Marvel’s god of thunder hasn’t exactly had an easy time of it on the big screen.
Sure, Thor has performed well as a team player in the Avengers movies, but his first two solo adventures rank in the bottom half of the studio’s cinematic universe both critically and commercially — a fact that’s led many pundits to question whether the hammer-wielding hero is truly capable of carrying a franchise on his shoulders.
In fact, it was starting to seem like the god of thunder might be a lost cause … until Thor: Ragnarok came along and gave audiences one of the best movies to come out of Marvel’s cinematic universe so far.
The third installment of Thor’s solo series and the 17th movie in Marvel Studios’ rapidly expanding, interconnected franchise of superhero films, Ragnarok brings back Chris Hemsworth as the titular thunder god, and tasks him with escaping a far-off planet in order to save his fellow Asgardians from a terrifying new enemy. Along the way, he reunites with his green-skinned Avengers teammate, Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), as well as his nefarious adopted brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and recruits a former Asgardian warrior, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), on a mission to defeat the goddess of death herself, Hela (Cate Blanchett).
Although Ragnarok follows in the narrative footsteps of prior Marvel movies, it’s the first Hollywood feature for director Taika Waititi, who first garnered mainstream attention for his 2014 vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows and later set a box-office record with his 2016 film Hunt For the Wilderpeople, the highest-grossing film ever to come out of New Zealand.
From its very first scene, Ragnarok goes to great lengths to establish itself as something quite different from the Thor films that preceded it. Anyone familiar with Waititi’s past projects will likely feel his imprint throughout the film, from its infrequent (but perfectly applied) willingness to break the fourth wall, to its subtle comedic moments that lay the groundwork for bigger, more overt laughs.
More so than any of the prior Thor movies, Ragnarok leans heavily on comedy — almost as much as its action elements, really — and Waititi does a fantastic job of wringing every possible laugh from the moments that would benefit from levity. Of course, it helps that Hemsworth has a knack for the sort of comedy that works with a character like Thor, and he careens his way through the film with a smile that’s full of bravado and an undeniable certainty that he’s the most important character in the story.
Hemsworth’s action chops were certified a long time ago, but it’s taken until Ragnarok for his ability to carry a scene that doesn’t involve fighting to really shine.
As if that isn’t enough to make the film stand out, Ragnarok also features one of the best supporting casts of any of the Marvel movies to date.
The new, chattier version of Hulk is a welcome improvement on the green behemoth that appeared in previous Marvel movies, and rather than simply serving as a destructive element in the story, Bruce Banner’s alter ego plays a more direct supporting role in the narrative. In Ragnarok, Hulk finally becomes a character instead of a plot device, and the evolution manages to feel both natural and necessary to prevent him from becoming a one-trick monster.
As for the newcomers, Thompson holds her own equally well in both the action scenes and the film’s lighter moments, and makes a strong case for herself as a recurring character in Marvel’s movie-verse. The scenes she shares with Hemsworth’s Thor work well, but it’s her dynamic with Hulk and his human counterpart, Bruce Banner, that are really something special.
In the film’s villain role, Blanchett clearly enjoys playing the sinister — and slightly psychotic — goddess of death, capable of dispatching any foes she faces with an endless supply of magically manifested blades. Blanchett’s performance strikes a good balance between disturbing confidence and sadistic enthusiasm for the havoc her character creates, and while she doesn’t manage to hit the same high mark for villainy as Hiddleston’s Loki has in previous films, she’s a memorable addition to the studio’s stable of antagonists that could be worth revisiting in a later film.
Great performances aren’t all that Ragnarok has to offer, though, as Waititi takes things to an entirely new level with some of the most fantastic visual elements of any Marvel movie so far.
Fans of Thor’s comic-book adventures know that the character’s defining moments are often associated with epic, sprawling adventures featuring wild battles packed with colorful warriors, alien planets, and breathtaking panoramic imagery. Waititi clearly did his research, as Ragnarok often feels like a love letter to the work of legendary Thor co-creator Jack Kirby, whose bright colors and bizarre character designs seemingly inform every inch of the set. From the weird armor worn by background characters to the massive, intricately detailed towers that stab the sky, Ragnarok offers plenty of eye candy even when there’s a lull in the action and is the sort of film that benefits from being viewed on the biggest, brightest screen possible.
If there’s a fault to be found in Ragnarok, it’s that all of the action and laughs leave little time for more dramatic character-development moments.
Earlier this year, Marvel sequel Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 managed to strike an impressive balance between action, comedy, and dramatic moments that forged an emotional connection with certain characters (Michael Rooker’s Yondu, for example). Ragnarok opts to go all-in on laughs, however, and while the end result is a movie that’s one of the most thrilling and funny chapters in Marvel’s cinematic universe, it lacks the emotional resonance of Guardians of the Galaxy or some of the other action-comedies in Marvel’s franchise, for that matter.
The absence of a serious emotional connection is a small price to pay for the vast amount of entertainment Ragnarok provides, though, and Waititi rewards the studio’s trust in him with a film that achieves on a surprisingly grand scale. It may have taken three tries for Marvel to find just the right cinematic formula for the god of thunder, but in the end, Thor: Ragnarok is worth the wait.
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