As Thor tumbles head-over-feet through the infinite cosmos, summons thunder blasts and tries to erase the image of Hulk’s gargantuan – how did Tony Stark put it, zucchini(?) – from his mind, “Cosmic Marvel” continues to evolve as the studio’s most fascinating subgenre. It’s where MCU mastermind Kevin Feige allows filmmakers the most freedom, thus far.
James Gunn busted the shackles of franchise conformity in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, and now we have Taika Waititi turning Thor: Ragnarok into one of his signature quirky comedies. That’s not to downplay any blockbuster action and intergalactic majesty – I mean, Jeff Goldblum in a golden robe for Ego’s sake – but Waititi embraces Chris Hemsworth’s inner funnyman FAR more than Kenneth Branagh or Alan Taylor chose to accept. Although, maybe that was for a reason?
We pick up with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) fighting a fire-and-brimstone demigod (Surtur, voiced by Clancy Brown), whose defeat is fabled to save Asgard from an apocalyptic demise (known as “Ragnarok”). Thor handily bests the cocky villain and returns home to find not Odin (Anthony Hopkins) in charge, but Loki (Tom Hiddleston). This infuriates Thor, so Loki takes him to Earth where Odin rests in Norway – but danger still looms.
Odin informs his sons their journey has “come to an end,” and with his final breaths, he warns of his soon-to-be-freed daughter – Thor and Loki’s unknown sister – Hela (Cate Blanchett), better known as the Goddess Of Death. In order to save Asgard – and the universe – from Hela’s warring intentions, Thor must band together with heroes and friends alike to defeat his tyrannical sister. But will Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), a female Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Thor be enough?
Waititi’s personality as a director is most prevalent in oddball interactions or seemingly inconsequential conversations – especially when embracing Marvel’s inherent weirdness. Most notably, planet Sakaar’s greatest export under the stammering rule of Jeff Goldblum is belly-laughs given how his Grandmaster is such a stark-raving-mad showboat of a dictator. Goldblum alone – like some cross between Eddie Money and David Bowie – makes our time on Sakaar worthy, as he punishes insolent “prisoners with jobs” (we don’t say the “S” word) using “the melting stick” and delivers exposition while playing keyboard or DJ’ing or whatever ridiculous act distracts him next. He laughs at “Ass-guard” and calls Thor “Sparkles” while his towering hologram introduces gladiatorial games as only the one, the only Goldblum can.
Punching even deeper, characters like Korg – a rock-man gladiator voiced by Waititi – and Miek end up stealing scenes from Thor and Loki, once again because comedic timing is everything. For instance, Thor detailing to Korg how his hammer “pulled him off” into the air (flying) and Korg mistaking the phrase for a “very intimate” kind of comment.
We also get a chained-up Hemsworth slowly spinning while Sutur tries to deliver an epic baddie speech (“Hold on, I’ll spin back ‘round in a second), Bruce Banner stumbling around Sakaar’s streets like Johnny Depp in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas – paranoid and trying to recalibrate after two years in Hulk mode – and even famous actor cameos during an Asgardian theater company reenactment of the first two Thor films. No doubt, Waititi’s sense of humor and timing doesn’t abide by typical Marvel rules of Avenger stiffs making one-off puns while winking directly into frame. Hemsworth is a talented funnyman given the right material, and in Thor: Ragnarok, he’s presented with more than enough supporting talents to become a deliverer of punchlines himself – not the butt of someone else’s spandex-clad jokes.
That said, such a focus on humor dulls the point of more dramatic sequences with a noticeable comparison of insincerity – completely unintended, of course. It’s just hard to transition from Jeff Goldblum not even finishing his sentence in the most Goldblum-y way to some deep, emotional moment between Thor and Hulk (even then, Thor keeps cheekily quoting Black Widow’s “Hey big guy” talk to calm Banner). The gravity of harsher moments is lost amidst (cleverly crafted) potty humor and Hulk in a hot tub, which I can’t fault because Waititi is going to something so drastically different – it just creates this storytelling rift that sucks seriousness into a black hole.
I’ve waited to discuss Hela in parallel with the action in Thor: Ragnarok because while Cate Blanchett is a vision as the black-and-green doom bringer – down to the sick smile she gets before slaughtering whomever – something is amiss. An early fight between Hela and Asgard’s staunch defenders features maybe 5% actual Cate Blanchett, 95% a CGI’ed emerald figure doing all the stunts for her. Come to think of it, green screens are universally a bit distracting – especially during Thor’s pivotal cliff’s edge scene with Odin – leading to this question of why operate outside your means? For a Marvel studio with infinite spending, moments like this are a bit boggling when thinking of what could have been achieved outside digital rendering (even Hela’s headpiece).
Charlize Theron just kicked ass in Atomic Blonde – why not dye her hair black and let Hela beat away hordes of armored Asgardian footsoldiers herself? One final battle pits Thor, Loki, Hulk and Valkyrie against Hela, Skurge (Karl Urban as her conflicted right-hand), a gigantic black wolf and undead soldiers, which doesn’t disappoint – but even then, a mixture of green screens, inconsequential heroism points and other factors make it nothing more than another expected Marvel finale (still with that “MCU main villain” problem, I may add). It’s all well-and-good when Sakaar crowds are celebrating Grand Champion Hulk in an arena full of green merchandise, Thor challenging the Grandmaster’s prized fighter with every electric punch for mere entertainment value. One just wishes the more meaningful battles held more of exactly that – meaning.
In closing, none of that is to say that Thor: Ragnarok should be ignored. If anything, Taika Waititi’s space-funk vision should be appreciated for the wit-cracking warrior grounds it breaks. Given the same freedom, one wonders what Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man would have become, but thanks to James Gunn – and double-thanks to Waititi – maybe Marvel will loosen the creative reigns a bit when overseeing future projects.
This is a very funny, perfectly scored (Mark Mothersbaugh nails the outta-this-world synth vibes whether Thor and Hulk be fighting or Bruce Banner hits the Grandmaster’s “Birthday” button), exciting, albeit overlong exercise in pushing MCU boundaries to their franchise breaking point. Gunn is still the only one to master balancing both giggles and tear-filled heart, but Waititi isn’t far off – and we can only hope he gets the chance to do so in another Thor sequel.
Thor: Ragnarok may be a better comedy than epic action adventure, but it certainly makes us fall even more in love with the "Cosmic Marvel" universe.