Warning: The following review contains Thor: Ragnarok spoilers.
I find the character and the world of Thor deathly boring, like a plate of broccoli steamed 10 minutes too long—totally bleached of anything that’s actually good for you. Thor doesn’t have much going for him, other than that he’s very powerful and finds being powerful difficult to manage. I suppose that’s the basic logline for just about every superhero, from Superman to Wonder Woman to Spider-Man. We mortals like to imagine that holding the fate of existence in your hands at all time is a burden, when the real world gods that strum the strings of the planet seem to be having a delightful time fiddling while Rome burns. I understand and appreciate that Thor means quite a bit to a lot of people, hence the Marvel version of this mythic character enduring through the decades, but I personally never got it. I imagine Taika Waititi didn’t either, which is why he was able to make the best Thor movie ever by a wide margin.
Marvel’s inability to make Thor truly click for the modern era is evident in their previous director choices. The first film, directed by Kenneth Branaugh, strove for the kind of Shakespearian heights that only someone of Branagh’s pedigree could deliver. Chris Hemsworth, in his first lead role in an American film, played the god of thunder like a feral beast, all ferocity and bravado and perpetually wet hair. The movie didn’t really work until it traded the stodgy halls and throne rooms for Jane Foster and company on Earth. At least by that point, it developed a sense of humor.
Thor: The Dark World came after Joss Whedon made quipping the official weapon of choice for Marvel. Bizarrely, The Dark World was helmed by TV veteran Alan Taylor, best known for his work on Game of Thrones. Yes, I understand why that makes sense to a studio executive. “This very popular show has swords in it! So does Thor!” The only thing that works in The Dark World’s favor is the relationship between Thor and his jealous adopted brother Loki. Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston had chemistry from the beginning, and it could (and should) be argued that the true “love story” of the Thor films is not between Thor and somnambulistic Jane Foster. It’s between the two brothers, whose “will they or won’t they just be friends” saga is one of the more impactful running plot lines of the entire Marvel universe. The less said about whatever Christopher Eccleston was attempting to accomplish in that movie, the better.
If Thor isn’t high-minded royal drama and it isn’t gritty fantasy warfare, what the hell is it? The masterstroke of Thor: Ragnarok is realizing that Thor has always been the sore thumb that sticks out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’s regal, where the other characters are witty or sarcastic. He is the one character in the Avengers stable that isn’t from Earth, so he’s completely alien. Where the rest of them are vulnerable, he’s a god. Thor: Ragnarok tears it all up and starts over.
From the opening scene, featuring Thor dangling upside-down in a net and talking to himself, it’s clear the tone of this adventure will be drastically different. It’s like a Monty Python movie with way more capes. It’s encouraging to see so much of Waititi’s trademark humor come through the studio meat grinder. Of course, we have dangling plot threads to pick up back on Asgard, namely the fate of Thor’s father, Odin, and the pretender to the throne in his place. For those in the know, Loki banished Odin and is impersonating him while Thor is off trying to stop the titular prophesied doom of Asgard: Ragnarok. All of that could have taken up an entire film by itself, and I’m sure there’s a world in the multiverse where Len Wiseman directed this movie and that’s all it’s about. Instead, all of that gets wrapped up before the end of the first act, thanks to a wacky cameo or two and we’re off to the cosmic gag that takes up the second third of the film.
Cate Blanchett’s Hela, Thor and Loki’s sister, crushes Thor’s hammer and sends them both off to parts unknown. Blanchett does her level best to add some panache to a pretty typical superhero nemesis, lively without devolving into Joel Schumacher-esque camp scene-stealing. There’s not much going on here other than bloodlust, which is fine, because she’s pretty much just in the movie to blow things up while the main players have fun elsewhere.
Ragnarok really finds its groove on the trash planet of Sakaar, ruled by Jeff Goldblum’s interpretation of classic Marvel character the Grandmaster—an interpretation that is, as you would expect, mostly just Jeff Goldblum in a funny costume. If you need more from Goldblum in this movie, you are missing the point. This is Jeff Goldblum in a Marvel movie directed by Taika Waititi. If I had any pull in Hollywood, Goldblum would be given a dump truck full of Oscars for his work in this movie, acting so self-consciously odd and undeniably hilarious that any scene he’s not in is irritating to watch. Imagine sitting in the theater, tapping your feet and staring at your watch, impatient for any and all Goldblum.
The Grandmaster, a kind of perverse Vince McMahon of space who pits warriors from throughout the galaxy against his legendary champion (who, if you’ve seen the trailers, is obviously the Hulk), gets his hands on Thor and tosses him into his fighting pit. Thor has to convince Hulk to help him escape Sakaar so that he can stop Hela from bringing about Ragnarok. Everything about this section of the movie is absolutely delightful, from the acid-trip color palate to the comedic interplay between Hemsworth (who we’ve already seen flex his considerable comedy muscles in Ghostbusters and Vacation), Goldblum, and Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. Then there’s Tessa Thompson as the scavenger Valkyrie, a salty drunk with a secret, who finds the endearing side of being completely anti-social. Waititi himself voices the prisoner Korg and comes dangerously close to stealing the movie. The Sakaar scenes feel like a natural extension of Waititi’s work thus far, from Flight of the Conchords to What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople—whimsy, with a healthy dash of emotional resonance. Waititi even offers up a surprisingly touching resolution to the Thor/Loki relationship (at least for now) without sacrificing the humor of the piece.
But, Raganrok has to go back to Asgard, and it does quite often. Idris Elba, now working below his pay grade as Heimdall, holds up the hero’s end while Hela and Skurge (an always game and interesting Karl Urban) scheme and plot. It’s a necessity, in the sense that it appears Marvel is not willing to make a Thor movie that doesn’t begin and end on Asgard. Thor’s primary character arc involves his responsibility to his people, so it really is necessary, but that doesn’t make it all that fun. This version of Thor, as dreamt up by Waititi, is less noble warrior and more bumbling Prince Valiant. His bluster is played for laughs, except when it’s not and the movie demands we stop smiling. Robert Downey Jr. can pull off these extreme pivots as Iron Man, but Hemsworth is not in Downey’s universe when it comes to acting chops and I yearned for a Thor unencumbered by the need to brood. Hemsworth is a decent actor, but he’s an exceptional comic performer.
It remains to be seen if there will be another solo Thor movie. Kevin Feige remains cagey about the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe after the second Avengers film. If there’s to be more from these characters, the path seems pretty clear: More Goldblum. And if you can’t afford him, at least get Waititi back. He has a keen understanding of what makes these characters click for 2017 and how to get the most out of the ensemble. Credit goes to James Gunn for making the cosmic Marvel world safe for this kind of comedy, too. If the trailers for Black Panther are an accurate depiction of the finished product, that movie is something else entirely—maybe something closer to the original Thor’s majesty, but with a more inventive aesthetic. Whatever comes of Black Panther and the next few movies in the series, I’m fully on board. These are still unquestionably safe studio fare, but at the same time, Marvel has shown a commitment to let just a little bit of their freak flag fly. These movies defy audience fatigue and changing trends because they refuse to stand still or coast on formula. As long as they continue hiring idiosyncratic directors willing to filter their vision through the machine, there’s no reason to assume Marvel Studios will close up shop any time soon.