Film Review – Thor: Ragnarok
Hey, look! A good Thor movie!
Out of all the central characters featured so far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor has remained a blank slate. Thor (2011) and Thor: The Dark World (2013) are two of the more forgettable entries into the MCU, mostly due to a protagonist that doesn’t have much going for them. It’s difficult to be drawn to a person who is essentially a God – who has incredible strength and wields a hammer with seemingly unlimited power. To work around this problem, past filmmakers thought it wise to place Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in cringe worthy, fish-out-of-water scenarios on Earth, and giving him a love interest (Natalie Portman) that had little to no sizzle. So going into Thor: Ragnarok (2017), I had my reservations. Was this finally going to give us something worth remembering, or will it be more of the same?
Enter Taika Waititi.
The New Zealand actor/writer/director, best known for low-budget comedies such as What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), has given this franchise a breath of fresh air. Following the example set by James Gunn in the Guardians of the Galaxy series, Waititi (along with writers Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost) decided to tackle the material as a goofy comedy first and an action spectacle second. This is one of the funnier MCU films, and easily the best Thor movie so far (although that may simply be by default).
The biggest improvement Waititi gives us is realizing the fact that Chris Hemsworth is a charismatic performer. Instead of playing Thor as a Shakespearean persona, Waititi allows Hemsworth to use his natural wit and comedic timing to really bring the character to life. While we saw bits and pieces of this in previous MCU films, it’s here where we really get to see Hemsworth flourish in the role. He’s constantly funny, juggling one-liners with the other actors with ease and comfort. The chemistry he shares with Tom Hiddleston – who returns to play Thor’s brother, Loki – feels natural, as though the two truly grew up with a love/hate relationship. And who would’ve thought that Thor’s friendship with the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) would make for some of the funniest bits Marvel has yet offered? These two have had a rough going in their own individual films, but together they make for a near perfect odd couple.
It’s fortunate that Waititi brought his unique and quirky style. This is the most colorful Thor film to date, from the aesthetics to the individuals themselves. The score (Mark Mothersbaugh) has a nostalgic synth flair, which has become the fashionable thing to do nowadays. All of this works and luckily so, because it makes up for some shortcomings in the writing. Once again we are treated to a villain that threatens all of existence, this time in the form of Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett). However, before Thor can stop Hela from unleashing darkness over his home world of Asgard, he gets sidetracked – whisked away to the other side of the galaxy. He ends up on a distant planet run by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, in full Jeff Goldblum mode) who forces his prisoners to participate in gladiatorial combat in hopes of escape.
This set up wouldn’t have been much of a problem, except that it takes the narrative center point (Thor) and removes it away from the main cause of conflict (Hela). Cate Blanchett is one of our finest actors, who has never given a bad performance regardless of the type of picture she’s in. As Hela, she chews scenery with bravado, using her lavish makeup and costumes to really lean into the nature of her character. But Hela is given a major disservice. As Thor, the Hulk, Loki, and others tussle light years away, Hela basically sits around and waits for them to come to Asgard. She is given nothing to do except to provide expository dialogue. Marvel has had an increasing history of mediocre villains and that trend sadly continues, which is a shame because Blanchett had the ability to give us something memorable. It’s too bad the narrative didn’t allow her the opportunity to do it.
But on the flip side: Thor: Ragnarok gives us one of the better female characters we’ve seen in a long time. Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson) is a hard-drinking bounty hunter, who initially works with the Grandmaster. Thompson is excellent in the role, giving 142 an edge that separates her from what we’ve seen so far in the MCU. But she is not one-dimensional. The writing and direction gives 142 a strong background, developing her well enough so that once she comes face to face with her moral crisis, we feel that she arrived there from a natural progression instead of just as a plot point. I don’t know what Marvel has planned for 142, but my hope is that they keep her around as a stable cast member.
Thor: Ragnarok is not a great superhero movie. In the pantheon of the MCU, it ranks somewhere in the middle, below the best of the bunch (that being Captain America, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the first Avengers film). The action is pretty much your standard fare, with our heroes yet again pitted up against faceless soldiers. But it’s the interactions between the characters that make this worth seeing. The small moments of dialogue work best, where personalities actually get to come through. Sometimes seeing people talk is much more rewarding them seeing them punch each other in the face.