Since it’s start in 2008 with the release of Iron Man, Marvel Studio’s bold Cinematic Universe plan has had to endure many years of cinematic scrutiny in order to get where to the place they are at right now. Devoting multiple films from multiple franchise all towards a singular goal ahead in the form of the the sweeping Infinity War saga is a remarkable example of one studio’s incredible discipline and commitment to doing something never done before on the big screen. And yet, to undertake such a goal, they have had to weather changing tastes in the market, as well as competition from like-minded producers, and also the very high risk of audience fatigue the further they go along with their plan. But, Marvel has managed to weather the storms and has moved towards their larger ambitions with very little interference. Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (the MCU) not only is still going strong 10 years after it’s launch, they seem to also show no signs of slowing down. While there have been some hiccups (mostly on the television side), the great majority of their film output has been both financially and critically successful. Even when it looked like the bottom was going to fall out from under them, such as with the troubled production of Ant-Man (2015), they still managed to do just fine. And the reason for this enduring success is mainly due to Marvel’s very special ability to refocus their larger plans to a changing market. While all their plans are still working toward the same goal, their tactics have managed to allow them to fix things internally that didn’t work well the first time and improve them for every next chapter. You can especially see this in the way that they have changed their franchises tonally over the years, with some growing darker and grittier while others grow lighter and sillier, all suiting the needs of their natural progression. And no where have we seen that more than within the franchise of the god of thunder himself, Thor.
Of all the Marvel properties to make it to the big screen, Thor may have been the trickiest one. For one thing, he’s the only character within the Marvel universe whose origins don’t come from the comics themselves. He is of course a figure out of Norse mythology, dating back centuries. To do a film about Thor means that you have to take into account his background in legend and importance to Nordic culture. At the same time, Marvel has taken the mythic figure and worked him into several decades of their own ongoing stories. There’s the legend of myth and the comic book superhero, and both have to merge together into one character that audiences can identify with and root for. Despite the challenges, Marvel managed to find a way to make Thor not only a viable on-screen character, but also make him a vital part of their Cinematic Universe. A large part of their success with the character certainly has to do with the excellent casting of Australian actor Chris Hemsworth in the role, as he’s done a fantastic job of finding the humanity and soul underneath the myth. The franchise also benefited from an assured foundation built upon the direction of the first film by Kenneth Branagh. Branagh brought his Shakespearean sensibilities into the Marvel comic adaptation and managed to bridge both myth and comic legend together in a beautiful operatic package with his 2011 film. In particular, he found the driving force for the drama in the dynamic relationship between Thor and his deceitful brother Loki, which has been a factor that has shaped much of the MCU so far. But, there have been many critics that have found the Thor franchise to be the most staid of the MCU, because of it’s at times melodramatic tone. This was especially the case surrounding the serviceable, but unremarkable sequel Thor: The Dark World (2013). If any Marvel franchise needed to change with the times, Thor certainly look like the one. Thus we have a third entry in the series that seems to shake up the Thor franchise completely called Thor: Ragnarok. But is it a change in the franchise for the better or is it too much of a heel turn that spoils what came before?
Where the movie begins makes more sense if you’re familiar with the MCU as a whole. We first find Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in the underworld battling a demon known as Surtur, who reveals that he is destined to destroy Thor’s home world, Asgard, in a cataclysmic event known as Ragnarok. Thor bests the demon and returns home, only to find his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in charge under the guise of their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Thor demands that Loki reveal where he’s hiding their father, which leads them back to Earth where they find him in Norway. Odin, it turns out, is dying and with his last moments he reveals to his sons that they have a sister named Hela (Cate Blanchett), whom Odin has hidden away for fear of her dark ambitions and ruthlessness. After Odin perishes, the self-proclaimed Goddess of Death emerges from her prison and promptly chases after her brothers. Thor and Loki end up getting sidetracked as they fall out of the Bifrost portal, leaving Hela uncontested as she returns to savagely reclaim her throne in Asgard. On Asgard, Hela enlists the help of a disgruntled former warrior of Odin’s army named Skurge (Karl Urban), and with him by her side, she lays waste to all who stands in her way, with only the loyal gatekeeper, Heimdall (Idris Elba) left to save who’s left. Thor meanwhile ends up in a trash heap of a planet known as Sakaar, which is ruled by a gladiatorial games loving overlord named the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Thor is trapped and taken in shackles to the Grandmaster’s palace by a strong-willed warrior named Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), where the Grandmaster chooses him as the next challenger for his beloved champion. When Thor enters the arena, he discovers that the Champion that he is about to face is none other than the long missing Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who is undefeated in the arena. After finding his “friend from work,” Thor seeks to find a way out of Sakaar and back home to defeat Hela, which proves to be a bigger test than he realizes.
