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Solid enough, but this feels like a footnote in the crowded Marvel Cinematic Universe.
For nearly a decade, the Marvel comic universe has flourished in film by striking a very gentle balance between serious and silly. Heart and sarcasm are seen in equal measure between Marvel’s many classic superhero fistfights. These films take no shame in laughing at their odd, over-serious origins—and do so with obvious love and reverence for their source material.
However, there comes a time when even that kind of solid moviemaking begins to feel rote, and that’s the unfortunate position Thor Ragnarok lands. It’s by no means a bad film, and it’s more nimble, entertaining, and likable than Marvel’s lesser-but-still-fine films of late (Ant Man, Avengers: Age of Ultron). Despite admirable performances, appreciably kooky content, and some scene-stealers, this third Thor movie ultimately seems disposable, in contrary to a full-of-stakes entry like Captain America Civil War or an incredible blast like Spider-man: Homecoming.
Not just the god of hammers
Chris Hemsworth’s Thor appears at the film’s outset trapped in a cage rattling off a goofy “previously on Thor” recap. He explains everything to the audience in a schlocky ’70s-serial way, but also does so to the skeleton locked in his cage. Thus, Thor Ragnarok wastes no time cranking up its camp factor, which continues as he endures a “prepare for the world’s end” rant from the massive demon Surtur. Thor repeatedly asks Surtur to stop his rant as he’s slowly spinning around while hanging from a mess of chains. “I feel like we had something there,” Thor says while waiting for eye contact to return. That sort of thing.
In list form, Thor Ragnarok film’s silliness reads like a barrage of comic-relief moments. When Thor needs help in his early face-off with Surtur, he’s stuck waiting for one of Asgard’s new peons, Skurge, to done flirting with scantily clad hangers-on. When Thor finally returns to his home of Asgard with a trophy of sorts, he has to wait for a play to conclude that celebrates the life of wicked brother Loki (complete with a “yeah, that was hilarious” cameo). And when Thor and Loki (again played by Tom Hiddleston) rush to find their father, Odin, we’re dropped into a goofy Dr. Strange montage in which Benedict Cumberbatch screws with both brothers’ heads with mental riddles and physical wizardry. This is all in the first 20 minutes.
This levity continues the more lighthearted attitude we saw in Thor: The Dark World, and it’s all welcome stuff, with Hemsworth and Hiddleston each getting a ton of room in the script to flex their comedic muscles. I would argue that Loki is at last the more interesting brother this time around, as he divides his time in the movie between obvious villainy, unexpected heroism, and general anarchy. The script allows Loki to betray his allegiances at a moment’s notice and logically grounds how other characters react to this. That’s an impressive balance.
Hemsworth, on the other hand, has the tough act of following Tom Holland’s incredible Spider-Man: Homecoming performance this summer. All of Thor’s cute, charismatic, and snarky moments just seem like a Peter Parker personality slapped onto a much older, wiser hero. As a result, there’s something ever so slightly off in terms of theme, though Hemsworth still capably steers Thor Ragnarok as its driving protagonist.
Cate Blanchett plays Hela, Thor and Loki’s older sister, who rises as an unstoppable evil force. Her long-ago banishment by father Odin has ended, and now she has come to take over Asgard and its people. Thor has finally met his match. And at first, this part of the film is particularly intriguing. What’s Thor to do when he encounters an enemy so powerful, she renders his every superpower (especially his insanely heavy hammer) totally moot?
Without giving too much away, Thor and his fellow come to realize that this super-high-stakes premise is moot. That’s a pity, since Blanchett is at her best when she drinks heavily from a cup of pure, invincible evil. “Kneel down before your queen,” she snarls, and you can seemingly smell a heavy fragrance of death between every slowly uttered word. She operates as much with an endless arsenal of CGI-boosted knives as she does driving fear into the hearts of anyone she meets. (One thing that mutes her impact, however, is her use of an innocent pawn to carry out her dark errands; from the moment this side-plot unfolds, it’s obvious that this person is going to eventually save the day.)
Good times, wasted potential
Thankfully, Blanchett’s not-at-all-funny moments are welcome interruptions in the witty, silly plot, and they don’t slow the movie’s pace in the slightest. The same can be said for Jeff Goldblum, who appears as a secondary villain. His take on longtime Marvel villain the Grandmaster is, well, Goldblum-ish in all of the good ways. He reads like a rich swinger stuck in the 70s, and he’s obsessed with entertaining people and being the funny guy, even when he wields deadly force on a trash-collecting planet where he relentlessly makes slaves fight to the death for his amusement.
It’s great to see Goldblum back to old form, especially since his appearance in 2016’s Independence Day: Resurgence was as hacky and phoned-in as I’d ever seen the actor. Director Taika Waititi also steals quite a few scenes as Korg, the rock-man stuck in the Grandmaster’s catacombs. If you’re looking for something as entertaining and out-of-nowhere as in Waititi’s movies What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, his scene-stealing role doubtlessly delivers.
But Waititi doesn’t reach the same echelon of New Zealand quirk-humor with the film as a whole. His directorial touch is evident in many good ways, but he struggles to maximize the comedy potential of a Hulk who (for a while) can’t return to Bruce Banner form. Some perfectly strong comedy comes from this version of Hulk, who has much more lines than in other MCU movies, but these scenes drag longer than the more natural and organic back-and-forth ones between brothers Thor and Loki.
Worse, Waititi appears lost in pulling off the “usher in a new Marvel badass” chance that he gets in Valkyrie. She’s portrayed competently by Tessa Thompson, but we’ve seen much stronger new-hero introductions in the past year on both the Marvel side (Black Panther, Spider-man) and DC (Wonder Woman in the otherwise dreadful Batman V. Superman). Here, Valkyrie never seems fun, threatening, or deep. She just stands here and there waiting for Hemsworth’s Thor to say silly things to.
If the film were more hilarious, more brisk, or had greater stakes, then those sorts of nitpicks might not stand out. (And if it had deleted every one of Idris Elba’s abysmally slow and boring scenes, it would be a far better film.) Instead, Thor Ragnarok is as much about its absolutely hilarious scenes and standout moments as it is the fumbles and failures to live up to a greater potential. You have to do quite a bit to be more than a footnote in the MCU as of late.
Thor Ragnarok isn’t a waste of time by any stretch, but you can skip it in favor of a quick summary in a pinch. That’s never a good sign.
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