Directed By: Taika Waititi
Release Date: November 3, 2017
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, Mark Ruffalo
It's been two years since we last saw Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and a lot has happened in the Marvel Cinematic Universe he's a part of while he's been away. His friends clashed with one another in last year's Captain America: Civil War, the Guardians of the Galaxy had another adventure, and franchise newcomers got their own solo films in the form of Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, and Spider-Man: Homecoming. The world of the MCU continues to get bigger and bigger, but outside of his relatively small role in Age of Ultron, the franchise's God of Thunder hasn't really been a focal point since 2013's Thor: The Dark World.
Now, I have to admit something off the bat. I'm a huge nut for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Including Thor: Ragnarok, I've seen all seventeen films, all five One-Shot short films, and every single episode of every television series to date, from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter to the various Netflix entries to Inhumans. To put it mildly, I love the MCU, what it has already accomplished, what it's doing, and where it's going, though not blindly, as I can acknowledge when it stumbles, as seen with the currently-airing first (and likely last) season of the critically-derided Inhumans.
Back in 2011, long before the MCU would become what it is today, the original Thor had the unenviable task of following up Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Iron Man 2 and introducing audiences to the idea of literal gods and the cosmic weirdness of Thor's world without alienating viewers, all while setting up The Avengers. Had Thor failed to click with critics and audiences alike, the MCU most likely wouldn't have gone on to become exactly what it is today, and I think it's easy to take for granted just how much was riding on its success (and, for that matter, its direct follow-up Captain America: The First Avenger, a pulpy period piece that had a similar job of making its star-spangled WWII hero palatable for modern audiences soon after). Fortunately, Thor worked, its fish-out-of-water elements of its titular hero having his first experiences on Earth blending well with the Shakespearean vibe of Asgard, and deserves a lot more credit than most people seem to give it.
After The Avengers blew open the doors for the MCU to keep going bigger and expand its scope, Thor got his inevitable sequel in 2013, Thor: The Dark World, which proved to be entertaining but underwhelming. Taken on its own, it's an enjoyable adventure, but one that's nearly crushed by a lack of identity and an unwillingness to really dig deep in the potential inherent in its characters and ability to explore the universe beyond Earth, and it was quickly overshadowed the following year by Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America's first sequel that proved to be everything The Dark World wasn't in terms of mixing things up for its own hero and taking risks, as well as Guardians of the Galaxy, a film that audiences and critics loved that actually developed and explored the universe in a way The Dark World had every opportunity to do first yet squandered.
All this is to say that, in comparison to the solo series of his fellow Avengers, like Iron Man and Captain America, Thor's hasn't lived up to its inherent potential yet, the character in dire need of his own The Winter Soldier to bring his slice of the MCU to the next level. Thankfully, under the guidance of director Taika Waititi – who has earned my eternal admiration for his work with films like What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople - Thor has finally gotten the movie he deserves in Thor: Ragnarok, a sequel that essentially pushes the reset button to give the character and his corner of the world a new start, one filled with an abundance of heart, humor, adventure, and charm that - should Thor survive the events of the next two Avengers movies - hopefully won't mark the end of his solo series.
As with pretty much all of the MCU films in recent years, there's little hand-holding going on for newcomers, as Ragnarok relies on the notion that its audience is up to date on everything that happened in the first two Thor movies, the first two Avengers movies, and even Doctor Strange in order to just get the ball rolling, so much so that the first chunk of the film moves along at somewhat of a breakneck pace that could’ve benefitted from an extra few minutes of breathing room. That's not to say that newcomers and casual fans can't enjoy and understand Ragnarok - in fact, Ragnarok may go a long way in creating a whole new wave of MCU fans - but there's such a rich history behind and between these characters at this point coloring in where they're at and where they go in this film that can only be truly appreciated if you've taken it all in, from the complicated relationship of Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to their personal dynamics with Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to the importance of supporting characters like Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and Heimdall (Idris Elba).
When we last saw Thor, he was departing his fellow Avengers to investigate the reemergence of the Infinity Stones, but Ragnarok kicks off by sweeping his investigation to the side as having been inconclusive, with Thor having to deal with the fact that chaos has descended upon the Nine Realms his father, Odin, is meant to keep in order. Unbeknownst to Thor after the events of The Dark World, though, the real Odin has been MIA, with the thought-dead Loki posing as him and sitting on the throne of Asgard, creating statues in his own honor and bearing witness to plays designed to make himself out to be the fallen hero and protector of Asgard. Of course, it doesn't take long for Thor to figure out what's going on when he finally returns home, and after exposing his brother and forcing him to lead him to Earth to find their banished father, a new threat emerges to threaten Asgard and the universe: The Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett).
What unfolds is a story with a much larger scope than the previous two Thor films, with real personal stakes for Thor, his friends and family, and Asgard, and that journey, how Hela fits into it all, and what it means for the future is something best left experienced unsullied. Up until now, Thor himself hasn't really gotten the chance to shine as a character with a personality of his own, often overshadowed by his fellow Avengers like Captain America and Iron Man in the Avengers films or Loki in his own, but Ragnarok finally gives Hemsworth the true spotlight he deserves, with the combination of those personal stakes and Hemsworth's own comedic talents adding up to allow the actor to reinvent Thor. It's intangible, but there's a spark in Hemsworth present throughout the entire film that had only flickered in Thor and The Avengers before seemingly burning out in The Dark World and Age of Ultron, one that speaks volumes for his reinvigoration and newfound investment in the character, and for the first time, despite the huge cast of colorful, excellent supporting characters around him, Thor is the one who stands out the most.
