No one would ever accuse the Marvel Cinematic Universe of being dark and serious, but with Thor: Ragnarok, Marvel goes into full-comedy mode, crafting their funniest film to date. Perhaps finally realizing how inconsequential and dry the Thor films have been, Marvel hired What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople director Taika Waititi and let him go wild. The results are laugh-out-loud funny, albeit with a caveat: Thor: Ragnarok cares more about landing a great punchline or sight-gag than it does about plot.
Is There Such Thing as Too Much Fun?
But perhaps we’ve reached a point with the MCU where plot doesn’t really matter anymore. Thor: Ragnarok’s overwhelmingly positive Rotten Tomatoes score (93% as of this writing) and bonafide box office success certainly seems to suggest so. This is slightly troubling. Even more so when you realize that Ragnarok has all the makings of something truly magnificent: a talented director, an incredibly charming cast, a pop art-infused color scheme that looks like it’s a combination of the art of Jack Kirby and parade of pinball machines lined-up on a boardwalk at sunset. Yet despite everything Ragnarok has going for it – and it has a lot – there’s a curious lack of weight to all it. The film’s fun nature is charming, but it reaches a point where you start to think Ragnarok is having almost too much fun, if such a thing is even possible.
Approaching reviewing Thor: Ragnarok this way seems like a journey down a dangerous path. “Can’t you just let the movie be fun?” might be the automatic reply to almost any criticism leveled against the film. Sure. There’s nothing wrong with fun. But is it really asking too much to want more? The Thor films have always been the weakest entries in the MCU. Even the troubled production that was Ant-Man delivered a more rewarding experience than the previous Thor films. Part of this can be chalked-up to tone. Thor is an inherently comical character, and star Chris Hemsworth has impressive comedic chops. But it took three films for Marvel to fully embrace the comedy elements of Thor.
The first Thor film, helmed by Kenneth Branagh with a Shakespearean touch, is a world removed from Ragnarok. It’s stuffy and dour in comparison. The ever-shifting tone of Thor plays hell with the character; we’ve now settled on Thor as a dumb blonde, a handsome oaf who is heroic when he’s not bumbling about. It suits the character well, but you can’t help shaking the sense that Marvel has had no idea just who they want Thor to be up until now.
These problems would be a lot less of a concern if this were the first entry in the series. But it’s the third. And what’s more, the film knows it’s the third entry: there’s literally nothing going on here to make Ragnarok stand out on its own in terms of storytelling. If you were to go into Ragnarok without having seen any other Thor or Marvel movie, you’d be absolutely lost as to what the hell is going on here. That’s weak storytelling. It’s the sort of approach that entrenches Thor: Ragnarok firmly into a middle-of-the-road bit of entertainment. It’s a brilliant distraction, but it could be so much more.
That said, when Thor: Ragnarok is working, it’s working really well. This is due almost entirely to the cast, who are individually stellar, and even better when working together. Almost every member of the main cast here has their own moments to shine, with some shining brighter than others. Even if Ragnarok’s script had been worse than it ultimately is, the film would still be worth it because it gave us the opportunity to spend time with these actors playing these characters. If only they had been able to come together in a better film.
“So much has happened since I last saw you!”
Thor: Ragnarok finds Thor, the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth) returning to Asgard after a failed quest to locate missing Infinity Stones (remember those things?). Before his homecoming, he’s had a run-in with the demonic Surtur, who warns Thor that he will bring about Ragnarok – the destruction of Asgard and the Gods. Thor mostly laughs these threats off, defeats Surtur, and comes home to find Asgard much changed. Heimdall (Idris Elba), the former guardian of the Bifrost, has vanished and been replaced by the bumbling Skurge (Karl Urban). Thor’s father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has forgotten his duties and spends his days lounging about. There’s a reason for this: Odin is actually Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in disguise.
