‘Thor: Ragnarok’ Review: Getting Silly with the God of Thunder
The Thor movies have been the odd franchise out in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They always nailed the relationship between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), but everything surrounding them—the story, the supporting characters, the tone—was always uneven. It was a franchise that seemed to have all the potential in the world, but lacked the direction a character with a clear moral compass like Captain America provides. Rather than try to find a way to make the movie fit neatly in with the rest of the MCU or flesh out what previous Thor films attempted, Marvel has decided to mainline the personality of director Taika Waititi for Thor: Ragnarok. Using the lack of heat on the first two Thor films as a reason to swing for the fences, Ragnarok is out to get laughs at any cost, and it usually succeeds even if it comes at the expense of the past films or Marvel’s usual missteps. But when a movie is as much fun as Ragnarok, it’s hard to complain.
After defeating the fire demon Surtur (Clancy Brown), Thor returns home to Asgard to discover that Loki has been impersonating Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and sent their father to live on Earth. When they go to retrieve Odin, they learn that Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, has been freed from her imprisonment and she plans to bring Ragnarok—the end of all things—to Asgard and eventually the universe. Before they can stop her, the brothers eventually end up on the battle planet of Sakaar. Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), who finds fighters for the planet’s charismatic ruler, The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), forces Thor into the arena where he discovers that the reigning champion is the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Meanwhile, Hela wreaks havoc back on Asgard with the help of local ruffian Skurge (Karl Urban).
Waititi’s priority for Ragnarok is to put the joke first to the point where we’re left to wonder if Thor was always this funny or if Marvel finally realized that Chris Hemsworth was always this funny. The character has always had room for a joke or two, especially in Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies, but it was primarily about putting his nobility and strength first and then letting Hemsworth’s comic timing come about as an added bonus. Here, Thor is one of the funniest people in the movie, always leaning into the strangeness of his surroundings, and Waititi mostly gets away with putting his voice into Thor’s mouth because A) Hemsworth is this character, so we can buy anything he does; and B) No previous film had defined Thor enough. If Captain America tried to be this silly, it wouldn’t work. He can be flustered, he can be out of touch, but if you try to undermine his strength, you undermine his character.
Thor, who has always been a muscles-first kind of character in the MCU, can easily be mocked because he’s already a larger-than-life figure. Waititi, seeing that he has the lone Avenger who isn’t earthbound, decides to just run with it. For Waititi, it’s more important that Thor be free to be weird and funny than try to figure out a way to give him a compelling arc about learning to be a hero or finding his place in the world. Ragnarok is all about Thor trying to stop Hela and having a wacky time on the way.
It’s a movie that will likely piss off anyone who had affection for the first two Thor movies, and I assure you these people exist. This is a movie where Loki, a sorcerer who’s been alive for over thousands of years, gets outmatched by Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). It’s a movie where Jane’s absence is quickly noted and then discarded. It’s a movie where Waititi is more than happy to dismiss or ignore anything that gets in the way of the big, bold colorful picture he’s envisioned, and even he has trouble keeping track of what’s important and what’s not.
Because the film is always about trying to get a laugh, it can take detours that don’t really serve the picture or the characters. You could excise all of the Doctor Strange stuff and nothing would be harmed except you’d lose a bunch of funny jokes, and because funny jokes are the bread and butter of Thor: Ragnarok, they get priority even if the larger scene tells us nothing new about any of the characters or the world they inhabit. These kinds of pacing issues continually crop up, especially whenever there’s a Hela scene.
Marvel is notorious for wasting great actors in bad villain roles, but to take an actress of Blanchett’s caliber and give her a rote bad guy is borderline unforgivable. If you’re hoping that Hela would be set up as Death, the character who Thanos loves in the comics and the motivation for his actions, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Hell, if you’re hoping for a remotely interesting antagonist you’ll be sorely disappointed. Hela is basically Blanchett chewing the scenery and killing people with pointy objects. The fact that her henchman, Skurge, has more of an arc than she does tells you everything you need to know about how disposable she is. Hela isn’t the worst villain Marvel has ever concocted, but that’s only because there’s a two-time Oscar winner in the role showing us why she’s won two Oscars.
And yet these frustrations can’t help but feel minor when compared to the overwhelming joy I felt watching Thor: Ragnarok. It’s the same kind of humor Waititi displayed in Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows, but given a blockbuster budget. If Marvel put any constraints on the director, they don’t show, and Waititi has made the most of his freedom. His sensibilities are on full display to the point where characters like Korg (Waititi) wouldn’t be out of place in the director’s other movies if you ignore Korg being a giant alien made out of rocks. You’ll also probably end up arguing with your friends over which character steals the movie (for me, it’s a toss-up between Hulk and Korg).
In addition to the non-stop humor that always seems to land, it’s a feast for the eyes and ears. While Doctor Strange occasionally brought Jack Kirby’s brilliant art to life, it’s on full display in Ragnarok. That’s not to diminish the work of production designers Dan Hennah & Ra Vincent or costume designer Mayes C. Rubeo—it’s just that you can finally feel the impact of the legendary Marvel artist in a way that escaped previous Marvel movies. That’s not to mention a truly excellent score by Mark Mothersbaugh that had me running to Spotify so I could listen to it again.
In its own weird way, Thor: Ragnarok, despite feeling different than other MCU movies, highlights the best and worst of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It shows a studio unafraid to risk changing direction even if the result is completely different than past entries (Ragnarok makes Iron Man 3 look tame by comparison) and even reaches the point of mocking moments from other films. It’s bright, colorful, and damned hilarious, the antithesis of grimdark superhero stories even if there are times when you wish Waititi would just sit with a moment rather than going for the laugh. And then there’s the damned villain problem, which Marvel just can’t seem to solve on a consistent basis. But if Marvel is willing to give their movies over to filmmakers completely as they did with Waititi and Thor: Ragnarok, then the future of the MCU should be a blast.