With Ragnarok leading the series down a new path, gone are a number of familiar faces, like Kat Dennings' Darcy, Stellan Skarsgard's Dr. Selvig, and Natalie Portman's Jane Foster, and - to be honest - none of them are missed. The ones that do return, like Heimdall, Odin, and, of course, Loki, all serve a purpose here and who we needed more of anyway, the latter in particular getting a great arc of his own that pays off a journey we began with him back in 2011 and will likely resolve completely in the next two Avengers movies. Like Hemsworth, everyone seems like they've gotten a second wind here after the lackluster The Dark World, and if there's one gripe I have - and, perhaps, my only real gripe about the film as a whole - it's that Ragnarok doesn't do right by series staples Lady Sif (Jaime Alexander) and the Warriors Three (Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, and Tadanobu Asano) in the process. Despite their established status as Thor's best friends, Sif is completely absent from the film (chiefly due to Alexander's busy schedule filming Blindspot for NBC) but receives no lip service as to her status, while the Warriors Three are reduced to cameos. Obviously the film has bigger fish to fry, but it left a bad taste in my mouth how these characters are treated, as they were a bright spot in the first two Thor movies, and as such I feel it's worth bringing up.
That said, at least the movie makes up for their diminished roles by serving up a whole slew of new, great faces. Blanchett delivers a great villain, continuing a streak of solid MCU antagonist casting this year after Kurt Russell's Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Michael Keaton's Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming, while the always welcome Karl Urban turns up as Skurge, Hela’s Executioner. Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie has far more chemistry with Thor than Natalie Portman ever had as Jane Foster, and she gets a number of standout moments throughout the movie that make it impossible not to want more of her in future films. Jeff Goldblum appears as the Grandmaster, the eccentric overseer of a planet called Sakaar, and every single moment he's on screen, he's stealing it, providing the film with some of it biggest laughs, second only to Korg, an alien made of rocks that Thor encounters who is voiced by Waititi himself who is destined to become to this movie what Groot was to the first Guardians of the Galaxy.
It's on Sakaar that Thor reunites with Bruce Banner and the Hulk, and what an excellent pairing it is. In the Avengers films, we never often saw Thor bonding with any of his comrades, and Ragnarok takes a solid pairing from those movies – chiefly the power dynamic between Thor and the Hulk in the first film - and explores it to great results. Ruffalo gets to flex his chops here, particularly comedically, in a way his past two appearances didn't quite let him, as he was often paired as the straight man against Tony Stark, and the dynamic between he and Hemsworth is spun into gold. Like Hemsworth and the rest of the cast, you can tell Ruffalo is having a blast with the opportunity, and the fact that Banner himself has been trapped within the Hulk for nearly two years has meant that the Hulk himself has evolved, even learning how to speak, which only adds new wrinkles to the dynamic with Thor, who has to be friends to two individuals sharing one body who don't want anything to do with one another. Ragnarok does a lot of favors for Banner and the Hulk, both of whom have been fan favorites since Ruffalo took over the role from Edward Norton for The Avengers, and yet their sizable appearance here gracefully never undermines the fact that this is Thor's movie first and foremost.
Like its characters, Ragnarok has an abundance of personality, Waititi bringing his comedic sensibilities to an epic story without sacrificing the weight of what's at stake. It is, quite simply, a fun movie with a great sense of humor, perhaps the MCU's funniest yet, featuring absolutely surreal moments, like a scene that utilizes “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to incredible effect, and outright crowd-pleasing moments, like the usage of "Immigrant Song" during a crucial event late in the film. The obligatory Stan Lee cameo is great, but it's not the only wonderful cameo in the film, and there are countless callbacks to the MCU's past and even a great clearing up of continuity during a moment in Odin's Vault that satisfied this fan.
And before I wrap up, I have to mention Mark Mothersbaugh's score, a synth-filled, propulsive piece of work that breathes just as much life into the film as everything else. It's energetic and electric, with fleeting odes to Alan Silvestri’s Avengers theme and Brian Tyler’s work on The Dark World, but my favorite moment comes late in the film when composer Patrick Doyle's long-absent theme for the original Thor - easily one of my favorites from the MCU that broke my heart to see abandoned in subsequent films - returns. Mothersbaugh honors what's come before while paving new ground, and that's emblematic of Ragnarok as a whole.
Despite feeling like a relaunch of Thor's series, Ragnarok doesn't just sweep aside, say, The Dark World to pretend like it never happened, and I appreciate that. As much as Waititi and everyone involved are having fun with taking this series somewhere new, it never spits in the face of what came before (my issue with the Warriors Three aside). It also never gets caught up in trying to set up Avengers: Infinity War; despite telling a story that is undoubtedly a game-changer for the MCU at large, this is an incredibly personal journey for Thor and his allies first and foremost that stands on its own, the culmination of an arc that began back in 2011 that sets the table for a limitless future where Thor and his storytelling potential can continue to be utilized properly. For MCU fans, it's undoubtedly another win, one of the ongoing franchise's best by far that finally puts Thor on even ground with Iron Man and Captain America, and for everyone else, Ragnarok still stands as an incredibly entertaining ride that will certainly be hard not to get a kick out of.
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