Almost instantly (Thor: Ragnarok is allergic to taking its time), Thor and Loki head to earth to find Odin. Along the way, they encounter Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in a funny sequence that nevertheless feels absolutely pointless to the film itself as a whole, but is simply in place to tie-into the post-credit scene at the end of Doctor Strange. After their brief sojourn with Strange, Thor and Loki locate Odin, who warns them that their evil sister Hela (Cate Blanchett), whom they never even knew about, is going to return soon. Then he promptly dies.
Before we have any idea what the hell is going on, Hela arrives, smashes Thor’s mighty hammer Mjolnir, and sends Thor and Loki flying off into the galaxy. Hela arrives at Asgard and swiftly begins a reign of terror, assisted by a somewhat reluctant Skurge, who both wants to be powerful and famous but also clearly has qualms about murdering his fellow Asgardians.
Thor ends up on Sakaar, a planet strewn with garbage, and is quickly captured by the drunken Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, phenomenal), who transports a confused Thor to the palace of the planet’s head honcho, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, at his absolutely Jeff Goldblumiest). The only way Thor can win his freedom is by taking part in the Grandmaster’s gladiatorial matches and fight the Grandmaster’s mysterious, deadly champion. While still super-strong, Thor is hammerless, and thus not nearly as powerful as before. He agrees to fight anyway, and grows furious when he learns that Loki is on the planet too, living as a free man after having wormed his way into the Grandmaster’s good graces.
Meanwhile, back on Asgard, Heimdall has returned and is rounding up Asgardians and hiding them safely away from Hela, but it’s only a matter of time before Hela catches up to them. The only hope is for Thor to return and save the day.
Back on the Sakaar, the Grandmaster’s champion turns out to be none other than the Incredible Hulk, who doesn’t seem to remember Thor and promptly beats the shit out of him. Thor survives the brawl, however, and eventually convinces Valkyrie, a former Asgardian, to help him escape to save Asgard. The Hulk, transformed back into Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), comes along as well. Loki, ever the trickster, tries to turn on Thor, causing Thor to leave him behind. But since the MCU can’t decide what the hell they want to do with Loki, the character eventually has a change of heart and follows after Thor to help.
Back on Asgard, Thor and his new team – jokingly dubbed The Revengers – battle against Hela and her zombie army. Skurge has a change of heart, rebels against Hela, and is killed for his troubles. Thor is able to summon up his powers of thunder and lightning to best Hela, but she eventually proves too powerful and ends up causing Thor to lose one of his eyes. With all hope seems lost, Thor realizes the only way to stop Hela is to destroy Asgard completely. Loki unleashes Surtur, the demon from the beginning, who swiftly destroys Asgard as Thor, Loki, Valkyrie, Hulk, Heimdall and the surviving Asgardians head off into the galaxy aboard a huge ship.
Because That’s What Heroes Do: The Good
Valkyrie, Valkyrie, Valkyrie! Everyone in Thor: Ragnarok is a hoot, but let’s talk about Valkyrie, shall we? It cannot be overstated how wonderful Tessa Thompson is here. Thompson’s star has been on the rise ever since her break-out role in Dear White People, and with Thor: Ragnarok she gets to flex her acting muscles in a big blockbuster setting. A brawling, boozing ass-kicker, Valkyrie is now the best hero in the MCU. Valkyrie has a tragic past: she was once a warrior on Asgard, but Hela destroyed her entire army of female warriors, and left her disillusioned. Her arc in Ragnarok involves the character slowly coming around to be a hero again. Truth be told, there’s not a lot to Valkyrie on paper. What makes her so memorable, so remarkable, is Thompson’s charming, funny performance. The type of iconic scene-stealing that leads to deserved hyperbole. She’s like Han Solo and Snake Plissken rolled into one, and she steals every scene she occupies.
Thompson is tied for MVP of the film with Jeff Goldblum, who plays the sort-of-villain the Grandmaster. The best decision director Waititi made with the film is to point a camera and Goldblum and essentially tell him, “Do whatever the hell you want!” Goldblum has blossomed nicely into an elder statesman of weirdness, and he brings his distinct hemming and hawing to a deranged character with gusto. Every single thing Goldblum does here is incredible, garnering huge laughs with a wink or a nod. It’s a joy to watch him work.
