A lot has changed since I saw the first Thor movie in theaters six years ago. Marvel Studios (and by extension Disney) has basically cornered the market on superhero movies and cinematic universes, having established such a tried and true formula that their competitors have struggled to differentiate themselves doing the same thing. Their longevity has been secured by simply following basic rules of screenwriting while making minor tweaks to tone and style between each film. However, some of their films are more lacking than others, and Marvel has been cranking out so many of them in a single year that they’ve been working against themselves since Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) to fight superhero fatigue and maintain consistent interest in their movies. A third Thor was going to be a challenge considering the first two were not very memorable and the previous film came out back in 2013 – ages ago in franchise-time. However, this gap allowed Marvel to reinvent the wheel for bringing Thor back into the franchise and draw inspiration from their risky 70s-inspired sci-fi-action-comedy Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). As a result, Thor: Ragnarok (2017) ends up being a huge stylistic departure from what came before, but is still at its core another bread and butter Marvel film.
Thor: Ragnarok starts off with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in the middle of an adventure he undertook at the end of Age of Ultron. He’s tied up in chains in a cage and rambles to a skeleton about how he failed to find any of the MCU-critical infinity stones and instead decided to look into prophetic dreams he’s been having of Ragnarok: the fiery apocalypse of his home, Asgard. This is a fun start to the film. It helps establish the largely comedic take on Thor in this entry – brought to us by Kiwi director Taika Waititi – while giving us a colorful and metal-as-fuck action sequence set to “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin. Thor returns to Asgard thinking he has stopped Ragnarok, but finds out that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been impersonating their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and that their long-lost sister Hela (Cate Blanchett), a.k.a. the Goddess of Death, escaped her banishment intent on conquering Asgard and the universe. She is no joke. She’s probably the strongest and one of the most memorable Marvel villains we’ve seen to date, establishing her rep by destroying Thor’s iconic hammer like it’s nothing and preventing him from escaping an encounter with her on Earth, instead flinging him to a garbage-dump planet on the outskirts of the universe where he gets captured and forced to fight for entertainment in a gladiatorial arena run by the Grandmaster (Chef Goldblum) against a previously M.I.A. Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).
Without a doubt what makes this film work so well is its style. I don’t know how much of a say Waititi had in the creative process for this outside of the comedy, as this is another Marvel product, but the use of so much inventive art design and cinematography makes this movie well worth seeing in a theater. There’s color everywhere and it’s incorporated very well in all of the unique shots and sets used throughout the film. When the Hulk first enters the film by barging into the gladiatorial arena, it is complemented by bizarre-looking extras wearing hulk masks, shooting bursts of green smoke into the air. Frequently, a giant hologram of the colorfully dressed and very eccentric Grandmaster stands above the denizens of Sakaar to help maintain some semblance of order on the lawless junker planet – something always shown in a variety of close-ups and wide-shots. You can tell someone put care into making this movie look good – like some kind of crazy acid trip on alien worlds. Even when the film cuts back to Hela’s takeover of Asgard, careful usage of colors helps the set-design pop in every scene. Experiencing so many bizarre visuals puts you in the same addled mindset as Thor, while still allowing you as an audience member to sit back and enjoy the journey (or rather, the trip). This is all supported by probably the only memorable score in a Marvel movie since The Avengers (2012). It’s a lovely synth accompaniment that is honestly cool to hear in a Marvel sci-fi adventure like Thor, even if it is almost indistinguishable from other similar-sounding nostalgia-inspired music of recent movies and TV shows.
It makes sense that Marvel would want to use a comedy-heavy template for their high-concept sci-fi films after the success of the Guardians of the Galaxy films. Even though the plots to the first two Thor films are still heavily based in some sort of science-fiction/nonsense techno-jargon, they feature regular human scientists (Natalie Portman and Stellan Skarsgård) on Earth that work as expositional mouthpieces for the audience’s benefit. That’s probably why those movies aren’t as memorable as other Marvel films. No one cares about whatever boring plot device is needed to stop the bad guys and save the transparent love interest. Marvel figured that out years ago by phasing out most of those kinds of plot-lines and nearly all of their female characters.
On top of that, not everybody likes science-fiction. There are people who haven’t seen a single Star Wars movie for Pete’s sake! Conveying, through comedy, that all these heroic adventures on colorful alien worlds are weird little romps you don’t need to take seriously, but still offering an empathetic link via ‘70s nostalgia, is a good way to get people invested in something unfamiliar while not having to explain anything about the world of the film. Comedy helps ensure that you can go into Ragnarok without having seen the first two movies. There are some terms characters throw around that you can easily figure out, but the only character who they bring back for more than one scene is Heimdall (Idris Elba), who unfortunately feels underutilized – like most of the characters in this film.
Like with most Marvel movies, I can’t say that this is a bad movie. It’s not like anyone goes into these kinds of movies expecting complex inter-character drama; they just wanna have a good time with some laughs and some cool action. You can find both of these things in Ragnarok, but their potency suffers from the same problems found in Guardians Of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017). With regards to the comedy, there is some good physical humor scattered throughout, but almost all of the jokes are either predictable, fall flat, or go on for too long. Boy, do they go on for too long. The audience I shared the theater with laughed uproariously whenever one of the film’s many “ass” jokes was made (“tex-ass”, “ass-gard”, and an interdimensional portal known as “the devil’s anus,” which makes no sense because how do aliens have a concept of the Christian devil?), or when characters steal Will Ferrell’s bit of explaining a joke. Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is even forced into a cameo just for the purpose of some jokes.
With regards to the action, the story-beats are also executed in the exact same way as they are in GotG Vol. 2. They feel like a grocery list of ‘moments.’ Sure, you can say that they’re well-shot or well choreographed (and they are definitely well choreographed), but they feel like a contrived series of events orchestrated just so someone can do something bad-ass in slow motion. It leads to some shots that are metal enough to paint on the side of my panel-van, but these ‘moments’ end up compromising good writing in the script. Thor losing his hammer is meaningless because he’s still an unstoppable bad-ass and his “lesson” at the climax comes out of nowhere. A plot-critical female character doesn’t even get a name, instead sharing shoehorned redemption arcs with Loki and Skurge (another superfluous character played by Karl Urban). Basically anyone remotely plot critical gets to do something action-y in slow-motion. Thematically, this movie is supposed to be about how you can’t run away from danger/your problems and how helping others will make you love yourself as much as the people you help, but who cares about that when you have a fight between the Hulk and Thor that’s so cool it puts the multi-hero squabble in Captain America: Civil War (2016) to shame?!
Thor: Ragnarok ends the Thor saga on a very solid note. It takes inspiration from the Guardians of the Galaxy films in good ways, with a 70s-inspired colorful visual style and great music – and bad ways, with forced moments of action and an over-reliance on comedy that overstays its welcome. While the story could’ve had stronger writing behind it, the trip is still worth the ride, especially when we’re given an over-the-top and memorable, albeit criminally under-utilized, villain in the form of Cate Blanchett’s Hela.