Thor: Ragnarok is the third entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2017 alone. By the end of the month DC will release its third film of the year, and Logan also came out this year, and quality-wise they’ve all been good to great, even if none are outright masterpieces. In terms of these characters, it has been two years and five films since we last saw Thor and the Hulk (in Avengers: Age of Ultron) and four years and eight films since the previous Thor film. That’s a long time, especially considering Captain America and Guardians of the Galaxy headlines two films apiece in those 4 years.
My point is that Marvel has never really felt comfortable in making a Thor film, or at least happy with the box office performance. They’ve also been kicking the Hulk down the line, and keeping him only in Avengers movies. In Hulk’s case, the options are more limited since a Hulk-led movie would require them to work with Universal. Since the last Thor film, Chris Hemsworth’s comedy chops have become apparent (I’m still laughing about Mike Hat). This makes it a good reason to bring in a comedic voice like director Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows, Flight of the Conchords). Of course, it also allows Marvel to borrow from the success of Guardians of the Galaxy and make this a space-faring buddy comedy. And it mostly works in that sense! Watching Thor: Ragnarok is a really fun time.
But there are some problems. Big problems. See, I’m in the “Thor is really good and Thor: The Dark World is better than people give it credit for camp.” The first movie is charming, balancing humor, science, and fantasy elements in a ‘fish out of water’ tale that was grounded by a strong central character arc. The Dark World is far messier, suffering for having a weaker villain while being a little bit too overstuffed. But they are unique among Marvel’s output in that they blend superheroics, science fiction, and mythology, hewing closer to the influence of Jack Kirby than anything else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For these reasons, the first two Thor films are special to me.
And Ragnarök, from Norse mythology, is the twilight of the gods. Coming into this film, the expectation is certainly set that this movie will be an apocalyptic level threat for Thor and his people. But that isn’t exactly how it plays out. The film treats everything from major supporting characters to plot threads of the previous two Thor films as meaningless, and both are systematically excised in the opening scenes of this film. We open with Thor (Hemsworth) in the clutches of Sutur (voiced by Clancy Brown), a fiery demon trying to grow his power in order to bring about Ragnarok and destroy Asgard. Remember all that weird Thor stuff from Avengers: Age of Ultron? Presumably this is what it was leading up to, and Ragnarok brushes it aside as quickly as it can, impatient to get to the more colorful sections of the film.
The next half hour basically accomplishes two things: wraps up loose ends from The Dark World, and introduces us to Hela (Cate Blanchett). For those that have forgotten, at the end of that film, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) sits on the throne in the guise of Odin, having usurped his stepfather. Thor finally returns, grabs his brother by the ear, and they come to New York to look for Odin. Some Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) shenanigans happen, and Hela, Odin’s firstborn shows up to claim her birthright.
In her attack, supporting cast members from the first two films are quickly dispatched. Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster and Jaimie Alexander’s Sif escape slaughter because they don’t appear in the film at all (at least Loki asks about Jane). This happens so quickly and so matter-of-factly without pause or even an attempt to make these deaths dramatic. It feels like the biggest thumb in the eye of a franchise since Bryan Singer wiped X-Men: The Last Stand from existence in his Days of Future Past. It’s like Marvel whispering in your ear “yes, we are also bored of Thor movies.”
Trying to make this film different is understandable, but rather than making a big show of anti-dramatically wiping things off the board, they could have just ignored all of the Asgard stuff entirely. But by punting everything from those films into the void (Idris Elba’s Heimdall also gets a reprieve, presumably because they thought Dark Tower was going to be huge) it feels disrespectful to the creators and fans of those first two films. Some of these supporting characters are killed in moments that feel like comedy beats. There’s a moment in Hunt for the Wilderpeople where a character’s sudden death is the inciting incident for the entire film, but Ragnarok acts like Thor is more upset about losing his hammer than his lifelong comrades. There is zero sense of pathos towards these characters, or toward anyone in the film.The weight of these moments are undercut because the film is in such a hurry to get them over with when the same amount of screentime could—at minimum—be used to create emotional stakes for the story.
