Of all the Marvel movies, I don’t think I’m alone in my opinion that the standalone Thor films are the weakest of the Avengers pantheon. I found the first Thor movie somewhat cringe-worthy, cheap in set up and effects. The Dark World was slightly better but, in my opinion, still overblown and a little on the contrived side.
In fact, the whole Avengers series is mostly centred on the goings on of Captain America and Iron Man, and despite his inclusion in the first wave of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor has been slowly shunted to the sidelines – used alternatively as a tank or plot device when needed, but otherwise left out of the limelight for newer characters to be introduced.
So into this somewhat middling and underwhelming trilogy comes Ragnarok. From the very first trailer, we knew that director Taika Waititi was going to take Thor down a very different path than we’ve seen so far. But did he do enough to distance Ragnarok from the staid Marvel formula?
In terms of distance, Ragnarok definitely goes far, mainly by running all over the galaxy. From Earth to Asgard to Sakaar and back again, the premise of the story is as thin as it usually is, but the “why” is seldom important. In this case, the “why” is Thor’s long-lost sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), returned from banishment to take the Asgardian throne and basically ruin everyone’s day by ushering in Ragnarok.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) fail epically in their first attempt to stop Hela and end up on the neon sci-fi planet Sakaar, from where an escape plan must be hatched in order to stop Hela from conquering the universe. While imprisoned by the oddball Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), Thor runs into co-Avenger Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), as well as hard fighting and harder drinking Asgardian Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). Cue wacky hijinks to get off-planet and prevent the end of the world.
At this point, the influence that Guardians of the Galaxy had on the rest of the MCU is noticeable. Visually, from the moment you land alongside Thor on the psychedelic, Flash Gordon-esque planet of Sakaar, you feel like you’re really on the edge of the known universe (in this case, the Marvel Cinematic Universe). Filled with neon rainbows of colour and crazy, clashing patterns, it’s one of the most out-there settings we’ve experienced. As expected, the lavish (but impressive) CGI and epic, larger-than-life battles pile up, but Waititi keeps it light and deftly handles the action beats.
While the first two Thor movies had some laughs, they were far darker in terms of story and mood. Here, Ragnarok puts the “comic” in “comic-book movie”. If you thought that you saw all the funny moments in the trailers, I’m happy to report that you’re wrong. It’s almost non-stop laughs, mostly from verbal witticisms but interspersed with physical pratfalls. If you’ve seen Waititi’s vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, you’ll know exactly the kind of irreverent humour he deals in.
The whole cast is up to the comedic challenge, but special praise must go to Hemsworth, who flexes his funnyman muscles more than his actual muscles. Having grown the character past his two-dimensional beginnings as a “fish out of water”, Waititi lets Hemsworth off the proverbial leash and you can tell just how much fun he’s having being Thor. In addition, while it’s easy to be funny, Hemsworth knows how to rein it in and not allow The God of Thunder to become a joke.
Most of the verbal sparring takes place with Loki, and here Hiddleston once again steals every scene he’s in. Ragnarok’s Loki is decidedly less grandiose than in his previous outings. Instead, he really feels like the trickster god he is meant to be. The riposte between Odin’s sons is as snappy as always, and they have the rhythm of their dialogue down pat.
Of the side characters, Thompson’s no-nonsense Valkyrie is hard to pin down. She’s extremely bad-ass and somewhat complicated, but Thompson’s fluid performance gives the character a lot of fire underneath her bitter exterior. Goldblum’s insane Grandmaster is campy and crazy in just the right amounts, while Ruffalo’s Banner/Hulk combo is the best I’ve seen of the character yet. There are some completely unexpected and hilarious cameos, so keep your eye out!
Even though Blanchett’s Hela suffers from the usual Marvel issue of villainy for villainy’s sake, she still gets a few moments to shine in her conversations with her co-opted henchman Skurge (Karl Urban). Sadly, dialogue aside, Hela is basically there to strut around, look menacing and give the good guys (and cosplayers) something to do. Seriously, even Skurge gets a more interesting story arc.
And therein lies the rub. Long before this point, Marvel found their formula. They know it works, for the most part, but they stick with what they know. Though some more out-the-box thinking can be seen in recent MCU movies, you still have the sense that there is a baseline that must be adhered to. Cover a Marvel movie in as much neon and Led Zeppelin as you want, fill it with better jokes than most comedies and top it off with all the crazy characters, the baseline is still clearly visible.
So despite Waititi’s boundless energy and peculiar brand of jocularity being unmistakeable in Ragnarok, it still feels hamstrung, as though he still had to colour within Marvel’s lines… but at least he got to pick the colours. That’s not to say that this isn’t a great movie, far from it. It’s immensely enjoyable and laugh-until-your-sides-hurt levels of funny. But the adherence to formula makes for an almost forgettable experience.
Did Waititi move as far away from the staid Marvel formula as the trailers promised? No, but it’s a game effort to go in a new direction.
Last Updated: October 25, 2017