Chris Hemsworth has great comic sensibilities. These have been teased with his Thor performances in the Avengers films, and exploited to great effect in Paul Feig’s unjustly maligned Ghostbusters reboot. Here, he gets to be funny throughout, while occasionally slipping into a more serious mode. But it’s the comedy that shines through the most, and Hemsworth portrayal of Thor as a dumb but ultimately noble character is charming.
The rest of the cast are also a treat. Mark Ruffalo’s constantly befuddled Bruce Banner is a lot of fun, and he and Hemsworth have surprisingly great chemistry together. Hiddleston’s Loki is good too, although his appearance here feels extraneous (more on that later). Cate Blanchett gets to ham it up as Hela, but she’s perhaps the performer most underserved by the script.
A brief word on Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins’ role here is little more than a glorified cameo, and his death scene, as written, is not nearly as emotional as the screenplay seems to think it is. But Hopkins sells it so well, bringing pathos and sadness to a throw-away part that could’ve easily been a quick bit of check-cashing. It’s a testament to his talent that he elevates the moment above the slapdash nature it truly is.
As mentioned a dozen times already, Thor: Ragnarok is funny. It’s funny as hell, in fact. This is less a superhero movie and more of a high concept comedy, loaded with jokes and physical humor that almost always lands. You can thank the hilarious Taika Waititi for that, who brings his comic sensibilities firmly into the MCU, with fabulous results. Waititi even gives himself a scene-stealing part as Korg, a laid-back rock monster. The comedy is what elevates Ragnarok above the other Thor films, and what also helps hide the threadbare story. You’re too caught up in hysterics to pay attention to how muddled the script by Eric Pearson and Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost is.
The score, by Mark Mothersbaugh, is a synthwave dream, and the cinematography, by Javier Aguirresarobe, is often vibrant and eye-popping. This all combines to make Thor: Ragnarok one of the best-looking Marvel films, free of the parking lot gray color scheme that seems to be so prevalent in most of their other adventures (although Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 still reign supreme in the Marvel cinematography department). Honestly, overall, Thor: Ragnarok is colorful, comedic fun. There’s nothing to hate here. But that doesn’t mean it all works.
Like Smoldering Fire: The Not-So-Good
What the hell is Loki’s purpose in the MCU at this point? Not even the filmmakers seem to know. Late in the film, when Banner and Loki come face to face, Banner says, “Last time we saw you, you were trying to kill everyone. What are you up to these days?” “It varies from moment to moment,” Loki replies cheekily. Ha ha, get it? This character is kind of pointless and the film is acknowledging it! Hilarious.
Look, Hiddleston is very good at playing this part. He brings the right touch of aristocratic smugness to the role, but continually bringing Loki back again and again reeks of little more than fan service. The Avengers had Loki willing to commit genocide. Here, he’s mostly comic relief. That’s baffling. You could argue it’s character growth; that he’s evolved from the evil murderer he was to a more playful trickster, but it doesn’t quite work. He doesn’t seem like he’s evolved at all.
Villains have never been the MCU’s strongpoint. This was a problem that could’ve possibly been resolved in Ragnarok due to casting alone. Cate Blanchett is one of the best actresses working today, and giving her a chance to strut her stuff and ham it up as Hela, the Goddess of Death, adorned in a set of crazy antlers, was promising. Alas, while Blanchett gives it her all, Hela as a character is severely underwritten, to the point that there are long stretches of the film where you might completely forget about her.
Why does Skurge, a secondary character, have more character development and more of an overall arc than the main villain of the film? Skurge goes from comical bumbler, to hesitant accomplice, to ultimate hero. Yet he’s almost inconsequential to the plot, unlike Hela, who is supposed to be driving things. It’s disappointing. In truth, almost everything that happens on Asgard is disappointing here, and you get the sense that the film would’ve triumphed completely had it just removed Asgard entirely.
