That was… a lot…
by Thom Yee
If it feels like it’s been a while since we’ve talked about Thor here on GOO Reviews, you’re right, it has been a while, not since 2013 in fact when we published our review of Thor: The Dark World. And that’s actually a little weird because it’s not as if Marvel movies went away or became less popular in the four years since then, quite the opposite in fact. It’s just that Thor’s only managed one other movie appearance since then, 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, a paltry number in comparison to his fellow Avengers, Captain America and Iron Man, with whom Thor ostensibly shares the title of that team’s “big three”. In that same four-year timespan, as well as appearing in Age of Ultron, Captain America headlined two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s biggest and most eventful chapters in Captain Americas Winter Soldier and Civil War and Iron Man co-starred in and often even outshone the titular characters in Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming. That’s two more movies each for Cap and ol’ Shellhead to become even more the central figures of the MCU whereas Thor’s been mostly off world, doing gods know what in adventures that either had little to do with the MCU’s main, Earth-bound stories or that we had no real interest in (like [again] Thor: The Dark World [just as an example]).
It’s in that relatively sad state of affairs, far behind his fellow Avengers in terms of import and on the verge of being forgotten with newer heroes like Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, and the Guardians of the Galaxy having made their debuts, that we now pick up with the Norse God of Thunder in Thor: Ragnarok, and the most obvious sign of that sadness is that Thor: Ragnarok isn’t much at all like any of the Thor movies that preceded it. It is about Thor, Odin and Loki are there, and significant parts of Thor: Ragnarok take place on Asgard, but there’s something undeniably and explicitly different about the movie, something a lot funnier in the script, something a lot sexier in its villain, Hela, and just a much greater sense of embracing the sheer manic thrill of the Thor concept in the movie’s execution. As you may recall, we’ve been incredibly excited for Thor: Ragnarok ever since its first trailer dropped back in April, and I still personally think that that early teaser easily stands as the best trailer of the year and possibly the best trailer I’ve ever seen. As unexcited as we perhaps all should have been with the prospect of a new Thor movie after the character starred in what’s widely regarded to be the worst movie in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, it’s that trailer, its striking visuals, its sharp departures from the seriousness of previous chapters, and its incredibly effective use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” that turned everything around for Ragnarok, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned after having now seen the movie, it’s that you should never bet against a really, really good-looking movie star, especially not when he’s also really funny and charming, and especially not when he’s ridiculously taller and more obviously muscular than any single human being, even a human being playing a god, should ever be.
What’s it about?
Ragnarok is upon us (!). It seems (?). Thor, the God of Thunder and hero of Asgard (Chris Hemsworth), has been searching the universe for the remaining Infinity stones and the means to prevent Asgard’s fated destruction, but when Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett), makes her return and banishes both Thor and his half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to the mysterious planet of Sakaar, it appears nothing can stand in the way of Ragnarok! Also Hulk (Mark Ruffalo)! Also Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson)!
Ragnarök, essentially the foretold destruction of the world, is a key part of Norse mythology, telling the story of the death of several major Asgardian gods, the end of the world as it submerges under the sea, and the world’s resurrection as a new, fertile land, and in the Marvel comics it’s been a concept visited and revisited, with Asgard and its gods having died for various reasons only for both to be reborn anew being something that happens just about every time the writer on Thor’s comicbook runs out of ideas. Then again, one of the hallmarks of superhero fiction is heroes dying and returning, and in particular with most of the “gods” of the Marvel Universe, it’s more or less expected that they’ll get caught up in cosmic events beyond their control only to return, better, bolder, and with a new number one issue for long time fans to go crazy over for messing with the numbering and, thus, legacy of their favourite titles. The gods of the Marvel Universe aren’t just immortal but have an in-story reason for coming back from death, with the official word on the subject, taken straight from the Marvel Universe handbooks, being “Only an injury of such magnitude that it incinerated him or dispersed a major portion of his bodily molecules could kill Thor. In at least some such cases, Odin or one of the other gods might still be able to resurrect him.” Basically the whole thing is one big circle jerk, but… y’know, welcome to comicbooks.
