Thor: Ragnarok: Surely they can’t be serious (and thank the gods for that)
When people look back on this era of filmmaking, the movies in the Marvel cinematic universe are likely to define blockbuster: movies that are fantastical, freewheeling, fun — formulaic entertainment that takes itself just seriously enough. And when the people of that future time recall Thor: Ragnarok, the 17th such film in nine years, they will say it was Marvel’s Airplane!
This unexpected development comes courtesy of New Zealand director Taiki Waititi, whose What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople established him as an auteur of inspired lunacy — not someone you’d imagine at the helm of a comic-book colossus. Marvel seems to have given him a free hand here, and the result shows little reverence to what has previously emerged from the superhero factory. Not coincidentally, Thor: Ragnarok is funny as hell, and all the more satisfying for it.
This despite Waititi’s having been saddled with the largest volume of exposition of any Marvel film up to this point: callbacks and leftover threads from previous films, setups for future installments. The director seems to have decided that the best way to overcome plot jumble was to satirize virtually the entire affair. So the winking moments of self-awareness that were strategically placed to occasionally unknit Thor’s serious brow in the first two Thor movies now blossom, with Ragnarok’s 130-minute running time dominated by candy-colored camp.
The cast is mostly up to the new tone, led by Chris Hemsworth, who appears more comfortable than ever before as the Asgardian God of Thunder. Here, he shows the same anarchic comic spark that helped him steal every scene in 2016’s Ghostbusters.
The giant fire demon Surtur (voiced by Clancy Brown and performed, via motion-capture, by Waititi) has imprisoned Thor, leaving him to dangle helplessly from a rope while he villain-splains (Bond movie–style) the prophecy in which Surtur destroys the realm of Asgard. Terrifying news to be sure, but ropes twirl on their own, so Thor keeps rudely putting Surtur’s story on hold as he slowly spins away from and … hold it … back within earshot of the demon.
Thor travels back to Asgard and meets up with his half-brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who tried to destroy Earth in The Avengers and was presumed dead after supposedly redeeming himself in Thor: The Dark World. Through conversations with their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), he finds out he has a sister named Hela (Cate Blanchett), who has freed herself from Odin’s banishment and is hell-bent on destroying Asgard. They all do battle, and he and Loki fall through a wormhole in space, ending up on Sakaar, a trash planet where the stray dogs of the universe amuse themselves with gladiator matches overseen by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum).
The biggest problem with Thor: Ragnarok — and most of the Marvel movies — is that the fight scenes lack any real suspense. Waititi’s solution is to distract with funny, which also helps overcome big asks in the plot department. For instance, we are meant to forgive Loki — though if we do, it’s largely because of Hiddleston’s charisma, which sells Loki’s smart-assed “fuck it” attitude. Hopkins, who sheds his plastic-looking breastplate for a lumpy-casual suit-coat with pants that look like drawstring pajamas, is again here primarily to spout exposition and inspiration; his presence is a bummer almost every time he appears. The series also continues to under-use Idris Elba, who plays Heimdall, the stoic guardian of the interstellar bridge, and is probably wishing he hadn’t signed on in the first place.
But Goldblum, with a painted-on bright-blue goatee worn like Groucho Marx’s mustache, is a treat. Dry as ever, wielding his unique cadence in a way that confirms he’s always been from another planet, he pumps up the weirdness to a point that’s gloriously uncomfortable. (Waititi himself shines as Korg, a new CGI character that’s Thing-like in appearance but speaks with a New Zealand accent.)
Mark Ruffalo, as trailers have already revealed, is onboard here as the Hulk, a character who continues to deepen and grow. The choice to bond him with Thor, his biggest rival within the Avengers, sweetens the package.
Tessa Thompson is a much-needed addition as Valkyrie, a wounded shell of a warrior who’s drinking her past away. Like the Hulk, Valkyrie manages to earn some pathos in a film otherwise unconcerned with it. Her flashback origin sequence is a high point, employing dark thundercloud battle imagery and slow motion with stunning lighting effects in a way that doesn’t feel cookie-cutter blockbuster. Thompson is a tough, imposing presence who doesn’t fit easily into the sexually fetishized mold of female superheroes, actually putting on more clothes and bulking up to fight instead of revealing a skimpier, form-fitting outfit.
The same can’t be said about Blanchett, who sports skintight S&M fetish wear, and does the best she can with mostly boilerplate dialogue. On the plus side, she sprouts antlers when she gets mad, like a barbed sextuple erection. (Thor: Ragnarok includes a couple of subtle dirty jokes that are designed to sail right over kids’ heads.)
To end up with a Marvel movie that’s sillier than Guardians of the Galaxy, I’m assuming one of two things happened. Maybe Waititi looked at a pretty ridiculous screenplay (credited to Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost) and went about embracing that attitude, squeezing it into camp. Or perhaps the script arrived at Marvel and the producers chose Waititi because they knew he would punch it up and encourage improvisation among a very capable cast.
Whatever the explanation, though, this is the first mega-budget Marvel picture to put its heroes on spaceships and hurl them into a wormhole called the Devil’s Anus. Clearance, Clarence.