GoodTrash Critique: Thor Ragnarok

Thor Ragnarok is the third entry in the Asgardian hero’s tale through the MCU. It runs for 130 minutes, and is rated PG-13. Chris Hemsworth reprises his role as the God of Thunder, who returns to Asgard. Upon his return, he reunites with Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and discovers that the prophetic Ragnarok, or apocalypse, is on the horizon.

Thor Ragnarok

Thor Ragnarok—Planes, Trains, Hulks and Hela

A couple of years ago, I sat down and watched a little mocumentary that I had patiently been waiting to see. What We Do in the Shadows landed strongly for me. Taika Waititi’s loving homage to all things vampire was firing on all cylinders, and came in tight at just under 90 minutes.

I was impressed with his grasp of comedy. When I found out about his connections with Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, better known as Flight of the Conchords (New Zealand’s second most popular folk parody band), it all made sense. I had also ran across his first feature film Eagle vs Shark, but I hadn’t seen it. But What We Do in the Shadows was one of my top films in 2015. So, when I discovered that Marvel had pegged the New Zealand-native for the newest Thor film, my interest was piqued.

The Thor chapters in the MCU haven’t necessarily been the strongest entries. The first film, and only 4th entry in the MCU, had a lot going for it, with director Kenneth Branagh striving in the Asgard sequences of the film. The fish-out-of-water element worked to some degree, and gave us a few fun moments. Outside of Hemsworth and Hiddleston, the casting felt lackluster.

2013’s Thor: The Dark World didn’t do much to add new life or energy to the God of Thunder’s resume. In all honesty, it may be my least favorite entry in the MCU. It certainly followed the established MCU format, but it lacked all the heart and fun of the other films—Thor just couldn’t catch a break.

Enter Taika Waititi to helm Thor Ragnarok. Marvel/Disney have pulled off big wins with unorthodox director choices, and it looks like it will pay off one more time.

From the moment the first photos and trailers dropped, filmgoers knew they were in for something different. Infused with bright color and a heavy-synth soundtrack, Thor Ragnarok looked to be in your face and full of fun.

And, for the most part, it is fun. The comedy is nonstop throughout the film, taking breaks occasionally to let Cate Blanchett chew the scenery as the Goddess of Death, Hela.

Waititi opts to give us something more akin to a buddy movie, and lets Thor out of his shell. Hemsworth gets to shine bright when he plays up Thor’s braggadocios nature with two parts obliviousness. We also get the return of Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, and his green counterpart. We got our first glimpse of Ruffalo and Hemsworth’s chemistry in The Avengers. And that’s where Thor Ragnarok puts all of its chips.

The best parts of the film arrive when Hemsworth and Ruffalo get to go head to head, verbally and physically. That’s not to say other characters don’t get a chance to shine. Hiddleston is back and as good as you’d expect, and we finally get to see Idris Elba’s Heimdall get his kicks in. And don’t worry, outside of one early scene, Hopkins is just as wooden and bored as he was in previous entries.

But, we must talk about the newcomers to the MCU in the form of Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie and Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster. Thompson, best known for her work in Dear White People and Creed, enters the film as an alcoholic scrapper running from personal demons. She owns the role, and is a shining star in a film filled with solid performances. She brings a believable dynamic to her interactions with Hemsworth, Hiddleston and Ruffalo. Goldblum, who has achieved cult-fandom levels of popularity in the last few years, is having a lot of fun as Grandmaster. An odd narrative structure truly places Grandmaster into the primary antagonist slot, rather than Hela.

And that’s where Thor Ragnarok suffers.

This is really two films, and they never really gel together as one would hope. At roughly 130 minutes, there’s ample time to accomplish what is needed. But, the film is primarily concerned with having fun on Sakaar, while the primary antagonist and the real heart of the narrative play second fiddle.

The sequences in which Hela terrorizes Asgard are fine, but many of the character arcs involved go nowhere. Karl Urban’s Skurge and Hela herself both feel wasted, even though both Urban and Blanchett seem to be having a lot of fun.

Thor Ragnarok is a lot of fun. And the first two acts are cinematic joy. But, there is never anything at stake. So, what if Hela is destroying lives on Asgard? 80% of the movie is devoted to giving us laughs while Thor and Hulk try to escape Sakaar—Asgardian lives mean nothing to us.

Waititi and his team seem to struggle in balancing vital narrative elements and tone. The film has truly dark moments, but the extremely well worked comedy completely overshadows them.

This all speaks to a deeper issue within the MCU. Marvel is scared to take risks. We know nothing serious will happen in these films. At least, not until Infinity War when all bets are off… hopefully. For the most part, Guardians has been somewhat capable of avoiding some of the pitfalls of the MCU. But, that’s primarily because they go outside of the galaxy. And the second Guardians is a mostly grounded film, if you look past the third act. It has a very emotional core, and James Gunn knows exactly how to use all the pieces for it to resonate.

Don’t get me wrong, Thor Ragnarok is a blast. I laughed a lot, and it presents a lot of memorable moments. And it is easily the best Thor film. I haven’t sat down to place it in a lineup, but it may break the top 10 MCU films, or come close at least.

However, it does have flaws. Waititi has taken the MCU outline and put a bright, loud, colorful coat of paint on it. It is full of joy, but at the end of the day, none of it feels like it matters. The story never raises the stakes, and the fate of our heroes is never in question.

But, as the credits tell us, Thor will return for Infinity War. And I can only hope that Taika Waititi returns, not only to the MCU, but to the top of every shortlist for major studios looking for a director.

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For more GoodTrash Content on the MCU see the below podcast episodes:
The Avengers – GTGC #61
Captain America: Winter Soldier – GTGC #174
Captain America: Civil War – Back to the Movies #29
Doctor Strange – Back to the Movies #50
Guardians of the Galaxy 2 – Back to the Movies #64

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