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The Thor films have been one distinctive series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They always nailed the relationship between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), but everything surrounding them—the story, the supporting characters, the tone—was always uneven. It was a series that appeared to capture all the potential in the world, but lacked the direction a character with a clear moral path like Captain America has.
Rather than try to find a way to make the film fit neatly in with the rest of the MCU or flesh out what previous Thor movies tried, Marvel has decided to fuse the personality of director Taika Waititifor straight into Thor Ragnarok movie. Using the lack of heat on the first two Thor films as a reason to swing for the fences, Thor Ragnarok is out to get laughs at any cost, and it usually succeeds even if it comes at the expense of the previous movies or Marvel’s usual mistakes. But when a movie is as much fun as Ragnarok, it’s hard to complain.
After successfully beating the fire demon Surtur (Clancy Brown), Thor returns back to Asgard to learn that Loki has been impersonating Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and sent their father to reside on Earth. When they go to rescue Odin, they realize that Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, has been freed from imprisonment and is planning to bring Ragnarok—the end of all things—to Asgard and eventually the universe. Before they can cease her, the pair ultimately winds up on the battle planet of Sakaar. Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), who is on the hunt to find fighters for the planet’s charming ruler, The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), forces Thor into the battle where he learns that the reigning champion is actually the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Meanwhile, Hela creates chaos back on Asgard with the help of local brute Skurge (Karl Urban).
Waititi’s main priority for Thor Ragnarok is to put the joke first to the point where we’re left to question ourselves if Thor was always this hilarious or if Marvel finally learnt that Chris Hemsworth was always this funny. The character has always had room for a joke or two, especially in Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies, but it was primarily about putting his nobility and strength first and then letting Chris Hemsworth’s comic timing arrive as a bonus reward. Here, Thor appears to be one of the funniest people in the film, always leaning into the odd of his surroundings, and Waititi almost gets away with putting his voice into Thor’s mouth because A) Hemsworth is this character, so anything he does, we buy it; and B) No previous entry had defined Thor enough. If Cap tried to be this silly, it just wouldn’t work. He can be distracted, he can be out of touch, but if you try to underestimate his strength, you underestimate his character.
Thor, who has always been a muscles-first type of character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, can easily be mocked because he’s already a larger-than-life model. Waititi, seeing that he has the only Avenger who isn’t bound to Earth, decides to just go with it. For Waititi, it’s more crucial that Thor be free to be weird and funny instead of trying to figure out a way to give him a compelling arc about learning to be a hero or finding his own stand. Thor Ragnarok film is all about Thor trying to put a stop to Hela and having a fun time on the way.
It’s an entry that will probably piss off anyone who had affection for the two previous Thor films, and I can assure you these people exist. This is a film where Loki, a powerful sorcerer who’s been around for over thousands of years, gets beaten by Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). It’s a film where Jane’s absence is soon taken and then discarded. It’s a film where Waititi is more than delighted to pass or overlook anything that gets in the way of the big, bold colorful picture he has in mind, and even he has trouble with keeping track of what’s essential and what’s not.
Because Thor Ragnarok film is always about trying to get a laugh, it can take detours that don’t really serve the picture or the characters. You could excise all of the Doctor Strange stuff and nothing would be harmed except you’d lose a bunch of funny jokes, and because funny jokes are the bread and butter of Thor Ragnarok, they get priority even if the larger scene tells us nothing new about any of the characters or the world they inhabit. These kinds of pacing issues continually crop up, especially whenever there’s a Hela scene.
Marvel is notorious for wasting great actors in bad villain roles, but to take an actress of Blanchett’s caliber and give her a rote bad guy is borderline unforgivable. If you’re hoping that Hela would be set up as Death, the character who Thanos loves in the comics and the motivation for his actions, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Hell, if you’re hoping for a remotely interesting antagonist you’ll be sorely disappointed. Hela is basically Blanchett chewing the scenery and killing people with pointy objects. The fact that her henchman, Skurge, has more of an arc than she does tells you everything you need to know about how disposable she is. Hela isn’t the worst villain Marvel has ever concocted, but that’s only because there’s a two-time Oscar winner in the role showing us why she’s won two Oscars.
And yet these frustrations can’t help but feel minor when compared to the overwhelming joy I felt watching Thor Ragnarok. It’s the same kind of humor Waititi displayed in Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows, but given a blockbuster budget. If Marvel put any constraints on the director, they don’t show, and Waititi has made the most of his freedom. His sensibilities are on full display to the point where characters like Korg (Waititi) wouldn’t be out of place in the director’s other movies if you ignore Korg being a giant alien made out of rocks. You’ll also probably end up arguing with your friends over which character steals the movie (for me, it’s a toss-up between Hulk and Korg).
In addition to the non-stop humor that always seems to land, it’s a feast for the eyes and ears. While Doctor Strange occasionally brought Jack Kirby’s brilliant art to life, it’s on full display in Ragnarok. That’s not to diminish the work of production designers Dan Hennah & Ra Vincent or costume designer Mayes C. Rubeo—it’s just that you can finally feel the impact of the legendary Marvel artist in a way that escaped previous Marvel movies. That’s not to mention a truly excellent score by Mark Mothersbaugh that had me running to Spotify so I could listen to it again.
In its own weird way, Thor Ragnarok, despite feeling different than other MCU movies, highlights the best and worst of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It shows a studio unafraid to risk changing direction even if the result is completely different than past entries (Ragnarok makes Iron Man 3 look tame by comparison) and even reaches the point of mocking moments from other films. It’s bright, colorful, and damned hilarious, the antithesis of grimdark superhero stories even if there are times when you wish Waititi would just sit with a moment rather than going for the laugh. And then there’s the damned villain problem, which Marvel just can’t seem to solve on a consistent basis.
But if Marvel is willing to hand their films over to moviemakers completely as they did with Waititi and Thor Ragnarok, then the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe should be a blast.
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