Release: Friday, November 3, 2017
Written by: Eric Pearson; Craig Kyle; Christopher L. Yost
Directed by: Taika Waititi
Starring: Chris Hemsworth; Tom Hiddleston; Cate Blanchett; Idris Elba; Jeff Goldblum; Tessa Thompson; Mark Ruffalo
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
Save yourself a pat on the back for me, Marvel. The Taika Waititi experiment has paid off and now you’ve got a great big success on your hands. Thor: Ragnarok isn’t a revelation but it is a very entertaining package, and that largely comes down to the studio investing in yet another unlikely candidate for the job. The New Zealand-born comedian-turned-director has the global audience in his hands as he sets about parodying the realm of fancily-clad, musclebound superheroes into oblivion.
Rarely do you find a franchise hitting a high note late into their run, yet here we are three films in and Ragnarok is unequivocally one of those highs. Thor (2011) had its moments but too often it took pleasure in slamming you in the gut with corny dialogue and half-hearted attempts at levity. The Dark World in 2014 overcompensated by going really heavy and really broody. In the end it was even sillier than its predecessor. Cut to another eight films deeper into the superstructure of the MCU and we finally get a Thor film that beats everyone to the punch by being the first to make fun of itself. It’s still not quite a balanced effort but Thor: Ragnarok is a much better film for using humor as its primary weapon.
From the opening scene it’s apparent things are going to work a little differently under the Kiwi’s creative leadership. In his fifth reprisal of the legendary son of Odin, Chris Hemsworth is able to find the funny in everything, including being hogtied upside-down and held captive at the hands of the fire demon Surtur on a remote planet. (Well, almost everything. He doesn’t seem to enjoy being tasered, being bound to a chair or losing his beloved Mjölnir.) It’s been two years since we’ve last seen Thor, when the Republic of Sokovia was lifted dramatically skyward during another marquee Avengers moment. He’s been scouring the Nine Realms for the remaining Infinity Stones ever since but we find him now caught in a bind.
Spewing exposition for the benefit of the audience is never a glamorous job, so Waititi figures why not let it fall to an anthropomorphic molten rock thingy. Surtur informs us that ‘Ragnarök’ — the prophesied destruction of Thor’s home world — is nigh, and that essentially nothing can stop it. Even though he Houdini’s his way out of this initial hang-up, Thor is sent on a collision course with an even bigger problem: dealing with his incredibly dysfunctional family. In tracking down Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), who is in failing health and has exiled himself from Asgard, Thor, along with half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), learn about the sister they never knew they had in Hela (Academy Award-winner Cate Blanchett) as well as her imminent return to Asgard.
And it is imminent. Hopkins has barely finished his monologue before we get our first glimpse of a goddess scorned. Blanchett, resembling at the very least in her eye shadow an evil version of Canadian pop singer Avril Lavigne, comes storming on to the scene, a wicked grin transforming her naturally pretty visage. The anticipation of her return proves to be far more interesting than the return itself however, as not even Ragnarok can stem the tide of Marvel’s history of disappointing villains (though the irony of this franchise spawning arguably the entire MCU’s best baddie is never lost). Spouting the platitudes of power-hungry deities isn’t the actor’s forte, yet Blanchett is such a pro she hides her inexperience well, clearly relishing the opportunity to do something a little different. If only the writing around her character aspired to do something different as well.
The major beats of the story ping-pong us back and forth between two alien worlds, the Eden-above-Eden that is Asgard, and a garbage planet called Sakaar, a wild land that feels like an extension of a music video for Empire of the Sun. There we are walking not on a dream, but amongst the brokenness of dreams, of spirits. It’s a planet literally comprised of junk and over which Jeff Goldblum‘s Grandmaster deludedly reigns. As the resident Crazy, the Grandmaster likes to put on gladiatorial battles for his scavenging underlings to drool over. (Cue Thor’s involvement and, so as to emphasize the film’s newfound identity, his new haircut.)
Contrived writing and trailer-provided spoilers aside, this is an important detour as it introduces a pair of fringe players who end up vying for MVP of the movie. And when Waititi prioritizes entertainment over logic at almost every turn he could always use more hands on deck. In the arena we meet Korg, a warrior made out of rocks and brought to life by Waititi himself in a motion capture performance. He’s a gentle giant whose voice is guaranteed to throw you for a loop. Then there’s Tessa Thompson’s hard-drinking bounty hunter, who at the behest of the screenwriters consistently rejects Thor’s pleas for help. The Valkyrie brings a beguiling new attitude that makes her eventual turnaround not only convincing but emotionally satisfying. She needs a movie of her own.
Thor: Ragnarok is a spirited good time, and it is surely an impressive feat for a director who considers himself decidedly more indie. The guys over at Industrial Light and Magic contribute an appropriate sense of scale and the rich textures needed to make these alien environments feel lived-in. The world-building is beyond reproach, but not even Waititi’s brand of comedy is enough to cover up all the existent flaws in the design, the likes of which seem to accrue rapidly along a common fault. The tonal shift is so jarring between the events taking place on poor old vulnerable Ass-guard and those on Sakaar that the film could be clinically diagnosed as bipolar. One part of the film is unapologetically fun, the other — Hela’s brave new world — feels like Game of Thrones. Enormous man-eating wolves only solidify that impression.
It’s ironic that the third Thor film suffers from precisely the opposite problem its predecessors had. It seems almost unfair or overly harsh to criticize the new one for correcting and then overcorrecting, but the scales are nevertheless still unbalanced. The comedy is too varied for Ragnarok to be dismissed as purely asinine — you’ll find elements of slapstick coexisting with wry observational humor, and then there’s always the familiar Marvel formula for giving us a sense of power dynamics (the Hulk smash is once again invoked, and we all know that’s not something Waititi invented). Indeed, there’s much to celebrate with this movie, and while there’s nearly as much to criticize, I’d call this progress. Significant progress at that.
Moral of the Story: Colorful, energetic, popcorn-destroying fun. The continued adventures of Thor are given a new lease on life with the Johnny-come-lately director who seems to take advantage of the timing of his arrival. When in full comedy mode, Thor: Ragnarok is at its best but as with all of these movies, I’m not the expert. I wonder how more dedicated fans in the long run come to view movies like this, like Shane Black’s Iron Man 3. Will these movies be remembered for the history they helped shape or what they had to sacrifice in order to make room for more laughs?
Running Time: 130 mins.
Something kinda neat: Thor’s “friend from work” line about the Hulk was suggested to Chris Hemsworth by a Make-A-Wish child who paid a visit to the set on the day the scene was filmed.
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Photo credits: http://www.flickeringmyth.com; http://www.imdb.com