There's one scene early in Thor: Ragnarok that I felt sure was going to be a call-back to the first Thor movie. Doctor Strange offers Thor a cup of tea, and Thor replies that he doesn't touch the stuff. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring up the God of Thunder's love of coffee, established in the first movie's diner scene: Shortly after finding himself on Earth for the first time, Thor showed his appreciation for the new beverage by violently smashing his mug on the ground and demanding another. It was the first time Thor was really funny.
Instead, Benedict Cumberbatch (who's unfortunately only in this movie for about three minutes total) summons a hefty mug of ale from thin air, and Chris Hemsworth quaffs it appreciatively. Thor: Ragnarok may be the funniest Marvel Cinematic Universe movie yet, thanks to comedic-minded director Taika Waititi. But it's also in large part a departure. As much as it still feels like a main stage MCU entry, in other ways Thor: Ragnarok is eager to leave the past behind.
Waititi's sensibilities are everywhere in Thor: Ragnarok, moreso than most past directors have been allowed to imprint themselves on a larger MCU film (the main exception being James Gunn with Guardians of the Galaxy). The New Zealander director comes from the Flight of the Conchords-style school of comedy, and his own movies, like the both-excellent What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, have a distinctly dry, earnest Kiwi humor at their hearts. Whether in Thor's frequent one-liners, Jeff Goldblum's loopy Grandmaster, or absurd side characters like the soft-spoken warrior Korg (who's voiced by the director himself), that same humor is central to Thor: Ragnarok's identity.
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That's for better or worse, depending largely on how you feel about this type of humor. These awkward silences and absurd jokes aren't for everyone. The actors and filmmakers have stated during press conferences and interviews that there was a lot of improvisation on set, and it shows, especially in scenes with Goldblum's Grandmaster. The veteran oddball comedian/heartthrob is clearly riffing in most of his scenes, and that loosey-goosey feeling also pervades much of the film.
At the same time, Ragnarok is about the Asgardians' literal apocalypse. That's a big MCU event, and when it's not being funny Ragnarok feels like most other big Marvel movies, which isn't necessarily a good thing. The action is huge, but the stakes are low. Extended CG-heavy set pieces like a high-speed spaceship chase, during which Thor and Valkyrie jump from pursuing ship to ship stabbing them with big swords, feel gratuitous, and don't look particularly good. Anyone who saw Blade Runner 2049 recently understands how big a difference having practical sets can make, and certain green screen-fueled environments in Thor, including the coliseum scene, look unreal enough to be a distraction.
During that same sequence, Mark Ruffalo--who's transformed back into Bruce Banner after an extended stint as the Hulk--laments that he doesn't know how to fly a spaceship. Thor quips that he should use one of his many PhDs, before leaping heroically from the ship. It's a decent joke, but one without any weight, because Ruffalo is obviously going to steer the ship just fine, which he does. Having stakes is important for audiences to get invested in prolonged scenes of shallow spectacle, something Ragnarok forgets. (Also, it ruined the best reveal--Hulk's entrance into the fighting pit--in literally every trailer, which is a shame, considering the movie spends its entire first third building up to the entrance of the "champion" like it's some big surprise.)
Speaking of tropes, for all its strengths and departures Thor: Ragnarok still stumbles headlong into that most entrenched of Marvel movie problems: the boring villain. Cate Blanchett does her best as the Wicked Witch of Asgard, but there's nothing even remotely interesting about Hela (or her sidekick, the criminally misused Karl Urban, who spends most of the movie scowling off to the side while having no impact whatsoever). As Thor and Loki's banished sister and Odin's one-time right hand commander, Hela feels utterly shoehorned into a world in which it's completely unbelievable that she'd never been mentioned before. Her motivations amount to nothing more than total, boring domination, and her title as "the Goddess of Death" has no bearing on her actual abilities or personality.
Valkyrie, at least, feels like a worthy addition. The booze-swigging, hard-hitting Tessa Thompson steals most scenes she's in, especially early in the movie, when she has power over the downtrodden Thor. The character's backstory is fleshed out just enough to make sense of her motivations, and she provides a good foil for Tom Hiddleston's Loki, whose constant trickery is starting to wear thin after so many movies of the same. (Loki is still impersonating Odin when the movie starts, a plot point from Thor 2 that this movie ruthlessly discards and moves on from within the opening minutes.)
Ragnarok also has more Hulk than any recent MCU movie. The big green guy is changed from the last time we saw him, in part because when we catch up with him here, he's been stuck that way for a while. But allowing the Hulk to have relatively normal, calm conversations also feels like a rule change for this iteration of the character that isn't necessarily earned or explained.
The final thing that bears mentioning is Thor: Ragnarok's aural and visual aesthetic, which simultaneously summons '60s psychedelia, '70s disco, '80s metal, Guardians-like sci-fi, and bloody Roman gladiator bouts. Ragnarok is the most colorful MCU movie yet, rivaling Gunn's Guardians entries for sheer visual joy. Mark Mothersbaugh's synth-heavy score underscores most of it with perfect synchronicity, although Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song--used in the movie to lend oomph to not one, but two separate action scenes--is way past feeling overused.
Thor: Ragnarok shines when it's allowed to stray from the formula set by a decade of predecessors in the MCU, and it seems Waititi is to thank for most of what feels fresh and new here. By the movie's end, Thor and co. have left much of their past behind, ensuring the future is exciting in its potential, especially as we approach the Infinity War storyline. But in other ways, Ragnarok is still beholden to the same tropes by which these movies are often anchored. If Marvel takes anything away from this, fans should hope it's that these films are best when talented directors are allowed to leave their personal marks on them.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Funniest MCU movie yet||No to low stakes throughout|
|Tessa Thompson steals scenes as Valkyrie||Hela is an incredibly boring villain|
|Colorful and well-scored||Big CGI action scenes are pointless spectacle|
|Waititi leaves his much-appreciated mark||Best reveal ruined in marketing|
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