance of our dreams, the actress delivers, but her ultimate importance is the story is secondary to Thor’s journey of self-discovery. She may have a few memorable fight scenes, but we’re always more interested in seeing Cate Blanchett onscreen than we are Hela, the Goddess of Death.
To sum up, Thor Ragnarok is a film that plays to the absolute strengths of its cast and crew. It knows how to let Hemsworth play, how to lean into Thompson’s general badassery, and how to make Goldblum… well, his absolute Goldblum-est. And at a time where the MCU needed to reinvent itself as it closes one set of doors and opens another, Taika Waititi and company proved that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with putting and end to the things that don’t work and keeping what actually does.