The first thing that you will realize upon watching this movie is how much of a tonal whiplash it will be compared to the previous Thor movies. Thor: Ragnarok dispenses with the somber and operatic tones of the first two movies and instead embraces the weird and campy side of the character and his world. More than any of the previous Thor movies, Ragnarok is the comic book part of Thor’s legend come to life. We no longer see here an attempt to take the mythology of the character any more seriously, and instead bring him fully into what Marvel has turned him into. The movie is also, without a doubt, way more of a comedy than the last two films, both of which used their comedic bits sparingly. And, for the most part, it’s a complete makeover for the franchise that not only works, but was pretty much essential. Like I was saying before, Marvel has survived through the years by adapting their stories and characters while still working towards the same goal, and Ragnarok is the perfect example of how to do that right. They recognized that Thor’s story was being somewhat limited by it’s more somber tone, so they looked at what did work with the character and put a whole lot more emphasis on it. When you look at the best moments with Thor, from both his franchise and the Avengers movies, you can see that his strengths were in his goofy, misplaced machismo, which often led to hilarious moments of humility for the mythic hero. Here, the movie plays up his mischievous side a lot more, allowing us to enjoy a lot more of the things we love about the character. The movie is also unafraid to be a lot more self-aware in it’s campiness, which is something that was definitely influenced greatly by director Taika Waititi, whose other films What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) also had that side of campy fun. And yet, with all the tonal changes, the movie still manages to feel like a natural progression of what has come before, and that’s largely thanks to the fact that the film’s whole theme is centered around change, and how the old way of doing things will no longer work, leading for new directions and possibilities to open up.
There were funny moments in the previous films, but they were sporadically placed throughout and were more or less tied to Thor’s often “fish out of water” placement in the story. But, after several years of this, it’s clear that Thor is no longer an outsider type of character, but instead a man of two worlds, comfortable in both. So, with that in mind, director Waititi knew that the source of humor in his movie no longer needed to be centered around his main character, but instead around the world itself. In this movie, it’s clear that Waititi wants to lampoon everything about Thor (his character, his story) while at the same time maintaining a sense of appreciation that honors the character’s legacy. That’s why this movie has such a playful sense of humor to it, with no opportunity to make a joke wasted. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, especially those involving Thor and Hulk together, and it is a refreshing change of pace for the series overall. However, the one negative that I can say about the wall-to-wall humorous tone is that it exists in detriment to the overall narrative. While I was having a great time watching the movie and laughing at it’s most hilarious moments, I could still feel while watching it that there was something lacking in the plot itself. In particular, I feel that the comedy in the film undermined the menacing aspect of the villain Hela in the film. The thing is, Hela could have become one of Marvel’s all time greatest villains, and she certainly feels like it at times in the movie, with Cate Blanchett delivering a magnificent performance. But, she is barely in the movie at all, disappearing for large stretches of screen-time. I can see that Waititi wanted to maximize his comedic and action-filled moments, but by doing so, this iconic comic villain unfortunately gets diminished. I wanted to know more about her apart from some rushed exposition and for her to truly let her wrath go wild. But, while the movie mostly lands it’s laughs, I felt that it still left some things off the table that could have solidified it as one of Marvel’s greats.
There is still plenty to appreciate though. The cast in particular are all uniformly excellent here. Both Marvel and Taika Waititi made the wise choice to ground this movie firmly within Thor’s world, allowing more free range for all the actors to embrace their more campy instincts. Hemsworth, as always, perfectly embodies the character of Thor, and this movie allows him more than ever to show his range; especially his knack for comedy. This is a very relaxed version of Thor, laying far more into his charisma than into his ability to look strong while fighting. You can also see the maturity that has seeped into his performance, as he clearly shows the way that living on earth among mortals has left an impact on him. Tom Hiddleston likewise shows new layers for Loki here, showing how his character has gone through a transformation over the years, going from power hungry to uncertain and aimless under different circumstances. And, I also have to point out that this is by far the best Hulk that we’ve seen in any movie to date, with the green guy getting a lot more character development than we’ve seen before. We even see a playful side to him, which is especially uncharacteristic based on all his other appearances, yet still very much welcome. The newest editions to the cast are also welcome. Cate Blanchett makes the most of her sadly all too brief screen-time, clearly relishing the part she’s playing. Tessa Thompson also makes Valkyrie a well-developed and interesting heroine; something that I have to say was severely lacking in this series up to now. However, my absolute favorite character in the movie is the Grandmaster, with Jeff Goldblum owning every second of screen-time that he has. It’s a perfect match of actor and character and the movie came to life every time he appears. It’s clear that the Waititi intentionally had Goldblum just play himself throughout the movie, making the actor’s distinct personality be what defines the character, and it totally works. If anything, the movie is worth seeing just for this character alone (and stay to the end of the credits to see even more of him).