The other major story being told in Thor: Ragnarok — Thor in the gladiatorial pits of the planet Sakaar — has nothing to do with Norse mythology or the Thor comicbooks, however, as it originally took place in a story called “Planet Hulk” in which the planet’s smartest superheroes banished Hulk from the Earth, sending him to a dangerous, violent world where he becomes king and forms his own tribe of war-torn misfits before returning to Earth, madder than ever, and putting the whole planet in danger in the subsequent “World War Hulk” event. It’s actually a pretty great storyline in the superheroes punching each other sense, much better than the Civil War comics actually, but it was never a story that involved Thor or any other Asgardians (though another cosmically powered superhero does unexpectedly show up somewhere in the middle). Ironically, “Planet Hulk” and “World War Hulk” both take place during a period when Thor and Asgard had both disappeared after a Ragarok-type event.
Ultimately you don’t really need to know any of that when it comes to the Thor: Ragnarok movie, but knowing that the two central stories at the heart of the movie originally had nothing to do with each other can go a long way in explaining why the movie is the way it is.
Is it any good?
I’ve said this before about a few movies I’ve liked over the years, and I’ll say it again here: I don’t think there’s any reasonable way to walk out of Thor: Ragnarok without liking it. But, as with all of those other times that I’ve started this section off with such an outwardly effusive comment, finding a movie impossible not to like isn’t the same thing as loving it.
There is a whole lot of stuff to love in Thor: Ragnarok though, action scenes that had me on the verge of tears for, once again, finally being able to see some of the really crazy things from the comicbook page now in real life, and moments of levity that really work and tie in to and tie off important parts of the continuity. Many of the visuals on display will appeal not only to comicbook and movie fans but to all of those Heavy-Metal-worshipping weirdos who dress in all black and studded leather and paint ornate, semi-pornographic images on the side of their vans. When the Hulk first shows up in the gladiator ring to fight Thor, the look of utter terror on Loki’s face is funny, but it’s made extremely funny given the history we know the two share. Karl Urban as Skurge the Executioner, for as small a role as he gets, is a standout, first as a source of comic relief and eventually redeemed as a hero of Asgard. Most of the action is really good in the movie, but I particularly enjoyed Hela’s showdown with Asgard’s soldiers where she basically goes full-on Fists of Fury (or Chinese Connection if you prefer) on the entire elite guard. There’s a later battle, rendered with a painterly quality, that depicts the destruction of Asgard’s Valkyrie (it’s corps of legendary female defenders), that’s so exquisite that I’m willing to ignore my rule against using the word ‘exquisite’, and it’s done with just enough nuance that you learn a lot about the people involved in the battle in only a few seconds. And beyond just how perfect Cate Blanchett is as Hela, the image of her in pursuit of Thor and Loki as they travel back to Asgard in an attempt to escape her was one that stuck in my mind as a display of equal parts terrifying power and the promise of a great, big cosmic battle to follow. In fact, of all the Marvel movies with a large cast, this one finds great roles for each in the movie’s third act and is one of the closest to having a satisfying final fight scene.
The world of Thor: Ragnarok is extremely removed from reality, particularly the parts on Sakaar, a planet ruled by Jeff Goldblum’s the Grandmaster in a land where portals to other worlds dot the skyscape, scavengers comb the wastelands for food and fighters they can bring to the Grandmaster’s otherworldly/ivory towers, and wildly different warriors from all over the galaxy battle each other for the amusement of the rich, and combined with director Taika Waititi’s choices in colours, architecture, score, and even fonts, the whole thing feels like one big Saturday morning cartoon in the best way possible. In contrast, and this is actually the part of the movie I liked best, Thor: Ragnarok still finds time for the important character moments that remind you these people — Thor, Loki, and Odin in the parts he’s in — are family and they care about each other. It’s that extra dimension of emotionality that made the first Thor movie work so well for me early on in the MCU’s development, and here in Ragnarok there’s a quiet moment, brief and sandwiched right in the middle of the action, where Thor expresses his genuine admiration and love for his brother even while acknowledging his faults that’s almost unbelievably touching considering everything else going on.
All of that said, the one thing that stands out most to me about Thor: Ragnarok is its humour, and for the most part it’s savvy humour that stays on point and informs and feeds into the action surrounding it rather than a bunch of unrelated tomfoolery like in Deadpool. There are a number of metatextual moments in the movie that make fun of the MCU itself, with direct jabs at The Dark World and Age of Ultron, and even current events. One joke takes a poke at Donald Trump, and it made me laugh endlessly in the part of my brain that craves unexpected and subtle humour, even if it did seem to fly right past most everyone else in the theatre.
