MOVIE REVIEW: “Thor: Ragnarok” is fabulous, fun… and not for Thor fans
Moments before Thor: Ragnarok delivers upon its titular promise, the crusty-skinned Kronan, Korg (played by director Taika Waititi with tongue firmly in cheek), shares an optimistic sentiment with the surviving Asgardians aboard their transport ship. Watching Asgard literally go up in flames as the fire demon Surtur (Clancy Brown) fulfills his self-proclaimed mission of terrestrial termination, the rock-covered revolutionary assures Thor and his crew that they could easily rebuild after the chaos ends… until the planet explodes before their very eyes, eliciting a somewhat dismissive quip from Korg and hearty guffaws from the audience.
In a nutshell, this sequence captures everything right with Thor: Ragnarok… and everything wrong with it, as well.
A Thor-ough reinvention
Right from the opening scene, Thor: Ragnarok goes to great lengths to distance itself from earlier installments of the franchise. Instead of a grandiose history lesson narrated in near-monotone by Anthony Hopkins’ Odin, we get a humorous spiel from Chris Hemsworth’s Thor (a bit of foreshadowing, perhaps, for a tragic development in the third act that few moviegoers could have seen coming–pun very much intended).
Throughout the film, Thor loses the core visual aspects that we’ve come to associate with him: his medallion-accessorized armor, his signature hairstyle, and even his enchanted hammer, initially portrayed as the source of his lightning-based powers. Even his personality has changed significantly. The differences between the more somber, often unintentionally funny Thor from the previous films and Thor: Ragnarok‘s brutish, blundering, almost buffoonish quip machine are too major and obvious to ignore.
It almost seems as if Thor: Ragnarok were ashamed of its predecessors. Unsurprising, I suppose, given how the Thor franchise is generally the most poorly received among the multi-picture Marvel movies. Nevertheless, tearing down the franchise and rebuilding it with a seemingly Guardians of the Galaxy-inspired approach was a risky gamble, especially for a character that sounds better suited for a Lord of the Rings-style take.
Admittedly, it’s a gamble that has paid off richly. A quick glance at Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer reveals that Thor: Ragnarok is Certified Fresh at an impressive 93%, effectively placing it on the opposite side of the spectrum from the previous installment, Thor: The Dark World, the lowest-rated Marvel Cinematic Universe movie (66%). Furthermore, Thor: Ragnarok is poised to make more money domestically than July’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, a film headlined by a character who is essentially a commercial juggernaut.
Somehow, Waititi managed to hit the magical combination of elements to make Thor: Ragnarok a box-office winner right from the starting gate–even if it meant taking the core cinematic identity of the character and basically throwing it off a cliff.
All smashed up
The erstwhile wielder of Mjolnir was not the only character who went through some significant adjustments in this film. From being a slippery, charismatic agent of chaos, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been somewhat reduced to a clumsy and generally ineffective annoyance. While this does make it easier for audiences (and not just his legions of fangirls) to root for him, it’s also enough to make one wonder why Thor and his superpowered pals had such a tough time dealing with him in The Avengers.
Another significantly altered player in Thor: Ragnarok is Mark Ruffalo’s incredibly lovable Hulk. After two years’ worth of off-planet adventures and gladiatorial tournaments, the green-skinned behemoth now has the ability to speak in more complex sentences and repress his transformation back to “puny” Bruce Banner. The dynamic between Thor and the Hulk largely plays out like a buddy cop movie, with punches and punchlines aplenty. Their reignited friendly competition is easily one of the film’s highlights.
Thor: Ragnarok also brings a handful of important characters from Thor’s comic into the MCU for the first (and, in the case of some, last) time. Chief among these is Hela (Cate Blanchett), Thor’s heretofore unseen (and infinitely more powerful) sister, who alternates between chewing up the scenery and summarily disposing of Asgard’s finest with the least amount of effort. Skurge (Karl Urban) serves as her lieutenant, a warrior driven by his lust for significance to consistently ally himself with Asgard’s conquerors instead of its true defenders.
Out of all of the players in Thor: Ragnarok, however, no other character comes close to serving as a personified summary of the film as the Grandmaster. Played by Jeff Goldblum–who was clearly enjoying himself during the entire production–the Grandmaster rules over the junkworld Sakaar with an iron fist, taking in the lost and homeless (such as the disgraced Asgardian warrior Valkyrie, portrayed here by Tessa Thompson) and transforming them into combatants and recruiters for his own amusement.
The Grandmaster is essentially a reflection of what Thor: Ragnarok accomplishes as a film: It takes established characters, remolds (or even strips them of) their character traits to suit the overall narrative, and pits them against each other, in an entertaining and brutal spectacle that puts style over substance.
Aside from the way it feels completely disconnected from the rest of the Thor and Avengers films characterization-wise, it also crumbles under its own weight, from a storytelling standpoint. Thor: Ragnarok takes bits and pieces from iconic Thor and Hulk stories by authors such as Walt Simonson (“The Surtur Saga,” “Skurge’s Last Stand”), Mike Oeming (“Ragnarok”), and Greg Pak (“Planet Hulk”), puts them in a blender, and churns out a delicious yet nutritionally devoid concoction.
There is simply too much going on at any given time, and while this results in an aesthetically pleasing, senses-arousing film, it does not leave you with the same impact–and does not feel as magnificent, important, or even game-changing–as, say, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, or even Captain America: Civil War. For a film that features the deaths of key characters, the return of an MIA Avenger, and the total destruction of one of the freaking Nine Realms, this is a critical flaw.
Which brings me to an emerging problem in recent Marvel movies: overused, improperly timed humor. The loss of Asgard in Thor: Ragnarok, for instance, was certainly supposed to be a heartbreaking scene, as were the deaths of the Warriors Three. Frigga got a proper send-off in Thor: The Dark World, but we couldn’t take the time to mourn the loss of valued comrades and an entire planet without the gravitas of those events being undercut by the ill-timed deadpanning of an outsider?
Without exaggeration, the sheer number of articles and reviews about Thor: Ragnarok that contain the word “bathos” – the anticlimactic effect of transitioning from serious to silly at the drop of a hat – is astounding:
We’ve seen this in Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Spider-Man: Homecoming (although the latter two examples can be excused, I guess, due to the very nature of the films to begin with). Thor: Ragnarok is the most glaring example, however, of inappropriately used humor resulting in a film’s inability to connect with its audience on an emotional level.
Is Thor: Ragnarok enjoyable? Indubitably. Is it worth your money? Yes, especially if you’re a fan of the Marvel movies. Is it an absolute must-see? Not particularly.
The previous two Thor films weren’t exactly top-tier in terms of quality, true, but Thor: Ragnarok moving in a different direction doesn’t necessarily mean that the direction it’s moving towards is “Good.” It’s extremely entertaining, though, and a refreshing change–or a fitting bookend–for a franchise that never really seemed to know exactly what it wanted to be.
In the end, it’s still not the perfect Thor movie, but it’s certainly something.