Thor: Ragnarok review: the first Thor movie that makes Thor worth rooting for

Click here to get this post in PDF

 

Thor is Marvel’s silliest franchise — but traditionally, it’s also been the studio’s least fun franchise. In the first movie (2011), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) couldn’t stop acting like a boy gone wild, so he was banished from his home and had to learn how to be a man worthy of his great power. In the second movie, Thor: The Dark World (2013), Thor and his posse took on a faction of dark elves, only for Thor to lose his mother and seemingly his brother while performing his duty as the protector of the nine realms.

Loss equals lessons in Thor-land, a theme so pronounced that it tends to drown out Thor’s status as a lightning bolt–hurling demigod who wields a magic twirling hammer in a world full of frost giants, rainbow bridges, and world-destroying robots. His movies have never suggested that anyone — the characters, the audience, the cast — should be having a particularly good time.

But the third film in the series, Thor: Ragnarok, completely changes that, flexing its self-awareness as the movie and its star laugh both at themselves and with their audience. It’s the first Thor movie that will make you want to see more Thor movies, because it’s the first Thor movie with an idea of what makes its titular hero worth rooting for.

Both of Marvel’s past Avengers films have scratched at the idea of Thor — their resident blond super deity — being the team lunk. Thor may be worthy of wielding the mythical Mjøllnir, they seemed to suggest, but he’s often as dumb as a box of his own hair.

Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi sharpens these jokes at the expense of his film’s title character, to delightfully entertaining effect.

Thor is a bull in a china shop when it comes to technology. Even though he’s encountered wizards, magic, and gods and traveled through different dimensions, he often gets knocked down a peg by human-made gadgetry. When he’s asked for the voice-activated password for an Avenger Quinjet, for example, he naturally assumes the system will unlock when he announces his code name as “strongest Avenger.” He even says it twice, as if Tony Stark’s invention somehow didn’t hear him the first time.

But there’s a more serious rub folded into that moment: the disconnect between how Thor sees himself and how everyone else, including his teammates, see him.

There’s a keen realization of Thor’s ego in Ragnarok, as the film explores what happens to a man who’s been told he’s a god since the day he was born, and the alienation he can feel as a result. When someone is spoon-fed the myth of his own greatness daily, it’s only a matter of time before he starts believing it above all else. And somehow that’s even more tragic than Thor’s realization that everything he’s been told about himself may have been a lie.

By digging into these weightier character issues without skimping on the comic relief, Waititi’s topsy-turvy ride into Thor’s homeworld of Asgard and the discontents it holds yields the best Thor movie in the series so far, and arguably the funniest Marvel movie in the studio’s cinematic universe too (at least until the next Guardians of the Galaxy comes out). Ragnarok gives Hemsworth the chance to showcase his gifts as a physical comedian, making Thor feel more natural and human than he’s been in the past. (It also contains the greatest shirtless scene in Marvel history.) And though the movie isn’t perfect, particularly in how it underuses some characters and gifted actors, those complaints are easily overridden by distinct moments where charm, oddity, and spectacle collide to create the kind of soul-soaring magic that Marvel at its best is capable of.

Thor: Ragnarok is about our fathers, our leaders, and the flaws they can’t correct

Marvel

Ragnarok’s writing team of Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost has built a film that beautifully captures the shock and awe that exist on the last page of a comic book, the jarring surprise that changes the entire game. Their story picks up where we last saw Thor — zipping between dimensions, trying to make sense of his weird visions (remember that really strange pool scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron?), and doing his part to save Asgard and the world.

Those of us who’ve been keeping up with the Marvel universe will recall that Loki faked his own death in Thor: The Dark World and is, by the power of illusion, impersonating Odin (Anthony Hopkins, who gets to channel his inner Loki as he once again reprises the Odin role) on Asgard. Because Thor wants to protect Asgard, he returns there — and quickly sniffs out Loki’s charade.

Asgard is rudderless and seemingly powerless without the real Odin on the throne. And compounding matters even further is the return of Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death, who seems impossibly unstoppable and glamorous, as all the very best Marvel villains are in the first seven minutes of their introduction. Donning a retractable headdress that resembles a set of mutant deer antlers — a feature that signals she’s ready to destroy, dismantle, and obliterate — Hela and her telekinetic obsidian knives pump with an addiction for blood.

