I have to give Marvel credit for consistently working on things that may not entirely work. Their cinematic universe has thrived because, even in some of their weaker efforts, there is a feeling that they’re always working on making improvements. For me, the weakest of the standalone Marvel efforts have been Thor and its sequel, Thor: The Dark World. They are by no means bad films but they suffer from taking themselves a bit too seriously and lack a bit of the urgency of some of their other films. By nature, the character is drenched in a bit of mythology that can veer into the territory of being a bit cheesy but this is completely rectified with the latest entry, Thor: Ragnarok. What we have here is a complete tonal makeover and it’s one that finally allows the character to shine in his own film. While there is a bit of the in-depth mythology that has shaped the franchise, there is also a dose of added humor that finally loosens up the proceedings and gives us one of the best entries of the MCU so far.
The movie begins with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) finding out that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in fact didn’t die (much to the delight of us viewers since he’s one of the best things about not only this film but the franchise as a whole). After taking Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to a retirement home in New York, Loki has been impersonating him and enjoying the fruits of ruling. The reunited brothers go to Earth to retrieve Dad and, with a little help from Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), they locate him. The doddering old god, who isn’t as coherent as he once was, informs Thor and Loki that they have a sister and she’s about to be released from her prison. Hela the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett) is back to break Thor’s hammer, send the brothers spinning off to distant worlds, and bring Ragnarok to Asgard.
Stuck on a junk world, Thor is captured by an ex-Valkyrie turned mercenary (Tessa Thompson) who sells him to the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), a pompous leader who likes melting people with his special staff. He runs a gladiator contest and has decided that Thor will make an excellent challenger for The Champion. As luck would have it, Thor knows The Champion. Unfortunately, The Champion isn’t in a nostalgic mood. Instead, he’s just interested in one thing: “Hulk smash.” Thor has his work cut out for him: avoid getting pulverized by his fellow Avenger, find a way off this planet, and convince the Valkyrie to return to Asgard with him to stop Ragnarok.
As a rule, Marvel movies have lighter tones than their current DC counterparts. Even the darkest Marvel movie hasn’t come close to the bleak wallowing of Zack Snyder’s recent contributions. For Thor: Ragnarok, director Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) enhances the comedic aspects, bringing this closer to Deadpool than any previous “serious” major superhero movie has come. The change-of-pace is welcome and even more appreciated is that some of the comedy is genuinely amusing. Certain characters, like Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster, exist primarily for their ability to generate chuckles and laughs. Even the normally stoic God of Thunder gets into the mood (Chris Hemsworth has already shown a deft hand for comedy in other efforts). The shift in tone may seem jarring to some since the previous films didn’t venture this far into comedy but I found it to be absolutely refreshing. It’s as if the franchise finally knows what it is and is fully embracing it.
Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the film is the buddy movie element starring an odd couple of Thor and Hulk/Bruce (eventually Mark Ruffalo gets to appear as himself). Throw Tessa Thompson into the mix and we have the making of a nice trio (at one point, they dub themselves “The Revengers”). The chemistry within this group is strong and they are given a lot of room to play with their roles. Mark Ruffalo, in particular, gets to show off some comedic chops that I haven’t seen in awhile and thankfully he’s given enough screentime as himself (rather than just the motion-captured Hulk) to showcase his talents.Tessa Thompson, even when not appearing within the trio, is a strong addition to the film and definitely makes her presence known.
The other pairing of Thor and Loki has been explored in the previous films but that doesn’t make it any less strong. Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston share an effortless chemistry and they do a good job of displaying admiration as well as distrust between the brothers. Sure, Loki isn’t the big bad he used to be, but his shifty motivations can still surprise.
On the bad side of things, Cate Blanchett is suitably nasty and surprisingly restrained in the role of Hela. She avoids the scenery chewing that could results from a role like this and manages to display enough menace to be a genuine threat, Thor: Ragnarok has no shortage of top acting talent – in addition to Blanchett and Ruffalo, there are small parts for Benedict Cumberbatch, Anthony Hopkins, and Idris Elba and the only downside is we wish we could’ve had more of them in the film.
If there is one detriment (and it’s a tiny one for sure) it’s that the action doesn’t exactly surprise. From a technical standpoint, they’re fine and one or two of them (especially the opening battle and the gladiatorial bout pitting Thor against Hulk) arrest the attention but, for the most part, they’re predictable opportunities for the special effects experts to flex their muscles. Maybe we’ve just seen too many of these films to be surprised by the action and special effects but a lot of it is strictly by the numbers.
That being said, Thor: Ragnarok doesn’t need to succeed on its display of action. The film has a winning sense of humor and a fantastic cast that attacks it in the best way possible. Someone I know compared the progression of the Thor films to the Evil Dead franchise. The first two Evil Dead films played things more serious while Army of Darkness shifted tones into pure comedy and became a cult classic in the process. Thor: Ragnarok is the Army of Darkness of these films and it’s much better for it. As always, I look forward to what Marvel has in store for us next.