Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Dir. Taika Waititi; Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Cate Blanchett
[2.5 out of 4 stars]
Marvel Studios’ two previous attempts at Thor solo films have been met with a definitively lukewarm response. Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011) desperately wanted to make the story of Asgardian royalty a Shakespearean tragedy. It failed, becoming instead an episode of gaudy melodrama. Thor: The Dark World (2013) seemed the bastard child of a trans-dimensional romance and an epic showdown of good and evil à la Greek myth. It never fully landed in either. Since the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Thor has been nowhere to be found. His visions near the close of Ultron suggested a war of epic proportion in homeland of Asgard, but no answers have been given until now. Enter Thor: Ragnarok (2017).
Helmed by indie mastermind Taika Waititi, who brought rollicking life to the undead in What We do in the Shadows (2014) and introduced us to the comic brilliance of Julian Dennison in Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2015), Thor: Ragnarok tells the story hinted at by Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth)visions: Ragnarok. Pulled directly from Norse mythology, Ragnarok refers to a prophecy foretelling the doom and destruction of Asgard and the death of its ruler Odin, here played by Anthony Hopkins. So this is the story Waititi dives into after a brief interlude in the burning realm of Surtur (Clancy Brown). Thor arrives back home to find his half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) masquerading on the throne as their father. After unmasking him, down to Earth they go to find the real Odin, who tells them the death of Asgard is upon them before dying himself. It is a surprisingly affecting moment which is not lingered on for very long before the threat to Asgard appears: Hela, Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett), who happens to be Thor and Loki’s long-lost sister.
At its core, this is a story about the “God of Thunder” coming to terms with the death of his father and the impending doom of his home. Hemsworth is comically and dramatically brilliant, balancing the tones in a similar way to what Robert Downey Jr. has done for years as Iron Man. He and the cast play off of each other wonderfully, but it begins to feel overstuffed. There is the dynamic of he and Loki mourning Odin’s death, mixed with the storyline of Hela attempting to destroy Asgard, while Thor finds Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) on Sakaar and meets a band of revolutionary-minded gladiators, and on and on. It is not tight enough, leaving story-lines that feel half thought out. I wanted more Hela and a deeper exploration of Asgard’s past, which Waititi motions at in a captivating sequence that employs seemingly living murals, but leaves it half-baked. There is too much going on, meaning that none of it is done as well as it could be. Waititi really has two movies happening in tandem: one is the comic exploits and buddy-cop story of Hulk and Thor on Sakaar, and the other is Thor’s desperate battle to save his home from certain doom. They are both compelling and entertaining stories, but they never fully mesh.
Nonetheless, the success of the film hinges on the cast, who usher in the series’ tone shift and make it feel organic. Jeff Goldblum does his best Gene Wilder as the Grandmaster, Waititi in fact adding a brilliant homage to the rather unsettling boat ride of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). Rachel House, who was a scene-stealer in Wilderpeople, is a riot as the Grandmaster’s death-obsessed henchwoman. Tom Hiddleston remains a consistent joy to watch as he gnashes his teeth and grins through every scene, trading quips with his half-brother and being a fabulous pain in the ass. Though he spends most of the film in Hulk form, Mark Ruffalo makes the very most of his moments as Bruce Banner, leaning into the visual comedy of his small stature as compared to the bulky Thor. This supporting cast plays off of one another in fine form, holding their own in cutaway scenes that flesh out the world Waititi is building.
True standouts of the supporting cast, however, are Tessa Thompson and Cate Blanchett. As Valkyrie, Tessa Thompson is a perfect match for Thor. When he crash-lands on Sakaar, it is she who finds him and beats him, bringing him into the Grandmaster. She is the only character who has ever made Thor seem self-conscious, stumbling over his words as he tries to impress her. Thompson was remarkable in Creed (2015), and here she brings a similar blend of quiet grief and inspired comic timing to bring Valkyrie alive. Thor may be the hero, but she is the heart of this movie, well-foiled by the sheer evil of Blanchett as Hela. Decked out from head to toe in black and rich emerald, Hela is exactly as you hope she would be. She raises an army of the dead, rides a black wolf, and delivers scathing one-liners with the panache of a Bond villain. Blanchett celebrates the one-note nature of the Goddess of Death, turning her withering hatred for Asgard into high camp in a way I’m sure Vincent Price would applaud.
Nonetheless, for its narrative mess, Thor: Ragnarok marks the most fun I’ve had at the movies in quite some time. Waititi and crew commit to making Marvel’s first full-throated comedy (I don’t think of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) as strictly comedic, but that point can be argued I’m sure). It is a shame that more of Waititi’s visual style did not bleed into the film. He masterfully brings Jack Kirby’s (the iconic comic artist responsible for the Ragnarok storyline) illustrations to life, matching the colors, landscapes, and ethos of Kirby’s world. It is the closest Marvel has come to emulating the comic books they made their name on. Yet this means that the quirky style Waititi put on display with Wilderpeople especially, consisting of carefully composed set pieces with little camera movement and rather hilarious montages, is lost to Kirby’s artistic vision. It is a difficult balance, for it is admirable how he stays so true to the comic style. Yet, I can’t help being a bit sad that it comes at the cost of his own distinct approach. However, it is a win for Marvel if they can continue to enlist such thoughtful filmmakers to breathe life into the MCU, still expanding at 17 movies strong.