Wildly ludicrous, insanely fun and exploding with a color pallet painted in devious amounts of vibrancy, Marvel Studios Thor: Ragnarok may not break the structure that the mega-studio conglomerate has constructed so far, but it certainly takes a battering ram to it’s smoother edges. The result is a satisfyingly upbeat romp that allows it’s titular hero to be fun, his supporting players engaging rather than delegating Tom Hiddleston’s Loki to be the scene stealer with the others as background drapery, and laugh out loud wit that never is prioritized over sheer spectacle. It’s a blast, a messy one, and one that shows that perhaps Marvel is beginning to allow it’s indie directors more control of the visions they’re trying to create.
Up until this point, Marvel has taken the counter intuitive position when tackling the Thor (Chris Hemsworth) character and his origins. They desperately attempted to bring a sense of realism to a hero who has no business being in any way associated with the term. However, it was that sense of “realism” which had aided in defining the rest of the Marvel properties up until that point, the thing that had separated Iron Man from The Dark Knight and the rest of the DC universe: here was a guy who, on paper at least and aided greatly in Robert Downey Jr.’s performance, was flaws. It was those creaks in the armour, that sense of humanistic follies which moulded Iron Man into more than a B-list superhero, Captain America into more than a golden boy patriot, Black Widow and Hawkeye into reputable scene stealers. And yet, Thor, for all of Hemsworth’s charisma, muscles and general movie star demeanor, couldn’t quite deliver on the demand to make Marvel’s heroes relateable.
Their attempt was by and large, their greatest flaw because if there’s anything baked into the makeup of the characters conception, it’s sheer absurdity and off kilter backstory. By depriving the characters ability to lean into the BIG moments and restricting himselves to ground tethered reality, they made their innately silliest character arguably their most boring.
Enter Taika Waititi, mastermind behind hits such as Boy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows. While the shortcomings that have permeated Marvel films since the get go still remain, such a villain whose motives are…vague, to put it nicely, and he wasn’t quite allowed to reinvent the studios wheel, he more than made up for Thor and Thor: The Dark World with a film that has Waititi’s brand stamped all over it. Hilarious, engaging and thrumming with a barely contained warmth and empathy for it’s characters, Thor: Ragnarok is one of Marvel’s most enjoyable films to date because it understands the necessity to go big or go home when dealing with the God of Thunder.
Having been imprisoned on the other side of the universe after a nasty run into with Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, Thor finds himself in a deadly gladiatorial contest that pits him against the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who we last saw, dejected and flying into exile in Age of Ultron . Thor’s quest for survival leads him in a race against time to prevent the all-powerful Hela from destroying his home world and the Asgardian civilization and he along with familiar faces such as Loki and Bruce Banner along with newcomers such as Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson-most excellent) to save his home and stop the impending apocalyptic events long prophesied for Asgard.
Weaving together a story that really gets its flow at the beginning of the second act when they’re dumped in the Grandmaster’s (Jeff Goldblum doing Jeff Goldblum in robes) home planet. It’s here where Waititi’s vision soars, his imagination given the greenlight to run wild, as no image is too off course from what we imagine might be the Grandmaster’s living conditions. From a train ride that echoes Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with it’s neon psychedelics, to an arena match that builds scope for two imposing heroes, creating a vastness in a schism of space. With literal fireworks spewing from the engine of an aircraft, Waititi and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe understand that the visuals need to match the storyline. If the Hulk and Thor are to fight, they need to do it in a venue that could contain it and them, where they could fall prey to being captured and forced to fight in the first place. It’s one of the most visually interesting Marvel films to date.
It’s also, wonderfully, one of it’s funniest, and not just when Waititi’s motion captured Korg is on screen. In part due to the tone Waititi helped cast over the proceedings and the script which leans heavier into sight gags and tete-a-tat quips and barbs, much of the responsibility lays on the delivery of the actors who all perform. From Hiddleston having some of his most fun as Loki since the first film, to Thompson who nearly steals the show, Ruffalo gamely playing into the wallflower contradiction of his character, Blanchett seizing the chance to play a scene chewing villainess, it’s Hemsworth who carries it. Thor was the greatest problem of the Thor series in the past because the scribes were adamant on keeping Hemsworth from playing up his humor and here it’s firing from all angles. He gets to be physical, dopey and hilarious in delivery of one liners while also playing a legitimate and believable action hero. Ruffalo holds a lot of the unexpected heart, but Hemsworth finally gets the chance to evolve into the performer the hero has needed.
Despite the fun, the film is far from infallible. We’re rushed through the first act to get to the delightfulness of the arena, meaning much of what came before feels almost inconsequential. Hela, no matter how much fun Blanchett is having, is still thinly drawn (though the character design is superb, feeling as if she walked out of the latest season of Samurai Jack) and everything is wrapped up a little too neatly in regards to the events that preceded it. Both the first and third acts needed more time to breathe but by doing so would’ve taken away from the best portion of the film. There inability to sustain that level of high-octane energy was what derailed what had been an excellent entry in the superhero pantheon.
Regardless, Waititi has managed to do something with Thor: Ragnarok managed to do something with the character no director has managed to do yet: make us look forward to seeing him again. Loud, energetic and unabashedly mischievously silly, while it may not meet your full expectations, it will come valiantly close.