Director: Taika Waititi
Screenplay: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins
Runtime: 130 Minutes
It’s pretty much moved past the point now where Marvel Studios can make an outwardly bad movie, their output is as consistently reliable as the early run of Pixar by this point, even if it’s never punching too far above its weight as to alienate the mass audience demographics that have been helping to fund them for so long. It’s a reliable brand of notable reference points, narrative structures, character beats and comedic irony at the expense of the genre it’s rooted in – but its most of all a brand that continues to work while rarely looking to exceed expectations.
Thor: Ragnarok has the benefit of being directed by New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi, whose previous work on indie comedy smashes like Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows has allowed him a visual and tonal influence over guiding the stilted Thor franchise to guide it into new waters. Jettisoning Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearian theatrics from the original – and whatever Alan Taylor’s glum self-serious atmosphere was in the last one – Thor (Chris Hemsworth) enters a world closer to that of Guardians of the Galaxy on the outer rims of the universe and finds an all-new stride that is far more at one with the character than his previous adventures.
The film feels more like a straight-up comedy in execution, though looking and sounding like a pumped-up action blockbuster, much of which is thanks to Waititi’s dedication to exploiting the full weirdness of the world and the splendour of Jack Kirby’s original artistry from the comics. The planet of Sakaar where most of the film takes place is a bright and colourful world of distractions and physicality, setting the stage for a stripped down storyline that reshapes the character we thought we knew as Thor.
Although it once again leans heavily on comedy at the expense of the genre itself – which in a post-Wonder Woman landscape feels all the more stale at points – the comedy mostly lands thanks to the way the characters bounce of one another and the improved chemistry between the actors.
Hemsworth’s brief stints in comedy have certainly brought up more of his comedic abilities beyond his charm. Tom Hiddleston's Loki is as devilish as ever even without a vast amount of growth. Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner / Hulk feels like the secret weapon as his Planet Hulk storyline from the comics comes crashing into the frame. This is by far and away the best version of the character ever put to screen, with actual dialogue exchanges that work and a depth that informs it.
The new cast of faces bring some greater energy to proceedings though, with Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster stealing every moment of screen time – only upstaged by an even funnier performance from Waititi as new companion Korg. Tessa Thompson is the most extraordinary addition as Valkyrie, a former Asgardian warrior with a dark past who’s fallen on hard times and heavy drinking. As she stumbles into the frame after the admittedly rocky opening act where loose threads are being hastily tied up, it’s as if the real movie announces its arrival with her and she takes her place as the MCU film series’ best female character to-date.
The weaknesses once again fall on the side of the villains. As tasty as it is to see academy award winner Cate Blanchett stomp around in heavy Goth-like makeup and a ridiculous costume, she’s a fairly one-note antagonist who’s back-story only serves as a means of propping up her already thin motivation. At times its like she’s performing in an entirely different film as we cut back and forth between the fun of Sakaar and the ruins of Asgard where she’s doing little more than killing time until the climax. Same is to be said of the rushed characterisation of Karl Urban’s henchman who fulfils an entire character arc without ever letting into much profundity.
It’s clear that there’s been some meddling and tinkering to the film in post-production, as is evidenced by entire scenes taking place in different locations than those seen in the earliest trailers. Luckily it infrequently steps on Waititi’s toes as a storyteller, and it’s a big plus that he really knows how to handle the action scenes, which are well-staged and sharp looking without turning into a blur of pixels.
Thor: Ragnarok does nothing to reshape the genre, how could it this late in the game and this far into the MCU’s grand master plan? But overall it works as a piece of broad and vibrant escapism. It’s easily the most enjoyable of the Thor series by a far margin, the least restrained in terms of attitude and presentation, and saturates its palette with the cosmic weirdness of the source material like its GotG brethren.