2017 | rated PG-13 | starring Chris Hemsworth, Cate Blanchete, Tom Hiddleston, Tessa Thompson, Jeff Goldblum, Idris Elba, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins | directed by Taika Waititi | 2hrs 10mins
Studio Pitch: Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool hit big by loosening the reigns a bit on how serious we can take these superhero movies so let’s follow that.
Now deep into the third cycle of Marvel movies, with superhero fatigue having long sat in and the Marvel formula now painfully transparent, here comes Thor: Ragnarok jam packed with all the stars, comic book Easter Eggs, witty banter comedy, call backs and cameos, villains that break things but don’t really inspire terror and CGI end-of-the-world army battles that we know and love. Supposedly. The 2nd sequels have traditionally been movies that broke the mold and loosened up a bit, allowing a filmmaker to sneak in their stamp on the franchise. Iron Man 3 separated Tony Stark from his suit under Shane Black. Captain America: Civil War broke up The Avengers under the comic eye of the Russo brothers. Now, going for real indie cred, Ragnarok and New Zealand comic director Taika Waititi separates Thor from his long hair, solemn tone and sense of self importance.
It’s a wacky, neon bright film, but it’s also deeply forced. We get the usual superheroes-are-regular-people joke (Thor loves snakes), self-referential bits (you’ll never guess, but Stan Lee cameos), an unusually high amount of sex jokes and awkward improved bits that go on a bit longer than they should. Saving this from becoming a bloated Judd Apatow improve-off only by Waititi’s dry New Zealand sense of comic timing and delivery. It’s a scientific fact that just about anything said in a New Zealand accent is 20% funnier and Waititi’s own voice turn as a deadpan rock monster, Korg, steals the film.
Hemsworth is solid in the role having loosened up from the previous fish-out-of-water comedy. Blanchett looks like she’s having fun while keeping within the Marvel villain constraints; and Huddleston caps off the Asguard warriors who hilariously fling blades out of nowhere at the slightest provocation. Jeff Goldblum gets his best weirdo role in years (I was afraid he was slowly withering away during Independence Day: Resurgance). It’s really only Mark Ruffalo who can’t keep up, completely out of his depth when forced to banter with Hemsworth. Meanwhile, Hulk himself gets a lot more screen time and personality than ever before. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen the Hulk more charismatic than Bruce Banner.
The movie opens with one of the more indelible images of the entire Marvel Universe: Thor flying through the sky just ahead of a giant flying dragon monster. Ragnarok is the first movie of this series where we get to see Thor’s powers in full force like the God that he is. What happens next involves a lot of coincidences, the reuniting of Thor and Loki (Hiddleston), the search for Odin (Anthony Hopkins) in self exile and the return of Odin’s first born Hela (Blanchett) who wants to return Asgard to it’s blood-soaked, ruled through fear origins. During a fight Thor and Loki find themselves on another planet, a planet of forgotten things and the galaxy’s trash, and build a team and plot their escape to get back to Asgard. It’s boiler plate structure to maneuver Thor into different Marvel cameos and quirky characters.
I suppose it’s all pretty weird if you gauge Ragnarok up against your average theatrical Oscar bait, but at this point it’s just another episode in the ongoing TV series of the Marvel Cinematic Universe where everything is weird and self-referential and battles with God’s and flying aliens are villains of the week. Marvel chose this, they chose to make a series of interlocking movies betting correctly that franchise familiarity will pay off at the box office, but they didn’t count on the creeping sameness of them. Worse Ragnarok’s bright, bouncing tone only feels like it’s following in the wake of Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy, movies that took risks. Despite pre-release hype about the film’s focus on comedy, it’s more of an action film and less of a straight comedy than comedies like Spider-Man: Homecoming and Ant-Man. It looks great and is probably the most cartoonish film in the cannon – not just the visuals, this movie throws it’s heroes around like rag dolls.
But Marvel knows how to make these movies and so does Waititi (who drops cameos from his The Hunt for the Wilderpeople all over Ragnarok). I’m going to part from probably everyone here and say that the Jeff Goldblum Trash People section wasn’t as interesting, to me, as the third act were the entire planet of Asgard and it’s huddled masses is put in jeopardy. Something big is finally at stake. And that’s when Thor: Ragnarok sticks it’s hand above recent Marvel entries. Many of these films feel like spec scripts that start and end at basically the same place, leaving their characters unchanged for the next entry. Ragnarok having the guts to create seemingly irreversible damage and upend Thor, Loki and the group’s spot in the franchise is admirable. Ironic that it’s most formulaic section is also it’s most effective. If Spider-Man Homecoming, Doctor Strange, Ant Man or even Civil War felt like your average weekly episode in the Marvel series, Ragnarok comes off like the season finale cliffhanger.