My enthusiasm for Marvel has been on the wane lately. While I’ve enjoyed their recent films, none have stayed with me in any real way. They’re all very different, and yet they’re starting to feel the same. So it’s nice to have a movie like Thor: Ragnarok come out and remind you of when Marvel would throw a bunch of faith at a weird filmmaker or followup a gigantic movie like Avengers: Age of Ultron with a small, adorable heist film like Ant-Man.
Thor: Ragnarok is undeniably huge. It’s a big CG sequel filled with tons of famous people (a couple more than you may expect). But even with all that going on, it feels small and humble. Ragnarok really just wants to make you laugh. It takes an action movie template and negates it in favor of jokes. The broad nature of the superhero genre has given Marvel opportunities to explore a surprising number of subgenres without alienating viewers. This time it’s farce.
It’s a risky move. Fan reactions to this one will entirely depend on what they’re willing to give up for a good laugh. The film spends a lot of time undermining Thor (don’t worry, he’s still an awesome hero who saves the day), bending his character toward comedy so much that he occasionally feels unrecognizable. On a lot of objective levels, Thor: Ragnarok is actually quite bad. It doesn’t look particularly great. The action is mostly just serviceable. Cate Blanchett for the most part fails to break Marvel’s boring villain mold. Whenever we visit Asgard, the momentum stops dead.
Director Taika Waititi doesn’t seem to have much interest in these elements. He also lacks James Gunn’s willingness to go for pathos amongst such cosmic insanity. Thor: Ragnarok never takes that beat to put aside jokes and get serious. As much as I’ve been moved in the past by Marvel movies, I am extremely grateful for this choice. There’s nothing wrong with making one of these movies a pure comedy, particularly when the comedy is so interesting and loose.
It makes sense that they went this way with a Thor movie. He’s always been the funniest Avenger and also the one with the goofiest backstory. On top of that, neither of his movies have quite worked, leaving more room for a “go for broke” approach to his third outing. The irony is that Ragnarok robs Thor of his greatest comic weapon: his heightened, pompous dignity can’t really be undermined when he’s frequently made to look foolish.
But Thor: Ragnarok survives this by making everything else insane as well. Thor’s often a smiling doofus, but the incredible Valkyrie is also a hilarious drunk. Hulk is a grumpy three-year-old. Loki is all out of worthwhile tricks. Meanwhile you have Jeff Goldblum going full-Goldblum and Taika Waititi stealing the show as a charming Rock Monster. I’m fine giving up story just to watch these elements riff together. Even on a visual level, Thor: Ragnarok is a bright, colorful cartoon. And like many cartoons, it lacks heft and emotion.
But consider the film’s story - a villain named Hela arrives to take over Asgard, shooting Thor off to a gladiator planet where he has to fight his old pal the Incredible Hulk. He gets a crew together and goes back to Asgard to stop Hela. That’s it.
Now imagine that framework as a typical Marvel movie. You’d have adventure, and these things always have decent laughs, but it would also likely feel unremarkable beyond the novelty of seeing Hulk again. That’s an especially dubious possibility given that they already ran into this problem with Thor: The Dark World, which very much feels like “Another Marvel Movie” instead of its own, easily identifiable thing.
Thor: Ragnarok doesn’t have this problem. It remains to be seen how rewatchable the film will be or how well it stands the test of time when we rank these again five years from now. But you’ll always be able to instantly identify it as “the funny one”, which I find infinitely preferable to a Thor entry with no personality at all.