Another great thing about this movie, in addition to the changed tone, is the visual aesthetic. Kenneth Branagh’s original Thor had a bold look of it’s own, but it was grounded far more in the realm of fantasy and folklore, with Asgard looking as ornate and grandiose as something that you would see in any Lord of the Rings film. Ragnarok owes a fair share of it’s visual style to the fantasy and sci-fi films of the 1980’s. You can really feel the finger prints of movies like Flash Gordan (1980) and Masters of the Universe (1987) all over this movie. I’ve heard other people call this movie a Heavy Metal album cover come to life, which is a comparison that’s not without merit, given the heavy Frank Frazetta feel of it all. But, the movie’s visuals have a more comic book basis, especially in the moments on Sakaar, and that’s from the artwork of Marvel’s own Jack Kirby. Kirby’s colorful style, which defined the publisher for many years, with it’s bold color schemes and dramatic compositions are clearly an inspiration for the colorful world of Sakaar, which is by far the most comic book-ish world that we’ve ever seen in any superhero film to date. It’s remarkable to think that it’s taken Marvel this long to actually find a way to put Kirby’s distinctive style somewhere into the MCU, so thank goodness this film finally allowed the opportunity to happen. The movie’s film score, provided by Mark Motherbaugh of Devo fame, also is a wonderful throwback to an 80’s style, using a heavy dose of synth rock to the orchestral music. Clearly the movie knows that this is a heavy metal rock album come to life, so why not sound like it. At the same time, it still feels within character of the franchise, as it fits the Nordic god of thunder quite well, both in the commanding way and the tongue-in-cheek way. Led Zepplin’s “Immigrant Song” which was used to sell the movie in the trailers also makes an appearance in the film’s score, once again, fitting well with Thor’s character. Both sonically and visually, this is a pleasing experience and without a doubt gives this franchise more of an identity than we’ve ever seen before; one that I hope they continue to use well into the future.
So, as far as Marvel Cinematic Universe movies go, this is an admirable change of pace for a character that needed it, that unfortunately falls short of the stellar heights that the studio has reached in the past. But, as an entry within it’s own franchise, I can safely say that Thor: Ragnarok is the best Thor movie to date. It finally feels like the franchise has found it’s identity, and they did so by fully embracing it’s cheesier elements. I really appreciated the fact that it found the humor within it’s over-the-top world and is not afraid to drawing attention to it’s sillier aspects. The first two films served their purposes in establishing the character, but this movie allows Thor, the comic book super hero, to finally emerge and be what he was always meant to be. He’s no longer shackled by the legacy of his past, but is now instead a warrior whose story is yet to be fully written, and that’s a promising future for this character. I just wish that this tonal change didn’t undermine some of the things in the story that still needed to be grounded, like the villainous Hela, who could have been given a more definitive role in this film and the MCU as a whole. Still, the movie works for the most part, especially as a change of course for the franchise moving forward. It’s interesting that it’s take the exact opposite direction as the Captain America franchise, as that one started off sillier and more colorful with The First Avenger (2011) and has since gone darker with The Winter Soldier (2014) and Civil War (2016). But, like with Captain, Thor’s transition as a character is well reflected in the direction of the franchise and I’m glad to see both embracing the right tones as they have gone along. Both represent the incredible ability of Marvel to make the right changes while at the same time not losing their focus on the big picture. It’s going to be interesting to see how everything ties together by the time we get to Infinity War next year. Ragnarok, in it’s literal translation, means the end of all things, but as we see with this new Thor movie, an end leads to new beginnings and that’s what I hope ends up being the ultimate result of this film. Thor’s story has ended one chapter, and is about to enter a whole new, and much crazier, next phase, one that I hope will be worth the ride.