While I like the Marvel Cinematic Universe overall, I’ve never been that interested in the Thor movies. I love the Walt Simonson run on The Mighty Thor, but the previous live-action films featuring the God of Thunder never really appealed to me. They looked surprisingly plain, even skippable.
But along came Taika Waititi. The New Zealand filmmaker responsible for comedies like Eagle vs. Shark, What We Do in the Shadows, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople seemed like an odd choice to helm a Thor film. I suppose he can thank James Gunn, whose success with Guardians of the Galaxy paved the way for funnier, stranger MCU entries.
Thor: Ragnarok has a lot in common with the Guardians movies and 2015’s Ant-Man. It’s a standalone romp heavy on laughs and overflowing with personality. Take the visual style of Jack Kirby, add some nods to Simonson stories, and blend all of that with the unabashed goofiness of a 1980s sci-fi flick (The Ice Pirates, Flash Gordon).
I say thee--Hell yea.
Director: Taika Waititi
Release Date: November 3, 2017
Thor: Ragnarok is enjoyable despite being uneven. It’s a movie comprised of two stories that don’t quite fit together that hold nonetheless thanks to Waititi’s quirky direction and Chris Hemsworth’s charisma. The film opens on a high note with an action sequence that pits Thor against the fire demon Surtur. Our hero twirls his mighty hammer to the thump of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” — one of many moments in this movie that deserves to be airbrushed onto the side of a van. Thor then searches for his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) accompanied by his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Hopkins gets a few minutes of screen time, leisurely pouring his medium-roast gravitas into a monologue that a) sums up the movie’s themes and b) provides a succinct info dump about the movie’s bad guy.
I’m not kidding. The set up to Thor: Ragnarok is so clunky I almost want to believe it’s intentional. Odin basically says: “Oh, boys, you have a secret evil sister. She’s coming back. And good luck fighting her--she’s strong. Can I go now? I thought I was only needed for the afternoon.”
Hela (played by a 90s fighting game version of Cate Blanchett) appears out of a portal about a minute after Odin’s expository monologue. Thor and Loki wind up in outer space because the story demands it, while Hela tries to conquer a defenseless Asgard, which she believes is her realm to rule. Blanchett camps and vamps and looks like she’s having a great time playing Hela despite being such a thinly sketched villain. Her character is a power set, a costume, and some god-level megalomania. It’s a shame she isn’t more fleshed out. There could have been Wagnerian emotion in a fight among god-siblings with god-daddy issues. But alas, a somewhat bland villain; such is the trend with Marvel movies.
Out in space, Thor winds up on the planet Sakaar, which looks delightfully Kirby-esque. The decorative lines, the blocky shapes, and Crayola colors feel alien in a charming, retro-futuristic way. (It made me wonder what could have been had Marvel Studios put effort into The Inhumans. They barely even tried.) Thor’s taken captive by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), a mysterious warrior with a cool spaceship and a drinking problem. She brings her prisoner to her boss, Grandmaster, played by Jeff Goldblum at his Jeff Goldblum-iest. He winces and bug-eyes and nyars his way through every line. Grandmaster’s got more mannerisms than Hela but about as much depth--she’s the “I’m gonna take over the world” bad guy, he’s the “I’m a wealthy despot” bad guy.
The MCU: bad guys are just sorta bad guys because they’re bad guys, guys.
Whenever Thor: Ragnarok sticks with Thor in space and establishes a rhythm, it’s an effortlessly quick-witted breeze of a film with plenty of colorful side characters and Marvel-fan Easter eggs. Hemsworth carries so much of this movie with his comic timing and heroic mugging. When he reconnects with The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor: Ragnarok becomes an intergalactic buddy comedy. The bros have a gladiatorial slobberknocker that puts the Hulkbuster throwdown in Avengers: Age of Ultron to shame, and then the bros get a chance to hug it out because that’s what good bros do. By contrast, Thor and Loki squabble and make nice and repeat the cycle whenever they’re together, because that’s what brothers do.
The film continually cuts back to Asgard, however, which gums up the pacing just when things are getting good. We go from Flash Gordon 2049 on Sakaar to The Lord of the Rings: Fifth Edition back on Asgard, where people flee from the forces of Hela. So much story goes on in the two separate threads, yet all of the stakes depend on what Thor does on Sakaar. The two plots don’t share narrative importance.
It’s a forgone conclusion that Thor will somehow confront Hela himself, so any heroic Asgardians are just holding the fort until Thor comes back. Picture the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers but without the weighty emotional investment, and this time Gandalf and the cavalry are all that matter. As a result, Hela’s rise feels quite undercooked. The same goes for a subplot involving Skurge (Karl Urban), an unwitting Asgardian confederate of Hela’s, whose sense of self-preservation is at odds with his desire to do the right thing.
Some of this review comes across pretty negative, but my overall complaint of Thor: Ragnarok is that there’s so much good material here and that I wish there was more of it all. I wanted more buddy comedy moments between Thor and The Hulk/Bruce Banner. I would have also loved more of Valkyrie, whose backstory features imagery that’s worthy of vans. More Asgard, definitely more Sakaar. More Hela as an angry child scorned by a neglectful father, and more Mastermind as a menacing planetary influence. More battles, so I could admire the flashy ways people kill goons. Hell, I even wanted more Zeppelin; I always want more Zeppelin. Maybe, from now on, Thor is to Zeppelin what Iron Man is to AC/DC.
But, you know, 130 minutes might be more than enough for what Thor: Ragnarok wants to be. Waititi and his cast get the job done amiably in that time without dragging all that much. Then again, another 10 minutes wouldn’t have been bad, and might have smoothed out some of the clunky transitions from Sakaar to Asgard. (There are two end credits scenes, FYI: one mid-credits and one at the very end.)
Like the 80s movies I grew up with, I can see myself rewatching Thor: Ragnarok a fair amount. In the future I might play it in the background just to have something enjoyable on TV while going about my day. My attention will perk up when it gets to a part I really liked, or even a moment I would have liked more if only there was more of it. Luckily I won’t have to worry about breaking the tape. Gods be praised.