Thor: Ragnarok, the third of the Marvel films to center on the beefy Norse demigod and the 17th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is pretty much everything you would expect such a film to be at this point, just better in most regards. One would think that a decade into the massive MCU project, the seams would be showing and the surface would be getting at least a little threadbare, but the latest Thor movie suggests otherwise. It doesn’t do anything particularly new, but what it does do is find and stay largely within an enjoyable target of comic adventurousness that is more fun than either James Gunn’s overexerted Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 (2017) or Jon Watts’s amusing but shallow Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017).
Part of this may be due to director Taika Waititi, who is a newbie in the world of big-budget blockbusters, but like many other directors tapped to helm Marvel movies (including Gunn and Watts) has an intriguing background in indie cinema that would seem to have little to do with IMAX-worthy digital bombast. A New Zealand native of Maori-Jewish descent, Waititi first gained noticed with the cult comedy Eagle vs. Shark (2008), whose droll humor and focus on social awkwardness led many to describe it as a Kiwi Napoleon Dynamite. More recently, he helmed the vampire spoof What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and the critically well received adventure comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016). None of those films have massive action sequences, digital hoards, or major stars, and Waititi’s work in Thor: Ragnarok is arguably most invisible when it settles into the now familiar rhythms or action, mayhem, and destruction, the latter of which is focused primarily on Thor’s home realm of Asgard. However, working from a mostly sharp script by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost, Waititi doesn’t so much inject humor as he gives it his own droll spin, making Thor: Ragnarok one of the funniest of the Marvel movies without seeming to exert much effort in that regard (as opposed to Deadpool or Ant-Man, which are marked primarily by their snarky, meta appeals to our funny bone). He even manages to make Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” which should play as eye-rolling cliché, work in rollicking fashion not once, but twice.
The plot is long and heavy and probably best left for Wikipedia to explicate in detail for those who are interested. In short, the movie starts with Thor chained up in the lair of a fire demon named Surtur and ends on Asgard with Thor, his adoptive brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who is more often his enemy than his friend, an Asgardian warrior known as a Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) battling Thor and Loki’s recently freed sister Hela (Cate Blanchett, camping it up deliciously), the Goddess of Death, whose role in Asgard’s conquering of the nine other realms has been largely obliterated from the official history (this is the film’s one major socio-cultural theme, and it gets a beautifully realized visualization when Hela causes a seemingly innocuous painted dome to crack open, revealing a portrait of a much darker and more violent history underneath). In between, Thor spends a great deal of time on the alien garbage planet of Sakaar, where he must do gladiatorial battle against the Hulk at the whim of the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), a fey, smirking intergalactic gambler who runs a to-the-death Contest of Champions. Also thrown into the mix is Karl Urban’s Skurge, who becomes Hela’s executioner, and Idris Elba’s Heimdall, Asgard’s gatekeeper who manages to stave off Hela desire to invade other realms. Oh, and Thor has his cascading golden locks chopped off by none other than Stan Lee himself wielding some kind of hair-cutting device that looks like something you’d buy on a late-night infomercial to simultaneously peel and dice multiple vegetables.
Thor: Ragnarok is a significantly different (and better) film than Alan Taylor’s bleaker, less engaging Thor: The Dark World (2013). Its brightly tuned, primary-color-dominant visual sensibilities suggest a tonal shift toward something lighter and less self-serious (in this regard, the destruction of Thor’s hammer early in the proceedings becomes a loaded symbolic gesture, as well as plot point), even as worlds are—once again—on the brink of destruction (the title Ragnarok refers to a prophecy portending the destruction of Asgard). One of the hallmarks of the Thor films has been their good humor, even Kenneth Branagh’s original 2011 film, which was at its best when it was loose and funny, rather than serious and Shakespearean. The general tendency in Marvel films has always been to balance action with more and more humor, to the point that many of them now are straight-up comedies with lots of digital effects. Thor: Ragnarok strikes a better balance than most, using the humor in often superb ways to offset the thunder of grandiose violence that might otherwise become mind-numbing. Waititi lends his own funny voice to Korg, a giant warrior composed entirely of rocks whom Thor befriends on Sakaar. He’s great comic relief, and he’s in the film just enough to give it a funny goof of an edge that feels unique and refreshing.
So much humor in the Marvel films of late has been sarcastic, ironic, or overly hip, and while some of that slips through here, Waititi’s sense of humor feels more genial and good-natured, although sometimes socially pointed (note Thor’s awkwardly opportunistic thumbs-up appeal to female empowerment). Hemsworth, who to his credit has managed to make a real character out of Thor, responds well to this tone and makes the most of it, especially in his back and forth moments with Loki (whose tangled history of avarice makes him more compelling than evil) and Valkyrie. Thor: Ragnarok doesn’t necessarily invent or reinvent anything, but it certainly points in a fresh direction.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Marvel Studios
Overall Rating: (3)
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