Thor has consistently been one of the best parts of the MCU, due in large part to the pitch perfect casting of Chris Hemsworth, and yet he has felt somewhat underserved by his solo efforts to date. While Branagh’s Thor absolutely nailed the humbling of a spoiled and arrogant prince who in turn learned how to be a good man and the Shakespearean family squabbles of Asgard, budget constraints, and the even more constrictive overwatch of Ike Perlmutter’s Marvel Creative Committee, kept the movie from fully delivering on the cosmic scope that the character inspires. The Dark World had the advantage of a Phase 2 budget, which allowed director Alan Taylor to take a step closer to a full-on epic fantasy. Unfortunately the story didn’t quite rise to meet the ambition or execution of the first.
Which is why it’s wonderful to report that Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok finally sees a movie achieve both epic, Kirby-esque cosmic weirdness and a heartfelt story, even if it does so in unexpected ways.
When Waititi was announced as the director it immediately made those familiar and fond of his previous work very excited at the possibilities. His solo directorial efforts Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (I haven’t seen Eagle vs. Shark) are hysterical, offbeat comedies that are also joyous and deeply-felt celebrations of humanity. His voice is wholly in tact in Ragnarok. The movie is even more of a comedy than expected but since it’s Waititi it knows exactly how to be silly while still having strong emotion and impressive character work.
The last time we saw Thor was at the end of Age of Ultron when he said he was headed to investigate the infinity stones, Ragnarok finds the son of Odin two years later and he’s discovered nothing besides the fact that chaos has spread across the Nine Realms. To go any further into the plot details is to give away part of the fun, so let’s leave it at that for now. As you’ve most likely seen in trailers, Thor winds up as a gladiator on the planet Sakar where he ends up in the arena with everyone’s favorite rage monster The Hulk. Thor’s mischievous brother Loki is also on Sakar but to say exactly how he ends up there would again be a spoiler.
There are a lot of new faces in Ragnarok and all of them are fantastic additions to this universe. Cate Blanchett is clearly having a blast hamming it up as the villainous Hela and while she’s slightly underwritten she gives the character plenty of depth. Jeff Goldblum gives a delightful performance as The Grandmaster, but then he is incapable of giving anything less.
The real MVP of the newcomers, though, is Tessa Thompson as The Valkyrie. The fact that in a movie with giants like Blanchett and Goldblum, Thompson is the standout speaks to just how good she really is. As Valkyrie she is as badass as she is beautiful. She is just overflowing with gravitas and charisma, and is as perfect a fit to the character as Hemsworth. With every look and subtle moment, Thompson says volumes. Expressing years of guilt and regret with just a glance in one scene. And then downing a beer and kicking tons of ass in the next.
Ragnarok is arguably the first out and out comedy in the MCU, as it’s formatted as one from the very first frame. If not the funniest movie so far, it is definitely the silliest as it is practically a farce for prolonged stretches. I was surprised as to just how much of Waititi’s comic sensibilities carried over and it is a very welcome surprise indeed. The movie is often gut-bustingly funny. Every character gets several great laugh-out-loud moments. Taika Waititi himself has some of the most scene stealing moments as Korg. He is essentially playing one of his signature polite New Zealand weirdos, who just happens to be a CGI rock alien gladiator.
Like I mentioned earlier, the film doesn’t forget to tell a compelling story with real stakes (both physical and emotional) amidst all the laughs. Waititi nimbly balances the tonal shifts, and manages to bring moments of genuine character growth and catharsis while still making the audience cry with laughter. Ragnarok is a very satisfying cap to the Sons of Odin trilogy (shoutout to Audience Everywhere’s Diego Crespo for that term) bringing the arcs started in Thor to a fitting conclusion.
Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk also is given a nice bit of character development, feeding off his subplot with Natasha from Age of Ultron in an subtle but affecting manner. Plus, the more talkative Hulk here is an absolute delight. He’s basically a giant, destructive toddler. It rocks.
This is easily one of the best looking movies of the MCU, insanely colorful with something cool or weird in every shot. Visually this is the most Jack Kirby inspired superhero film yet. Ragnarok is nerd eye-candy of the highest order. The movie is just as impressive sonically as it is visually. Mark Mothersbaugh’s score is amazing, gracefully combining synth and orchestral sounds. And effectively brings back both Doyle’s and Taylor’s themes from Thor and The World in key moments.
The movie isn’t perfect, there are some pacing issues that are often inherent to superhero sequels in the first act. Each scene is entertaining but they feel a bit disjointed. This is especially jarring in the appearance of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sorcerer Supreme that was teased in the post credits sequence of last year’s Doctor Strange. It results in some very funny moments but still feels out of place. But looking back on it today, the somewhat rough spots don’t come close to overshadowing what works.
Ragnarok is the over-the-top sword and sorcery movie the God of Thunder has always deserved, and the fact that Waititi has been able to maintain his singular voice and style while playing in the blockbuster sandbox is no small thing. This feels like a movie that will slowly work its way up to becoming one of the most beloved entries in the MCU canon.