If there is one thing the Marvel Cinematic Universe has undoubtedly accomplished, it’s making audiences stay to the end of the credits.
But if there is another thing the MCU has accomplished, it’s hiring surprising directors. From the very beginning with Jon Favreau taking on Iron Man, many of Marvel’s filmmakers have been highly unexpected not only for the superhero genre but for large-budget spectacle filmmaking in general. So when Marvel announced that it had hired independent director Taika Waititi to helm the third film of its likely least loved franchise, most people… well, most people probably didn’t care because the Thor movies haven’t been among the worst in the studio’s history and very few people had heard of Waititi. However, for those of us familiar with the filmmaker’s work, from the Academy Award nominated short Two Cars, One Night, to Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople which both broke box office records in his native New Zealand, and especially the flawless What We Do in the Shadows co-directed with Flight of the Concords‘ Jermaine Clement, the choice gave what had been a formality in the Marvel schedule, a third film because all franchises must have a third film, an immediate shot of energy. And that’s exactly what Thor: Ragnarok is, a shot of energy.
The good time starts from the very first shot as Thor explains, in what appears a baffling bit of past tense narration, how he came to be wrapped in chains within a cage suspended high above some unknown world. The reveal of why he’s offering this narration is the first great laugh of what turns into an introduction that rivals both Guardians movies as the most hilarious in Marvel history, while also setting up several important plot points.
As enjoyable as this opening segment is (although it does noticeably crib a joke used in Iron Man 3), the most revelatory element is the growth of its titular character. One of the main problems of the Thor films thus far has been the Thunder God himself. While his fish-out-of-water naivety was well played in his first film and his arrogance displayed in the two Avengers movies, left on his own, Thor has not been a terribly compelling character beyond the powerful physique and cool hammer. The first few minutes of Ragnarok demonstrate the evolution of a character who after four films remained ill defined. While the argument could be made that Ragnarok crafts Thor as just another snarky, wisecracking, occasionally foolish Marvel superhero – a la Tony Stark, Scott Lang, Peter Quill, and even Civil War Steve Rogers – there is clear growth in the character, especially in how he interacts with his consistently inconsistent brother Loki (it could be counter-argued that like Rogers some of Thor’s character traits have shifted due to his encounters with Tony, but I digress). What we see in Ragnarok is a more mature Thor whose arrogance and naivety, elements reflecting his upbringing as the spoiled son of a king, remain in a more subdued, nuanced form. He still has to be the strongest, but he isn’t above admitting when he needs help or, reluctantly, acknowledging his own faults, both of which we as audience wouldn’t notice if we hadn’t witnessed the character prior to this point in the overall Marvel narrative. As with Logan before it, Ragnarok is a follow-up to two films that could easily be skipped on their own, but without which the character wouldn’t be complete. Hemsworth himself demonstrates wonderful comedic timing and delivery – just look at the sheer glee as he bellows “YES!” upon seeing Hulk in the arena followed by the wonderful delivery of “He’s a friend from work” as seen in the trailer – while also portraying a simmering anger and fear that the character himself isn’t ready to acknowledge. In short, Ragnarok Thor is the best Thor.
It’s also the best Hulk.
After two horrible solo outings (the second of which was released the same year as Iron Man and endures as Marvel’s worst film), Avengers marked a resurrection for the big green guy (there have been as many recent Hulks as there have been Spidermen, but in much less time) with Age of Ultron providing needed development. By tying up threads laid in these two films, specifically the rivalry between the two strongest Avengers in the first film and the… odd… relationship with Natasha Romanov in the second, Ragnarok is where Hulk finally comes alive. Freed from the controls of both Earth and his own human consciousness, Ragnarok offers the closest thing we’ve seen on-screen to pure, undiluted Hulk, and the result is wonderful. The interactions between Thor and his friendly rival, especially when the regal god descends to the beast’s level, are some of the most delightful scenes I’ve witnessed all year. Yes, it’s typical Marvel banter, but the back-and-forth is rooted in character the same way that Iron Man and Captain America’s rivalry had been built up over years before culminating in Civil War. The most incredible thing is that while Hulk is hilarious and frightening, he’s also heartbreaking with perhaps the most emotionally resonant scene in the film belonging not to the characters of Thor, Loki, Valkyrie, Heimdall or any other Asgardian facing the prophesized loss of their world, but to one who rejected his. Of course Ruffalo is great on screen as Banner, but he’s possibly better while off as Hulk.
The fact that the most effecting moments belong to a computerized character spotlight one of Ragnarok‘s flaws. For the first time in Thor’s run the stakes are actually high, as is the body count. This is, after all, the end of the world. Cate Blanchett as Hela makes for a formidable villain even as she clearly has a grand time slinking about and striking poses directly ripped from comic book panels. Revelations are made about Asgard and Odin that shake our understanding of both. Scenes of Hela’s power and villainy, particularly in an extremely well filmed sequence in which the fate of the valkyries is shown, should be terrifying. Yet perhaps because of all the colorful fun and a cheesy Flash Gordon style soundtrack much of the seriousness is lost. In fact, Marvel movies often have very, very dark implications – from alien invasions to Nazi takeovers – which easily rival those of the much gloomier DCEU, but rarely is this darkness explored. The result, as it is with Thor: Ragnarok, is that while the movies are incredibly fun, they often lack the emotional and narrative heft to elevate them further. Ragnarok tries, it really does, to add some intensity and impact to its color and humor as every one of its characters including Tessa Thompson’s wonderful turn as Valkyrie find their own ways to deal with loss. Sadly, the most compelling of these belongs to Hulk facing problems from previous films, rather than any of the others dealing with problems in this one. What’s more, the film offers several new insights into the larger Marvel Universe (there’s a wonderful offhand comment about an inconsistency in the first Thor), but these as well don’t feel fully explored in favor of a whirlwind of hues and humor. In the week before its wide release Ragnarok was described as Marvel’s first true comedy. It’s not, even with Waititi once again giving himself the funniest role in the film as Korg, whose soft-delivery and offbeat, verbose lines are always hilarious, yet the fact that reviewers would overlook the depth in favor of pure laughs exemplifies what holds Ragnarok back from completely hitting the mark. It does set several characters on track for Infinity War but it could do a better job at building both its own intensity and toward what could and should be Marvel’s darkest chapter yet. Nonetheless, Ragnarok is a ripping good time for anyone willing to check their cynicism at the door.
If there is one thing Thor: Ragnarok undoubtedly accomplishes, it’s finally giving Thor a good – nay, great – solo film. If there’s another thing it’s in continuing Marvel’s track record of receiving huge rewards from odd director choices. Much like the event itself, Ragnarok marks an ending, that of a required trilogy, but the beginning of a much more compelling character, a most interesting world, and a huge career boost for Waititi. I only hope all that Marvel money, and likely demand for a sequel because hey, it’s a new beginning, doesn’t stop him from making more of those offbeat Kiwi comedies that he’s done so very, very well.