Unfortunately, that humour cuts both ways, because, for my tastes, there’s just too much of it in Thor: Ragnarok. As much as I found most of the laughs worked, in terms of sheer quantity, the humour badly outweighs the movie’s other elements, strong as they may be. It’s like a tidal wave of humour that lays waste to the movie’s best action, design, drama, and storytelling parts, leaving a horrific but funny path of destruction in its wake. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the humour or feel that it doesn’t fit, it’s just that the humour, in its enormity, doesn’t allow for the other parts to thrive.
It’s in that sense that the movie feels imbalanced, and that sense of imbalance winds up carrying through to the movie’s overall structure, split equal parts between Asgard and Sakaar as well as a few scenes on Earth. Thor: Ragnarok really has three to five movies’ worth of material between Thor’s attempts to prevent Ragnarok, Thor and Loki’s quest to find Odin, the rise of Hela and resulting final battle, the gladiator matches on Sakaar, and the revolution against the Grandmaster, and I don’t feel like everything falls into place. We only get one gladiator fight, I wanted to spend more time on Sakaar overall, I would like to have seen more of Hela’s destruction of Asgard, the opening storyline with Surtur was neat but insubstantial, and the movie, simply by having its two major villains played by such intoxicating and distracting actors in Cate Blanchett and Jeff Goldblum, sort of underserves them both. I just don’t feel like we got the optimal mix here, and regardless of which of the storylines you favour — Asgard or Sakaar — I don’t think they lead into each other very naturally. They don’t mirror or reflect each other, Sakaar is basically just a distraction from what’s happening on Asgard, but it’s such a great distraction that I would rather have stayed there and finished out the “Planet Hulk” storyline. This might as well have been Thor: Planet Hulk, and that sucks because Cate Blanchett is so awesome as Hela.
So should I see it?
Asking if you should see Thor: Ragnarok is like asking if you should eat candy, drive fast, or sleep in. You want to do all of those things, you know what they all represent, and you’ll love doing all of them, but you’re probably not going to be much further ahead once they’re done. It’s fun, it’s imaginative, and at its best it gives you the same sense you got back when you were a kid after opening up your latest action figure and then begging to go to your friend’s house because he’s the only one who owns the big playset you need to complete the crazy storyline you just dreamt up. But just a little bit smarter and more though out than most of what you could come up with when you were eight.
Of the big three Avengers, the others being Captain America and Iron Man, it’s Thor who has the silliest and most unrelatable concept, and so it makes sense and is probably for the best that the creators of Thor: Ragnarok chose to embrace that silliness and turn out such a humorous movie. Thankfully most of that humour works, and it makes the movie easy to recommend, and if fun is all you’re looking for, you’ll find more than your fill here. But in my heart of hearts, I wish they could’ve toned it down just a bit, because there’s so much of it that it stretches the reality of this world into actual cartoon territory, and, at its worst, the stakes of the movie — the death of the gods, the destruction of Asgard and all — feel painfully weightless. Add to that a not entirely optimal use of the movie’s best assets, Cate Blanchett and Jeff Goldblum, and not enough time spent on the movie’s best parts, and what should have been a four-point-five or four stars at least becomes something just a little bit less.
Thom’s Thor: Ragnarok final score
On the Edge
- So that’s officially three MCU movies in one year now!
- Those old Marvel Universe handbooks, they sure did over explain all their hero’s’ powers.
- I can’t help but wonder how things would’ve turned out if Doctor Strange had gone with Thor and Loki to find Odin and had, therefore, been present when Hela first showed up.
- I don’t care if the power’s been in him all along, Thor better have forged a new hammer in the next Avengers.
- Asgard’s really in bad defensive shape when Odin and Thor aren’t around. Almost as if they have no other defenders of note at all.
- Man, they always flirt with the idea of Thor wearing a helmet, but it never lasts through the whole movie.
- People are going to get a big laugh out of who they got to play Loki in the play at the beginning of the movie, but I got a bigger kick out of who played Thor.
- Y’know who would’ve been a great Odin in the play? Kenneth Branagh.
- Weird that, back in 2011 when the first Thor movie came out, Taika Waititi was a bit player in the Green Lantern movie and now he’s the director of the third Thor!
- Speaking of Kenneth Branagh, director of the first Thor movie, and weird coincidences, it’s also a bit weird that Branagh directed Murder on the Orient Express, a movie that came out just one week after the third Thor.
- I miss Kat Dennings.
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