Thor: Ragnarok could have gone in one of two directions. It could have either decided to act as a Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) expansion machine (like Captain America: Civil War) as it tried to connect all the loose threads to set up next May’s enormous Avengers: Infinity War. Or it could function as a proper conclusion to the Thor trilogy, focusing on his unique story arc. Fortunately for all of us, director Taika Waititi and the crew chose to go the latter route, creating a cosmic and colourful romp through the universe.
When we last left the mighty Thor (Chris Hemsworth), he had taken a leave of absence from the Avengers (Age of Ultron) after receiving a horrific vision of the destruction of Asgard and goes off chasing for infinity stones. Fast forward two years later and it is obvious that things have changed for the Norse god of thunder, as we find him trapped in a precarious position no closer to his goal but armed with a brand new weapon, namely his glib and sarcastic sense of humour. In fact I might say that Chris Hemsworth is an absolute revelation here as his perfect timing and delivery of his jokes and jabs instantly transform the previously one-dimensional lunk-head deity Thor into one of the most interesting characters in the MCU. It is easily his most assured performance in the role, displaying acting chops not previously seen.
For anyone familiar with Taika Waititi’s work (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do In The Shadows), this is nothing less than par for the course for the director who’s known for his particularly offbeat and deadpan brand of humour. Under normal circumstances I would have been trepidatious about this drastic shift in tone to the more comical side of things, but in the context of where the MCU currently is it might actually be a stroke of genius. By this point it has been roughly seven years since Thor showed up on the scene (and close to a decade since Iron Man), and the notion of superheroes running around to save the world is decidedly old hat. We’ve seen over-the-top monologuing villains be defeated, we’ve seen cataclysmic events averted, and as such the gloss of superheroes has sort of worn out. And so it is refreshing and invigorating to see a movie in which the superheroes don’t take themselves too seriously, aren’t surprised by what they encounter, and are more than willing to punch comedic holes through the veneer of superhero artifice. Under Waititi’s touch, the humour functions not just to provide laughs but to ground this audacious space opera in something akin to reality.
But make no mistake, this is basically an audacious space opera complete with gladiatorial battles, charismatic crime-lords, technicolour space-ways, a huge amount of sibling rivalry, and a Hulk. I’ve mentioned this before, but the outer space quadrant of the MCU is easily one of its most visually entertaining parts, and it is a joy to see familiar characters like Thor and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) inhabit it. Thanks to the endless promotional materials (see poster below for example) the presence of the Hulk should not come as a surprise to the viewers which is a shame because is spoils what would have been one of the more delightful shock reveals in film. But make no mistake that the strongest parts of the movie are when Thor and the Hulk are interacting with one another, adding to the jaded work-colleague-like atmosphere as two veterans who have been doing this for way too long.
Joining them is a cavalcade of new and returning characters who have all been given license to let loose including a slightly unhinged Cate Blanchett as Thor’s evil sister Hela (think evil Galadriel from Lord of the Rings, but much more drunk), Jeff Goldblum as the hedonistic and flamboyant Sakaar (who might just be the best part of the movie), Tessa Thompson as the hard drinking Asgardian bounty-hunter Valkyrie (who manages to spark more chemistry with Thor than his actual romantic interests and is easily a worthy and welcome addition to the male-centric superhero roll-call), and Idris Elba reprising his role as Heimdall who is finally given something to do besides stand and look imposing. All of these are at the top of their game, helping to create an entertaining and action-packed romp and Taika Waititi even gets in on the action with a cameo appearance that is scene-stealing to say the least.
But it is Tom Hiddleston’s Loki that is the most welcome return to the fray here. The villain/anti-hero has always been the best foil for Thor through their sibling rivalry. Their journey of brothers-in-arms to bitter rivals to trepidatious allies has been the most compelling relationship in the MCU. In Thor: Ragnarok that relationship is given another chance to develop, mature, and grow as the two siblings are now less at each others throats than in previous adventures but with wounds that remain. In addition the presence of Loki helps to anchor the movie to the trilogy’s central theme, of being the intricate dance that Thor and Loki go through with regards to succeeding Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) throne (with the additional presence of their evil sister Hela and her claim to the throne adding more spice to this dynamic). Watching that through-line play out is not only compelling but also immensely satisfying because it has the effect of retrofitting the previous two Thor films into a cohesive trilogy with a clear theme rather than just being movies about Thor’s side adventures away from the Avengers.
As with all of Marvel’s movies however, the need for continuity inevitably drags proceedings down. There is one cameo from a superhero that is a needless addition to say the least and comes across as a desperate attempt to tie the whole universe together and while Raganarok’s story is for the most part self-contained it does require some memory of the events of close to a half-dozen movies which is not user friendly to say the least. The weight of continuity only gets heavier with each instalment and I sincerely hope that next year’s Avengers: Infinity War clears the slate or the whole thing might threaten to come crashing down. The movie also suffers from the same typical Marvel ailment of the third act easily being the least compelling act as we get another CGI-filled slugfest that completely smooths over all the unique creativity on display earlier in the film (even if the assembly of Thor’s alternative superhero team is pretty entertaining .to watch).
Still, this is easily the best and most entertaining Thor outing in the MCU and one of their best films overall. It is the perfect blend of the familiar Marvel formula that has garnered the studio so much success, but it is innovative in fresh, funny, and more importantly fun ways. It instantly makes Thor, long the forgotten muscle in the Avengers, arguably the breakout star heading into Infinity War. While it is perhaps not fully the Taika Waititi comedy vehicle we were promised in Waititi’s promotional “Thor and Darryl” shorts it is still a very welcome and much needed shot of comedy and colour into the Marvel universe.