Thor: Ragnarock exhibits the type of creativity that is supposed to be relegated to gutsy B-movies, but is executed in proficient A-movie fashion. It's proof that with the right vision, big-budget superhero movies can transcend their stigmas.
At one point in Thor: Ragnarok, the main character subdues his trickster brother Loki, foiling his plan of self preservation by betrayal. Our hero comments on how Loki’s schemes are becoming predictable. His reliance on actions that had succeeded in the past won’t continue to work forever, even if those plans are well thought out and executed. In many ways, Thor was not only addressing his brother’s bothersome habits, but also the audience’s concern with the direction of our tentpole superhero franchises. How much further can it really go, telling the same types of stories over and over? Like Thor’s admission to his brother, Ragnarok is a statement from Marvel that change is on the way.
Step one of Marvel’s charge towards continued relevance is finding filmmakers who are able to push the boundaries of the much-loved but repetitious superhero genre. In this regard, Marvel (and indeed Disney) has already made a few mistakes. The Edgar Wright/Ant Man debacle, and now the falling out of two Star Wars directors show us that it is not exactly easy to agree upon what a modern tentpole franchise should be doing. On one hand, any new franchise film needs to be able to provide some sort of cohesion between what has already been released and what is coming down the road. Diehard fans will only accept so much diversion, and crafting story arcs over several films takes some serious planning. But at the same time, sticking to a set formula is boring and redundant. There are only so many times a bad guy can convincingly threaten the planet/city such that we feel our hero is in any real danger of not saving the day.
Lucky for us, Marvel took a chance with Ragnarok, and that chance paid off. That chance was hiring Taika Waititi as director. Waititi is known for making small budget, but hilarious films and television shows. His sense for situational comedy and more laid back approach was something that we had not yet seen in big budget action spectacle. It was a huge risk given the monumental scope of this production, but the end result works well. I would argue that Ragnarok isn’t necessarily a departure from what we’ve seen from Marvel recently in terms of plot or content, but it is the most successful film yet in executing a cohesive vision. That vision is a more rambunctious, carefree take on the “end of the world” scenario. Instead of doubling down on doom and gloom, it embraces the destruction as another opportunity to show off in creative and distinct ways.
Where previous Marvel films spent much effort on creating a dramatic tension and trying to get the audience to invest in the immediacy of danger, Ragnarok is more interested in just having fun. Like Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2, Ragnarok pumps up its antagonist to nearly invincible status, but doesn’t let that threat dominate the film. Thor returns to Asgard after learning about Loki’s trickery and finds out that he is pretending to be Odin, which had upset the balance of the nine realms. Oden’s absence allows for a long lost relative, Hela, to return from exile. Hela is the goddess of Death, and she wants to take Asgard for herself, and expand control beyond the 9 realms. Thor is all but powerless against her and is cast off into oblivion and must find a way to get back to stop her.
Like Captain America: Civil War, Ragnarok extracts some excitement out of the idea of pitting two Avengers against each other. Cast out from Asgard, Thor lands on a planet where he has to fight gladiator style against The Hulk. Part of the reason that Ragnarok gets away with venturing into some familiar territory is the fact that both the film’s comedy and pacing feed off of it. The script is full of witty one liners and non sequiturs regarding the often ridiculous situations the characters find themselves in. There are also moments when Waititi isn’t afraid to call out some of the tropes and redundancies we’ve become comfortable with in our super hero films. The venture into familiar plot territory also helps to maintain the film’s brisk pace. Without having to waste screen time on explanations or character motivations, the action and dialogue are allowed to move along swiftly and smoothly.
The film also cuts out some of the fat plaguing the previous Thor films. It starts with keeping the most important characters (Thor, Loki), and largely getting rid of the rest. Thor’s love interest in human Jane Foster always seemed like somewhat of an anchor keeping him grounded. Without that obligation, Ragnarok is able to explore more of Thor’s universe (Earth is comparatively boring). What we find is that even Thor himself isn’t aware of everything that is out there. By tossing him into situations that are unfamiliar, the audience finds his plight as more relatable. In the previous films, the writers tried to use the human characters to channel the audience’s perspective. Now without any human characters, the training wheels are effectively removed and we can reach much more intriguing destinations.
Ragnarok works out as an 80’s nostalgia bomb without any throwbacks or references. Cast in bright colors, over-the-top clunky special effects, a synthy score, and B-movie attitude, it feels like a movie from a different time. The ability to seem like it is free from the burdens of modern franchise obligations while still doing its duties in that regard is what makes it really special. It isn’t diving off into the deep end in order to try and force something new and exciting. It isn’t following the blueprints of its predecessors to try and lead the audience blindly towards some redeeming end goal. Instead, it is able to find a fine line between the two approaches. There are Marvel films that are more meaningful, more cohesive, and better structured, but Ragnarok is very well rounded across the board. It is able to find success in many different areas without giving anything up.
Defenders of the previous Thor films may disagree with the more comedic tone and light hearted approach of Ragnarok, but they can’t argue with the fact that it makes the film more entertaining. Hemsworth is clearly having a lot of fun in the role. Here he has evolved his performance beyond being stoic godlike being into something more...human.Tom Hiddleston and Mark Ruffalo are both consistent in their familiar roles, and Cate Blanchett makes a surprising turn as the mighty Hela. However, it is really the supporting characters which steal the show. Goldblum is a perfect awkward fit for his role, and Waititi himself shows up as a hilariously well-mannered thug.
If you think about it, Thor: Ragnarok was really the film that Marvel HAD to take a risk with. The previous two Thor films were easily among the blandest in Marvel’s cinematic franchise. Without a fresh approach, the third film surely would have met with another shrug of the shoulders by audiences. Instead, Marvel found a way to not only make a fun and entertaining Thor film, but they found a way to push the franchise as a whole into unexpected territory. In many ways, it is Marvel’s flashiest film to date. Big budget superhero movies, especially as sequels to sequels, aren’t supposed to be this oddly charming or outrageously exhilarating.
What's Bad: The plot has elements in it that we've seen before (including in the Marvel franchise), the film's tone does feel a bit inconsistent compared to the previous Thor films, some plot elements felt rushed.