Just when you thought the MCU was out of surprises, director Taika Waititi and company deliver one of the best superhero movies of the decade.
These days a brand new Marvel can feel somewhat like an obligation. Just like a long-running television series you’ve come too far to quit – where later seasons disappoint even as individual episodes are capable of shining – the bulk of films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe often feel like they’re taking up valuable real estate in your heart that could otherwise be spent on indie movies or prestige television. So I wouldn’t have been surprised to discover that Thor: Ragnarok was fine; what I wasn’t ready for, however, was one of the more fun comedies of the year, regardless of setting.
Thor: Ragnarok picks up from the events of Thor: The Dark World, with a dimension-trotting Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returning home to discover his father (Anthony Hopkins) missing, his brother (Tom Hiddleston) still alive, and his sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) plotting the death of the entire universe. In the ensuing battle, Thor is left for dead on a distant planet alongside Valkyrie (Tess Thompson) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and forced to fight for the entertainment of The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Together with his ragtag band of Revengers, Thor must figure out how to convince his new allies to fight in his name, escape from The Grandmaster’s prison, defeat the unstoppable Hela, and protect the civilians of Asgard from complete and utter destruction. Oh, and he must also do all of this without mjolnir, who Hela breaks almost immediately. Throw in a nebbish rock monster (Taika Waiti), a hesitant executioner (Karl Urban), and the missing-in-action Heimdall (Idris Elba), and you’ve got one fantastic space adventure, not to mention about five pounds of movie in a three-pound bag.
Given how many times we’ve seen Chris Hemsworth suited up as the God of Thunder, it was somewhat of a surprise to hear early reviewers describe Thor: Ragnarok as the movie where Hemsworth finally locked into the character. They were right. Thor has always been at his most interesting when he is an arrogant (but well-meaning) mimbo, and Thor: Ragnarok allows the actor to play to his absolute strengths. Meanwhile, Tessa Thompson is a welcome jolt of energy to the film’s supporting cast. Every move that Valkyrie makes aligns perfectly with the cartoonish violence and humor of the movie; should Hemsworth hang up his tattered red cape at the conclusion of the Avengers movies, then Thompson proves herself more than capable of taking over the franchise in his stead. Her character is swaggering arrogance and brashness in equal amounts, and the screen rather literally lights up whenever she appears.
Tonally, Thor: Ragnarok is a step above anything we’ve ever seen from Marvel. Fans of Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Things We Do in the Shadows know that Taika Waititi has a comedy styling all his own – best described, perhaps, as big set-ups followed by gentle punchlines – and Thor: Ragnarok holds nothing back when it comes to showcasing its director’s personality. The film begins with a record scratch, pauses twice for comedic effect as a chained Thor helplessly spins around to face his captor, and then pivots to Karl Urban playing with a Shake Weight to impress eligible Asgardian bachelorettes. This all occurs in the first 10 minutes. There are callouts to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, a tongue-in-cheek cameo from one Hemsworth brother, and a Jeff Goldblum performance that riffs so hard on the actor’s own public persona that it’s almost shocking the film didn’t collapse into itself like a dying star. This is a comedy first and foremost, and one that treats every story beat from the other Thor films as fair game for riffing.
Perhaps what impresses the most about Thor: Ragnarok‘s comedy, however, is how capably Waititi and his writers maintain the film’s humor against the not-insignificant demands of the story. Fans loved Guardians of the Galaxy because it marked the beginning of something new in the Marvel universe, but Thor: Ragnarok is more interested in bringing closure to the franchise than spinning it off into uncharted territory. Secondary characters – characters who have battled alongside Thor since the first film – are unceremoniously killed off after only seconds onscreen, and the movie ends with such a fundamental change to the Thor universe that whatever follows cannot possibly be more of the same. In this manner, the manic energy of Thor: Ragnarok is almost sweetened by the sound of the minutes ticking down on these particular characters. Thor: Ragnarok is the first film to truly embrace the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it, and given how little we’ve been made to care about Thor up to this point, the whole affair is surprisingly effective.
Which isn’t to say that everything in Thor: Ragnarok works. While the film manages to juggle its competing narratives much better than anticipated, there’s still too many characters and not enough movie to allow everyone their time in the spotlight. The odd person out in Thor: Ragnarok is Cate Blanchett, who seems to have been brought in specifically to compensate for her character’s minimal development. Marvel may not have the best villains, but they’ve always banked on the idea that bringing in A+ acting talent will allow them to wallpaper over any cracks in the screenplay, and here Blanchett is no exception. Given carte blanche (get it?) to take on the campy supervillain performance of our dreams, the actress delivers, but her ultimate importance is the story is secondary to Thor’s journey of self-discovery. She may have a few memorable fight sequences, but we’re always more enthusiastic about seeing Cate Blanchett onscreen than we are Hela, the Goddess of Death.
In the end, Thor: Ragnarok is a movie that plays to the absolute strengths of its cast and crew. It knows how to let Hemsworth be fun, how to lean into Thompson’s general badassery, and how to make Goldblum… well, his absolute Goldblum-est. And at a time where the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed to reinvent itself as it closes one set of doors and opens another, Taika Waititi and company proved that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with punting on the things that don’t work and keeping what does.