Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson and Karl Urban, with Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Hopkins.
Written by: Eric Pearson, Christopher Yost, Craig Kyle
Directed by: Taika Waititi
Run Time: 2hours, 10 minutes
If you look at the MCU as a genre unto itself – something distinct from our bumper crop of comic book adaptations – then the ebb and flow of its perennial entries makes more sense. They can’t all be the staggering blockbusters that the first Avengers was, and without plenty of nuance in tone and approach, the whole thing will eventually crash and burn. The MCU’s resident evil genius Kevin Feige clearly understands that, as evinced by his end-around of the Marvel brain trust, and the franchise’s recent entries reflect the need to shake things up without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Thor: Ragnarok works best just by demonstrating the benefits of that approach. It’s not the splashiest entry in the MCU, and I’d be surprised if anyone lists it as their favorite. But by God, it’s a whole lot of fun. And not just fun in a sausage factory Hollywood kind of way. It’s like a joke told by your oddball friend: the funky absurd one who looks at the world in strange new ways.
Said oddball is Taika Waititi: the Kiwi director responsible for the hysterical What We Do in the Shadows and about the last person on Earth you’d expect to helm a tentpole in Hollywood’s biggest franchise. Yet his skewed sensibilities breathe new life into Thor’s side of the MCU. He’s the exact, precise breath of fresh air required after the middling The Dark World and with another gargantuan Avengers entry lurking just a few months away.
His sensibilities shine mostly in the smaller details. The big stuff concerns another dire threat to Asgard and Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) efforts to stop it. Ostensibly, this entry explains why he and the Hulk were missing from Civil War. With Hela the goddess of death (Cate Blanchett) on the rampage, you can forgive the pair for being distracted. She wants Asgard for herself, and after casually tossing Thor to the far side of the universe – after destroying his beloved hammer no less – it looks like she’s going to get it.
It’s all pretty boilerplate, though it gets the details right, and as simple entertainment Thor Ragnarok gets the job done. Blanchett helps a great deal there, with the kind of feisty menace the MCU could use more of, and credible villainy that keeps the film from becoming just a flat-out farce. The story is reasonably standard issue, but it’s also engaging and exciting, and with Waititi willing to slaughter some sacred cows (like Thor’s hammer) in the name of growth and evolution, the standard-issue heroics carry the right air of danger.
But when you look at the smaller details, Waititi’s unique sense of humor shows through, and that’s where Thor: Ragnarok finds its own special energy. He delights in the absurd, the ridiculous and the just plain weird: a goggle-eyed look at a lethal-yet-cheerful universe where the apocalypse is just another conversation piece. Tossed on the distant world of Sakaar and forced to compete in its gladiatorial games, Thor soon learns where the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) has been all this time, as well as dealing with more tricks from his slippery brother Loki. Waititi finds a wonderful canvas to paint his jokes in the weird and wonderful landscape, from Jeff Goldblum’s blasé ruler to the last of Asgard’s Valkyries (Tessa Thompson, seriously scene-stealing).
They’re funny. Seriously funny. And with both Hemsworth and Ruffalo eager to join in the fun, they make Thor Ragnarok one of the lightest entries in the MCU. More importantly, the humor is unique, from Waititi’s skewed POV rather than some studio committee vetting everything. The gags skew towards gallows humor more than once, which helps connect them to the bigger picture of Asgard imperiled without losing their bite.
On the surface, that doesn’t add anything profound or enriching to the equation. It’s simply another reason to dig in and enjoy. Thor: Ragnarok wants to kick up its heels a bit, and the confection on display does that with effortless ease. But the personal touch helps make it sing: the notion that an actual human being put this together instead of the formless groupthink that started to creep into the edges of the MCU. It bodes well for the future of the franchise. While a seemingly minor entry, Ragnarok understands how this franchise can last a good long time. It’s great fun in and of itself, but more importantly, it might be a sign of more good things to come.
Rob Vaux has worked as a professional film critic since 2000: writing for such sites as Collider, Mania.com, Flipside Movies and the Sci-Fi movie Page. He also runs a blog, www.cinema-stache.com, covering musings and notions on the world of film. He lives in sunny Southern California with his wife and a whirling menagerie of animals.