The problem is that at its heart, there are two different movies here. One is about Thor saving Asgard. The other is about Thor on the Grandmaster’s planet, regaining his confidence. These two would both work best on their own, but don’t quite fit together here. They could work, of course, if the script was willing to let them unfold organically. But there’s no room to breathe in Thor: Ragnarok. The opening section alone moves at a breakneck speed, jumping from one location to the next, with the hopes of quickly setting everything up without stopping to think. It’s exhausting. I’m all for brevity in Marvel movies, and superhero movies in general, which tend to be lengthy, bloated affairs – but Ragnarok is pushing it.
While the comedy that prevails all through Thor: Ragnarok is welcomed, there are times where the film is too frothy for its own good. At the end of the day, this film is about the end of Thor’s world. At least, his world as he’s known it for so long. One of the final scenes involves Asgard being blown to smithereens – a moment that should be played as tragic, yet is handled with a joke (an admittedly funny joke, but still one that seems out of place). The overall takeaway is that Ragnarok cares most about getting laughs, and everything else has to take a backseat to that. It’s an uneven balance.
Waititi’s skills as a comedy director are unquestionable – he’s one of the best in the biz. His action direction skills, however, leave a lot to be desired. The action scenes in Ragnarok are terrible. Even the big Thor/Hulk battle that was teased in all the trailers is lackluster and disappointing. There’s a scene where Hela quickly kills a bunch of Asgardian soldiers that is so devoid of energy and excitement that it almost looks unfinished – that perhaps this was just a special effects demo test that made its way into the final film. Ragnarok would’ve been better served if it had just found a way to forego action entirely and focused 100% on the banter.
Phase 1 of the MCU had a distinct problem: the films seemed like all set-up, with little individuality. It’s a problem Marvel has mostly gotten over recently, but Thor: Ragnarok finds them completely back in that set-up mode. Almost everything that happens here feels secondary to the fact that this is leading into Avengers: Infinity War, particularly the ending, which has Thor cruising off into the galaxy. The MCU films that work best are the ones that can stand on their own, as their own individual experiences, where cross-promotion is almost secondary. Ragnarok is not one of those films, and it suffers a bit because of that.
Ultimately, Thor: Ragnarok is critic-proof. The film is already a hit, and also one of the best-reviewed MCU films to date. The simple fact is, people loved this movie. That’s fine. This is pinnacle escapism, at a time when escapism is much needed. This is the film equivalent of an exciting amusement park ride. When you’re on it, the thrill is there – excitement mingled with the sights and sounds of the carnival grounds whooshing by. Then you step off the ride, and move on, and the excitement fades. The memory dulls. The real world comes seeping back in.
Still, it’s almost impossible to dislike Thor: Ragnarok. The cast is too wonderful, the jokes too funny. It’s hard to fault any film that gives Jeff Goldblum a chance to do his thing while also making Tessa Thompson an even bigger star. This is ultimately the best of the three Thor films, but that’s not saying much. One almost wishes this had been the first film in the series, with a script more fleshed-out to set things up for future installments. Instead, as the third, it suffers, and grows ultimately forgettable.
Yet more adventures with these characters would be welcomed. Thompson’s Valkyrie in particular needs an entire franchise of her own, one where she can step out in front to be the lead rather than a supporting player. Hemsworth’s Thor is also worth spending more time with, although Ragnarok seems to confirm that the character works best when he’s a team player rather than a lead. While Ragnarok is focused on Thor, it’s never entirely Thor’s movie. It belongs, instead, to everyone – to the wonderful cast of vibrant, funny characters. Perhaps the real lesson here is what all these wonderful elements really needed is a better script; a script that was worthy of the performances.
Where does Thor: Ragnarok fit into the ever-growing ranking of the MCU? Somewhere in the middle. It’s funny enough, colorful enough, and entertaining enough to strike a chord, but it’s ultimately hollow. It’s a beautiful bauble on display that’s a treat to look at, but one that fades from memory as you move on to something else. In the end, I wanted more from Thor: Ragnarok. Perhaps that was foolish of me.