The best thing about Marvel’s output earlier this year is the way that the heroes’ journey were perfectly mirrored by their villains. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming grounded their conflicts as a direct challenge to their hero both physically and thematically, and gave those stories plenty of room to breathe. Sure, Ragnarok strips Thor of his trusty hammer (he has to find the power inside him) and strands him on an alien world, but there isn’t much that challenges his identity or virtues as a hero.
The closest this film gets to demonstrating any sort of interesting thematics is when Thor returns to Asgard. He discovers that Hela has destroyed a fresco honoring the royal family. Hidden underneath artwork of a smiling Thor, Loki, and Odin’s reign of peace is a different painting that shows Odin and Hela’s ancient conquest of the Nine Realms. Thor is confronted with his privilege, learning for the first time that his place in the universe is built on blood and subjugation. This is a really fascinating place to take the character, and presents a real challenge to Thor that is linked directly to Hela. It especially feels like a wasted opportunity since Cate Blanchett gives a great performance. She brings her fantastic on screen presence, but has little screentime, and even less to do. Hela, like all of the characters in the film, barely gets a story of her own. Because the film is packed with so many boxes to check, these aspects of the film are largely left unexplored.
The middle section of the film, with the scenes set on the gladiatorial world Sakaar, are stronger than anything to do with Asgard. Drawing on the Planet Hulk storyline from 2006 (one of my favorite Hulk stories), it works better with Thor than it probably would if the Hulk needed to do any dramatic lifting. Brightly colored with a lot of winking humor, they are most similar to that of James Gunn’s Guardians work, which feels nakedly designed to draw in fans of that franchise (the first Groot movie outgrossed Dark World by a cool $120 million). It’s not a bad thing—Thor has had many spacefaring adventures in the comics—but it certainly takes away something that was unique to this corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But these scenes are where Waitit’s voice works in the film’s favor.
Waititi’s stamp as a director is at least as distinctive as Shane Black’s. And like Iron Man 3, the director’s voice manage to escape the gravity of Marvel’s house style. The humor is a little more offbeat than Guardians director James Gunn’s, leaning more on awkward pauses than sexual innuendo. This is most evident in the character of Korg, a soft spoken rock creature that befriends Thor in the Grandmaster’s (Jeff Goldblum) arena. In addition, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) has learned how to talk, which provides some of the most genuine laughs. Ragnarok also introduces Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), a hard-edged alcoholic warrior with a connection to Asgard’s past. Both of these characters make the film better for what it is, and relationships between these two and Thor provide much of the fun banter and awkward moments that are a signature of Waititi’s style.
The other major difference with Ragnarok is that the laws of physics have been completely shattered. This is Marvel’s first film to feel like a cartoon, where the un-reality of gods and aliens is played for maximum effect, and zero thought is given to grounding the action in reality. It’s a great choice, and one that serves the film well. A few fights (the ones set to “Immigrant Song”) slow down time enough to look like progressive rock album covers, which is sublime. More of that please.
But perhaps the thing that Ragnarok does better than any other Marvel film to date is the score. Marvel’s music often sounds generic, and across 17 films, there are only a handful of memorable scores. Thankfully that seems to be changing, as Michael Giacchino’s Doctor Strange score from last year is quite good. For this film, Mark Mothersbaugh creates a very diverse score befitting a film this overstuffed. Mixing synthesizers, Celtic strings, and nods to Patrick Doyle’s original Thor score as well as Joe Harnell’s “The Lonely Man” from The Incredible Hulk television series, it is completely effective in the film, and manages to celebrate the varied settings of the film rather than trying to harmonize them.
But the film’s fatal flaw is that it is too much of a breeze. The stakes are too high and the drama is too shallow for it to feel like it matters. Sure, we know that our heroes will always come out victorious, but this story lends itself to the kind of hard choice and sacrifices that make our superheroes people worth looking up to, but none of that is present here. Dramatic moments are completely undercut by humor, and a great film would be a better balance of these two tones. And perhaps the better version of this film would have focused entirely on Thor and Hulk escaping Sakaar.
While a really fun film to watch, that fun completely dissolved into vapor by the time I walked out of the theater, leaving only the bitter taste in my mouth from how much in the film is wasted. This is Marvel’s messiest attempt since Iron Man 2.
Thor: Ragnarok is p;laying in Philly theaters today.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.