Film Review

Thor: Ragnarok

The God of Thunder and The God of Comedy Walk Into a Bar
In a nutshell, Thor: Ragnarok has the God of Thunder (Thor) team up with the God of Comedy (Taika Waititi) for a genuinely funny adventure, but even they can’t take down corporate-concocted creative synergy.
This post contains spoilers.

Film Notes

  • First Marvel film to feel director-driven. Waititi’s penchant for charming, humanistic humor shines through.
  • Fun colors and retro sounds draw favorable comparisons to Guardians of the Galaxy, but its success may be better indicated by the film’s contrast to Marvel’s other long-running subseries: Iron Man.
  • An all-star cast: highlights from a funnier, looser Chris Hemsworth, a captivating presence by Tessa Thompson, and a very Goldblum-esque performance by Jeff Goldblum.
  • Marvel’s trend of inconsequential, weak villains continue, Hela and her underlyings are thin plot obstacles.
  • With that said, Ragnarok’s thematic conflict on Asgard and Odin’s past, and Thor’s place in it, offer some substance. There’s the parallels to colonial/imperialistic conquest, as well as Thor’s implicit complicity to it.
  • Korg is truly the ideal comrade. And there’s something to be said that major battles in this film are won by rallying the many over prioritizing the individual.
  • Even at two hours, the film works at a brisk pace. It’s mostly good, keeping things light and energetic, but comes at the cost of emotional stakes. Odin and the Warriors Three are all dispensed in quick succession as attempts at emotional resonance; they don’t hit the mark.
  • Sometimes, it feels like Ragnarok simply caught up to Loki’s light-hearted mischiefs.
  • More Thor and Hulk adventures would only make the world a better place.

Film Take

In its opening sequence, Thor: Ragnarok sets a tone that feels refreshingly unique, no small feat for something tied into a 15+ film cinematic universe. Thor is hanging upside down at the mercy of Surtur, the fire demon. But as Surtur tries to give his expositional speech, Thor starts to spin away from Surtur, placing his back to the threat at hand. They both awkwardly wait for Thor to spin back around. It’s a simple sight gag peppered with some quick wit from Thor, but by diffusing the tense situation, Waititi takes Marvel into the funky realm of comedy.

Superhero films would do well to explore more genres. The large quantity of superhero films recently, and their plot similarities, have added up to fairly substantial superhero fatigue. The arcs start to mimic each other, only changing in setting and character. They’re all crafted from very same-y action film tropes, only this time it’s in space, or it’s in a magical world, or it’s with ants, or it’s with spiders, or it’s with spiders again. One escape would be a fundamental restructuring of the lore and world to provide a different type of action, ie DCU. The other, and arguably easier one for Marvel, is to change the genre.

This isn’t uncharted territory for superhero films. Recently, Deadpool’s crass humor connected with every 14-year old boy and 14-year old boy at heart, demonstrating that a comedy-first superhero film can work. Similarly, Logan’s success also point at other alternatives with its proto-Western vibes. (And there’s hope in the future too, with the horror-esque The New Mutants.) Even within the more guarded Marvel Cinematic Universe, this isn’t the first time humor was attempted. Guardians of the Galaxy’s breakout success might appear like a template for Thor: Ragnarok’s success, but a few key differences separate the two. Guardians was a new IP, and one with a loopy premise. The humor was attached to the characters, who existed in a film that was primary one of action. Guardians was structurally similar to The Avengers, with comedic elements added on top. Thor: Ragnarok’s humor feels like a part of the film’s DNA, and some of the characters are funny, some are not, but they all exist in this funny world.

A better comparison might be between Thor and it’s long-running companion series, Iron Man. (Captain America goes in a slightly different route as it gets increasingly wrapped up with the larger MCU conflict.) The first Iron Man was a refreshing mix of entertaining action with heavy interpersonal conflicts. The second was a rerun. Iron Man 3 played like a farce, it doubled-down on the humor from previous films, while becoming increasingly self-referential, folding into itself until it became the joke, with the Mandarin being an actual sham. Nothing was at stake, the movie universe felt fake, and worst of all, previous Iron Man films felt retroactively worse. Thor could’ve gone down a similar path. The first providing that cocktail of action and introspection. The 2nd offered exposition, but was ultimately a retread. And the third was a joke, but this time, all the characters were in on it.

Characters are key to Waititi’s films. Whether it’s the endearing boy named Boy–from the film, Boy, the rowdy cast of vampires in What We Do in the Shadows, or the weird adventurers in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Waititi derives much of his humor less on circumstance and situation, and more on the peculiarities that shape his characters. They have odd affinities, unique world views, and a mouth always ready to snap back with witty comebacks. This is a fitting match for Marvel’s universe, characters are paramount there too. They are carried film to film, whereas settings, villains, circumstances can be disposed of.

Waititi makes the most of this, highlighting the oddities and quirks of the Marvel universe. Thor and Mjolnir’s relationship is funny and peculiar, and so, Waititi zeroes in on this kinship. The Grandmaster is absurdly outlandish as a character, and so Ragnarok plays to those strengths, having Goldblum gleefully wreak havoc. As with previous films, many jokes are predicated on knowledge of past lore, but they function well as standalones, preventing the film from falling into an Iron Man 3 hole. Ruffulo and Thompson both shine as side characters, Hulk throws in physical humor, while Valkyrie acts as a necessary–albeit drunkened–groundedness to the antics.

This only highlights Cate Blanchett’s weak character in Hela. Her agency is condensed and streamlined, there’s no arc for her to progress through. This preemptively de-escalates a lot of the scenes, while also making the scenes that focus on Hela’s actions feel shallow and rote. Odin occupies a similar space, his early death and the lack of emotional gravity associated with it, demonstrates these characters as accessories and obstacles for the protagonists. There was no connection when Thor sees visions of his father, it feels purely mechanical. These details are important, as they serve to flesh out the universe and provide these films with context and depth. This is especially disappointing when compared to the thematic backdrop, which carries heavier implications. Hela reveals that Asgard’s wealth came from violent pillaging in the past, a past that was conveniently sanitized for Asgard’s current citizens. This parallels the path of imperialist countries, a topic that Waititi has visited before.

The fast and loose mentality in which Marvel executes these narratives, constructing them as puzzles to a larger picture, ensures these threads fall off as soon as they are introduced. It takes a toll on these individual films, preventing them from developing substantial and significant growth or consequence. The result: it feels like a playground, and when recess is over, everything goes back to the way they were, and it starts all over again tomorrow. Thor: Ragnarok doesn’t escape this, but by taking place outside of Earth, it’s at least further away from the baggage of corporate-concocted creative synergy.

But perhaps these comic book roots have already foretold how to best tackle films like these, they’re really about the journey when the destination is ultimately inconsequential. In that sense, comedy is a brilliant pairing with superheroes, the genre thrives in the moment, favoring the instinctual and spontaneous. And if the comedy can be like this, where every character becomes a little more like the conniving Loki, and Loki stays being Loki, then this cinematic universe might still be entertaining for a little longer yet.

Or until Korg rallies up the troops necessary to overthrow Disney.