Marvel Studio’s run of 17 films impressively introduces new characters, new worlds, and new adventures, all while building toward every Marvel nerd’s greatest dream: the Infinity War Saga. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), a central character in this film run, never seems to deliver the goods resulting in his solo films being the worst in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). He’s the mighty Thor, the God of Thunder, the Odinson, heir to the throne of Asgard, yet he’s constantly out-shined by his adopted-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) amid truly underwhelming stories. Sure, Thor and Thor: The Dark World are enjoyable but, compared to everything else the MCU offers, Thor’s films are largely forgettable. This trend ends now as director Taika Waititi has done the impossible – he made Thor the star. How’d he do it? By taking the absolute piss out of everyone and embracing the inherent weirdness of the titular space god, creating a near-perfect film.
The last time audiences saw Thor was 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron when he left Earth in search of the Infinity Stones, Macguffins largely used throughout the MCU. Catching up with Thor two years later, his search has come up empty, but he has discovered that the prophecy of Ragnarok – the ultimate destruction of Asgard, his home – is nearing fruition. Directly tied to Ragnarok is Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, whose return to Asgard is both imminent and unstoppable. So great is her might that, upon facing her, Thor finds himself banished to a distant planet known as Sakaar: a waste dump of a planet run by the devilishly decadent celestial being titled the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Captured and enslaved, Thor is to fight in gladiatorial combat against the Grandmaster’s own champion: Thor’s friend from work, the incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). With Hela on Asgard and time running out until Ragnarok, Thor must escape the Grandmaster, gather whatever forces he can, and turn the tide against Hela in order to save his people and prevent Ragnarok.
Marvel Studios is known for taking risks with directors whose unique styles can mesh well with their grandiose visions. It’s made the Russo Brothers, James Gunn, and Scott Derrickson household names and has gifted cinema-goers with some of the most outside-the-box experiences (the Russos’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy are lauded as two of the best MCU films and among this reviewers favorites.) So it’s not too surprising that Marvel Studios hand-picked Waititi, whose prior work with the critically successful comedies Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What we Do in the Shadows demonstrates a quirkiness that fits perfectly within the MCU. Additionally, Marvel Studios went with Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost to write the script, three men whose previous works are predominantly Marvel television shows, films, and video games collectively. These writers wisely dipped into both Thor’s and Hulk’s back catalog to draw inspiration for Ragnarok – most notably from the Greg Pak-written 2008 series Planet Hulk which provides the narrative foundation and explanation for Hulk and Thor’s adventure on Sakaar. Between the director and writers, the studio had the makings of a grand production. By then adding in the flair of Jack Kirby – a comic writer and artist whose artwork from the ‘60s and ‘70s eschews modernity for interstellar psychedelia – the audiences are brought fully into the Norsian adventure as the world of Ragnarok leaps off the screen.
All the technical aspects aside, what you, dear reader, want to know is simply this: does it deliver what the trailers promised? YAAAASSSSSSSSS. Waititi and his team made a film that feels uniquely fresh by broadly removing seriousness or dread. In many ways, through its many cultural references, call-backs to previous MCU films, and cameos (a sharp eye will catch more than Stan Lee) Ragnarok feels less like the world-ending cookie-cutter melodrama superhero flicks succumb to, and more like a revitalizing agent. The jokes aren’t as awkwardly forced as in this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2; rather, they’re natural, free-flowing, and fit each scene without suffocating its audience like a needy significant other trying to make sure you’re having fun at the party. Which brings us to the best part of Ragnarok – it knows that Thor works best when he’s bouncing off someone else, so it gives him Loki, the Grandmaster, Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, Karl Urban’s Skurge, Idris Elba’s Heimdall, and Hela. By giving Thor proper foils that come in and out of the story, Thor gets to shine and each character is given their due. A particularly difficult task as Ragnarok features a revolving door of characters, making balance for all tricky, yet accomplished beautifully.
Unlike most MCU films, Ragnarok possess smaller stakes than the trailers let on. Asgard may be on the precipice of destruction, but the larger narrative focus is on interpersonal relationships, relying on them to carry the real weight between the hallmark fight sequences. A wise choice as the best parts of the previous Thor solo films are his interactions with his family – Loki, Odin, or his mother Frigga, played excellently by Rene Russo. Hemworth, Hiddelston, Elba, and Sir Anthony Hopkins, returning as Odin, are each given moments throughout Ragnarok that move both the main story and their individual character arcs forward. Ruffalo, whose inclusion feels partly as a way to placate audiences who desire more Hulk on-screen, is also given more to do than just smash. The Hulk’s always been an interesting character and Ragnarok provides an opportunity to explore the interpersonal struggle that exists between Bruce Banner and his aggressive alter-ego.
New additions Thompson, Urban, and Blanchett are also offered moments to shine. Thompson, a talented actress seen previously in Creed and Dear White People, serves – gratefully – not as a love interest, but as a lost warrior trying to survive. Through Thompson’s performance, she conveys who Thor would become if not for his time with the Avengers. Urban’s Skurge is a less pivotal character, serving primarily as an exposition device for Thor and Hela; yet, through subtle movements and choices, Urban conveys great depth and internal turmoil to lift the character beyond a mere foil. Blanchett has the toughest task: being a villain in the MCU. While many may not remember the character once the credits roll, her performance is fantastic. Clearly having a blast like her castmates, Blanchett fills each line of dialogue with menace and peril. Without revealing too much of Hela’s story or connection to Asgard, her threats to take the throne bear a strong link to the overarching theme that runs throughout the Thor trilogy. This creates a full circle narrative for the Thor trilogy, pushing Thor to become the true hero he’s meant to be; no longer the childish thug audiences first met in 2011.
As utterly fantastic as Ragnarok is, it’s not without problems. Blanchett has the toughest task: being a villain in the MCU. While many may not remember the character once the credits roll, Blanchett steals nearly every scene she’s in. Yet, her Hela largely falls into the category of most MCU antagonists, existing simply to prop up the hero. Goldblum’s Grandmaster, while entertaining, just feels like you’re watching Goldblum be himself. This is delightful, but not very engaging; especially when we’ve seen other celestials in the Guardians series who make much stronger impacts. Audiences are also introduced to new character Korg, voiced by Taika himself. Korg is a significant participant in the Planet Hulk series but whose involvement here is essentially to add more comedy to a film overflowing with naturally comical moments. In this regard, Korg is likely going to bother comic die-hards due to his reinterpretation and may feel like borderline comedic overkill for the average film-goer.
Without a doubt, Thor: Ragnarok is a superb addition to the MCU and the best of the Thor trilogy. That may not sound like much given the underwhelming nature of the first two entries, but Waititi found a way to portray Thor as the mighty hero he is through a story that’s as honest and hilarious as it is completely bizarre. If James Gunn set the stage for wild space odysseys and Scott Derrickson opened the door to the mystical realm, Taikia Waititi blows the doors off the hinges, sets fire to it, and builds something completely new. So strap yourselves in and get ready for the wildest MCU adventure yet.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.