Comic books fans should be familiar with some of Kyle and Yost’s past work; the pair not only created the Wolverine clone X-23 (a version of whom is portrayed in the movie Logan) for the animated X-Men Evolution television series but also teamed up to write a run on the X-Force comic book, in which X-Men leader Cyclops forms a secret black-ops X-Men team of killers and trackers.

And while Yost and Kyle’s prior projects might seem a bit disparate compared to Ragnarok, they seem to be fascinated by the idea of how every civilization’s history is full of great men who’ve kept everyone safe, but not without consequences — the idea that the security our fathers and our fathers’ fathers have afforded us has come, like Cyclops sending in a death squad, at someone else’s expense.

What if our respected leaders are reviled by others? What if the uniforms that demand our reverence or the crowns our rulers wear function more as costumes than as important symbols of a noble past? What kind of Faustian deals have these men made, and what kind of secrets do they have?

What happens when it’s time to pay up for past sins?

Odin, from what we know of him in the first two Thor movies, certainly has secrets. But in Ragnarok, Yost, Kyle, and Pearson reveal what is perhaps Odin’s most foolish betrayal by omission — and it’s somehow completely understandable given the circumstances. But that doesn’t stop the reckoning from coming in the form of a bloodthirsty Hela.

It’s no shock to Thor to learn that his father has been withholding information about the past, because Odin keeping secrets is like Loki (Tom Hiddleston) betraying Thor at the last minute. It’s essentially a given, like clockwork. At some point, Thor, just like the rest of us, was going to have to accept that his relatives are inevitably the way they are, and always will be. Not that it makes the realization hurt any less.

Thor: Ragnarok smartly lets Chris Hemsworth showcase his comedy chops — and makes Thor imminently more compelling in the process

Marvel

Hemsworth is one of the superhero movie genre’s four Chrises (the other three are Pratt, a.k.a. Guardians of the Galaxy’s Star-Lord; Evans, a.k.a. Captain America; and Pine, a.k.a. Wonder Woman’s Steve Trevor). But even though Hemsworth has always been the Chris who’s easiest to tell apart from the rest (a running gag), with Marvel’s films in particular, he’s never quite been able to match the movie-star quality and effortless charm of Pratt and Evans; the Thor franchise has consistently been punctuated by Hiddleston’s Loki slinking away with the audience’s heart and sometimes the entire film.

Waititi takes a match to that notion in Ragnarok.

What the director understands so well is the question of whom Thor is fighting for and why he’s doing it. Thor saving the world has seemingly always been about Thor; there’s never been a clear sense that he’s standing up for those who can’t protect themselves, the way Captain America does. Nor does Thor harbor Star-Lord’s desire to fulfill a higher purpose, even if it means helping people who’ve already written him off.

Being a hero, as Thor hasn’t fully figured out, isn’t as simple as just having superpowers.

In his past two movies, Thor has checked off boxes that make him a hero on paper. But his motivations were rooted in personal causes. In the first film, he saved the world — but the true goal was seemingly to prove himself worthy enough to wield his mythical hammer. In the second film, he saved the world again, but he was driven to do so because the love of his life, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), was in trouble. In the Avengers films, it was either his vendetta against Loki or his love for Foster, and not a deep-seated urge to see good triumph over evil, that brought him to Earth to join the fray.

What’s a little less clear is whether Thor would save the world if the circumstances extended beyond ones that personally affected or involved him. This is a hero who doesn’t really get how much his home and the Asgardians depend on him, and a franchise that really hasn’t shown us why those Asgardian lives are so important, beyond the fact that they need saving from time to time.

The result has been a hero who hasn’t always been easy to root for, a situation that’s been further underscored by his ongoing fight against a villain who’s much more charismatic. Waititi and his writing team lean into this idea in Ragnarok, cleverly mining the idea that Thor has no idea just how much his home means to him, and using his aloof relationship with the Asgardian people to finally infuse him with real humanity.

Waititi does this by letting Hemsworth tap into his natural sense of humor. Hemsworth is allowed to be slapstick silly, repeatedly getting knocked out, electrocuted, and dragged by his adversaries. Thor is also far less serious than he was in his first two films, especially when he’s trying to describe exactly how his twirling hammer works. All those years of being respected just because he’s a deity and all those muscles upon muscles are revealed as cover-ups for the fact that Thor is a social idiot.

