Thor: Ragnarok (2017, Dir. Taika Waititi):
I know what you’re thinking: “Oh no, Thor’s in a cage. What happened?” Well, it’s a long story…but basically I’m a bit of a hero.
— Thor in Thor: Ragnarok
Movie title with apocalyptic implications? Check. Body count in the hundreds if not thousands? Check. We must be watching the third film of a superhero saga, in which restraint and common sense fly out the window, replaced with exploding CGI pixels and overheated end-of-the-universe stuff. And yet, Thor: Ragnarok is as goofy as any film forged by Marvel’s cinematic factory.
Overblown goofiness has always been key to Thor’s charm — the original Stan Lee-Jack Kirby comic was a goulash of Norse mythology, Wagnerian grandeur, and plenty of endearingly lunk-headed heroics. Until now, the Thor movies have struggled to reproduce that recipe, and at first glance, Ragnarok contains the same plot seeds that have torpedoed many a recent comic book movie: an overreliance on dreary family drama, lots of plot machinations and random characters and back-and-forthing across the universe, too much of a much-ness. The difference with Ragnarok isn’t in content so much as it is in emphasis, and you can chalk that up to Kiwi director Taika Waititi. Grand is about the farthest thing from Waititi’s resume (Flight of the Conchords, The Inbetweeners, and What We Do in the Shadows), and his shaggy, tipsy style turns out to be a welcome change-up. Or make that a screwball — as evidenced by the quote that opens this review, Thor: Ragnarok is very much aware of its silliness, and is eager to embrace it.
The plot, such as it is, hinges on Hela (Cate Blanchett), the long-lost, disenfranchised sister of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Back for revenge against Daddy Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and jones-ing to rule Asgard, her name is as appropriate as it gets: she’s hella mouthy, hella powerful, and hella power-mad. After she crushes Thor’s hammer to smithereens, she banishes him to the intergalactic junkyard planet Sakaar, where our favorite hunky God of Thunder is taken captive and forced to do his best Russell Crowe Gladiator impression, all for the benefit of the Grandmaster, a wacky homicidal dictator in flip-flops (Jeff Goldblum essentially playing himself). Anyone who has seen this movie’s trailer knows that Thor eventually butts heads with the Hulk, who is feted on Sakaar as a conquering hero in his angry green form and has no incentive to return to being mild-mannered Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). Will Thor enlist the help of the Hulk, Loki, and alcoholic warrior Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) to break out, defeat Hela, and save his people? You better believe your film franchise bottom dollar that he will.
From the moment Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” charges onto the soundtrack while Thor kicks maximum gluteus, it’s clear that Ragnarok is stealing some of its cues from the Guardians of the Galaxy films. Like those pictures, Ragnarok thinks nothing of piling cultural touchstones and zingers into a Cuisinart and setting everything on puree. Waititi tosses in synth riffs that wouldn’t be out of place in the camp classic Flash Gordon movie, references everything from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to Heavy Metal magazine to Ray Harryhausen (behold Hela’s giant devil of a dog), and treats everything that was once reverent about Thor’s universe in breezy, undercutting fashion. In short, anything goes.
“So much has happened since I last saw you! I lost my hammer, like yesterday, so that’s still fresh. Then I went on a journey of self-discovery. Then I met you.”
Most of all, the film pokes fun at its heroes at every opportunity. (Early on, a reenactment of an especially dramatic scene between Thor and Loki from the last Thor movie is turned into a sniggering skit starring Chris Hemsworth’s little brother Liam, Sam Neill, and Matt Damon of all people.) Shorn of his locks, battered and belittled (The Grandmaster calls him “Sparkles”) and sulking like a schoolboy who’s been banished to his bedroom, Chris gets to stretch more of his comedic muscles as Thor this time, and his slow-burn exasperation supplies the film with most of its zing. He’s aided and abetted nicely by Hiddleston’s Loki (easing up a bit on his usual Wildean snark to reveal glimpses of an actual heart), director Waititi as a sad-sack alien named Korg whose body (and head) are made entirely of rocks, and Thompson’s swaggering Valkyrie, who might not be a heroic ideal but can certainly ride atop spaceships and kick ass with the best of them. Best of all is Thor’s repartee with zonked-out Bruce Banner and his aggressive alter ego. While the crux of the film rests on a dysfunctional family (as has become par for the course in Marvel movies), the true bickering bros of Ragnarok are the silly Asgardian God and the green rage-monster who used to be his comrade. Trying to reason with the big galoot, Thor argues, “Well, we’re kind of both like fire.” The Hulk’s grunted response: “But Hulk like real fire. Like… raging fire. Thor like smoldering fire.” Frazzled for the entire movie, Ruffalo has rarely been daffier or sweeter, and gets the film’s best visual punch line when he attempts to Hulk out at a critical moment, with disastrous results.
Would that the easygoing merriment that Waititi evinces in these scenes could have carried over to the rest of the film; alas, story and franchise needs must be served, and every scene that doesn’t involve Thor and his motley buddies is nowhere near as zippy or involving. Blanchett tries her best, but her diva-like malevolence plays like a performance from a Disney live-action movie. Poor Idris Elba, who no doubt could excel in a more relaxed setting, seems to be stuck in a different movie entirely, forced to play stoic and somber as Thor’s buddy Heimdall. Needless fan service abounds in the script: Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange is tossed in for a brief, unnecessary cameo, and Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster is excised from the proceedings entirely with a single line of dialogue. The climax of Ragnarok does indeed get a bit apocalyptic — too bad Waititi’s off-the-cuff style can’t rise to the occasion. The film works when the mood and story are droll; it’s less successful when it comes time to inject some substance.
The story’s point comes courtesy of Odin: “Asgard is not a place, it’s a people.” But does that sentiment really matter in the scheme of the film? It’s the type of dippy summation that Lee and Kirby would be completely at home with in the Thor comics; Waititi has neither the interest or conviction to do much with it. Too sloppy to be a straightforward adventure, too flippant to be entirely convincing when the stakes are upped, Thor: Ragnarok is an agreeable, lunk-headed shambles. While it’s ultimately somewhat less than the sum of its often-entertaining parts, one can still enjoy it as a humorous diversion, and if that sounds like a lot of effort expended for a small payoff when it comes to a superhero film, it at least stays true to Waititi’s screwball take on the genre.