Hemsworth’s performance in Ragnarok is more akin to his airhead dope Kevin in 2016’s Ghostbusters reboot than it is to his past turns as Thor. Though Hemsworth can do brooding and serious, he truly shines when he’s allowed to be funny, and Waititi lets him sparkle like a big stupid diamond — a big stupid diamond who may one day figure out that gods can’t exist if there’s no one around to worship them.

Waititi has created one of Marvel’s most hilarious movies, though he might have done so at the expense of some of his big-name actors

Marvel

The nagging flaw and missed opportunity of Ragnarok is that despite Hemsworth performing at the top of his game alongside talented actors like Hiddleston, Hopkins, and Blanchett, the movie’s most renowned cast members hardly get to play off one another.

Blanchett’s delicious Jack Kirby drag queen Hela is underused, too often left to deliver dramatic villain speeches solo before faceless crowds and almost-empty halls. Hopkins gets to have some fun with Odin (in Loki’s version of him), but in his true form he’s often monologuing instead of interacting with his sons — the scenes where Hopkins is allowed to talk to Hiddleston and Hemsworth are far more compelling, but sadly too rare.

Meanwhile, due to an unforeseen Bifröst hiccup, Hemsworth’s revitalized Thor only has one real objective in Ragnarok: trying to get home to Asgard, which Hela has gloriously seized. For much of the movie, Thor is stuck on the Hunger Games-esque, Willy Wonka-ish planet called Sakaar.

The best thing about dropping Thor into this jarring new world is that it gives Waititi the freedom to fill it with his signature humor by cramming in a host of new characters, including the fantastic Caesar Flickerman-inspired Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), the hard-drinking mystery enigma that is Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), and a dry rock golem named Korg (Waititi).

The Sakaar setting is also what allows Ragnarok to have Thor fight the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in a gladiator-style face-off, a showdown that Ragnarok’s marketing materials have invariably hyped from the jump. The best thing I can say about that setup is that Waititi’s nonsense world still feels funny and surprising, even if the trailers have already beaten it to death.

The unfortunate trade-off is that the logistics of Ragnarok’s script dictate that with Blanchett and Hopkins on Asgard, Hemsworth (and lots of the film’s most entertaining side characters) on Sakaar, and Hiddleston on Sakaar but in a different setting, the film’s best players hardly get to play off each other. Spending time on Sakaar means there’s less opportunity for scenery chewing from Blanchett. And each time you get to revel in a scene with Blanchett’s Hela, you may find yourself wishing that the movie’s other characters were there too.

Of course, there are worse missteps for a movie to make than sparking viewers’ desire to see more of actors like Blanchett or Goldblum, who are living their best lives in Ragnarok and enjoying every second of it. Especially since it’s not just Blanchett and Goldblum who turn in great performances — it’s every single member of this (maybe too-crowded?) ensemble.

And overall, Ragnarok lives up to its potential as a fantasy adventure-comedy.

There are a few moments where Waititi flexes his talent for spectacle, showing that he’s fully capable of taking your breath away with visuals — a slow-motion, pegasus-riding Valkyrie assault on Hela deserves its own movie.

But the true strength of this cosmic caper is its humor.

Marvel has perfected the art of the afterthought joke — the moment when a character of status, usually a powerful superhero or villain, delivers a grandiose speech that’s met with silence, before an acidic quip from someone else undercuts the whole thing.

Ragnarok lives in that afterthought — the silly extended joke, the sly check-in to gauge whether the audience is paying attention, the sardonic eye roll. All of the serious action is tempered by Korg the rock golem’s inappropriate and steady cheeriness, or by characters literally gagging over the smell of melted flesh. It’s all to make sure that you know, and know that the movie knows, how silly this entire story about goddesses of death, lightning bolts, eye patches, horns, and the pronunciation of Asgard really is.

As Waititi shows us, that’s the first step in realizing how awesome the Thor franchise and its hero can truly be.

Amid the current glut of superhero TV shows and movies, it’s not very often that a superhero film leaves you wanting more. That’s doubly true when it comes to Marvel’s penchant for using its movies to help set the table for future releases. But when you’re having as much fun as Waititi is in Ragnarok, and when you can’t get enough of the strangest charm offensive this side of Guardians of the Galaxy or a Thor who’s finally worth cheering for, it’s hard not to argue that this franchise and its director are worthy of at least one more twirling hammer swing at greatness.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *