For a film about the end of the world, Thor: Ragnarok is a joyride.
The previous films of the Thor franchise have had some difficulties with their namesake protagonist, to say the least. Chris Hemsworth did not shine as Thor in the debut 2011 film Thor, or Thor: The Dark World. A sense of awkwardness surrounds the blond-haired protagonist of Ragnarok’s predecessors as the screenwriters drag him from Asgard, his extraterrestrial home, into several fish-out-of-water situations on Earth (as though audiences would be unable to relate to him if his stories were to take place anywhere else). The results are two relatively competent works of inoffensive entertainment, which are completely outclassed by director Taika Waititi’s third installment to the series.
The lighthearted self-awareness of Thor: Ragnarok is established immediately as our protagonist singlehandedly takes on an army made of lava to the beat of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” After the initial scene, Thor shares blows and camaraderie with the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) as a gladiator on the garbage planet of Sakaar. He fights to save Asgard from Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death.
Another familiar face is Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, brother of Thor, embodiment of chaotic neutrality and arguably one of the most memorable characters of both the Thor franchise and the Marvel cinematic universe.
Clever, fresh and verging on slapstick, the humor that shines throughout Ragnarok is one of the film’s paramount strengths. Little feels forced about the comedy, which flows seamlessly through action and dialogue. But to say that the film relies on humor would be a slight to the dexterity and skill Waititi has brought to the project. The entire sequence of events flows together into an exhilarating ride with a directorial style clear enough that it raises the question of what the final cut of Ant-Man (2015) might have looked like under iconic director Edgar Wright, who was forced to leave the project due to Marvel’s rejection of his directorial decisions.
Especially noteworthy is the definitive sense of location. Sakaar and Asgard, the two settings where the film spends most of its time, are both given a significant amount of depth and character. The practical and computer-generated effects in the scenes on Sakaar are chock full of detail and vivid color. Special attention is also paid to the citizens of the city of Asgard, a creative decision that goes a long way in humanizing the city and its people, and giving later events a sense of greater consequence.
Ragnarok is not without its flaws. There are serious moments that suffer from the consistently lighthearted tone, losing some of the gravity they should bear — although this happens less than might be imagined. And despite the self-awareness with which the film makes fun of some tropes of the hero genre, it nevertheless succumbs to others. A lack of development in the main antagonist is undeniable; Cate Blanchett’s capable performance is intimidating to be sure, but her character is missing an important level of depth. The film also resorts to the use of multiple disposable armies — one Asgardian, one undead and one made of lava — to demonstrate the physical capabilities of specific individuals, failing to make their deaths (and/or un-deaths) have consequence.
These flaws are minor in the greater scheme of things, compared to the strong lead performances and the technical skill with which the film is executed. With the now-constant cycle of rebooted classics and cinematic universe-based sequels, it has become cliche to describe a film as “revitalizing” to a franchise or saga. With Ragnarok, Waititi has done more than simply revitalize the Thor films; he has reinvented the character himself. Until now, Thor was essentially a side character in a greater story. Now, it is difficult to see him as anything less than a major protagonist.
But even more notable than everything else about Waititi’s Ragnarok are the depth and maturity of the themes at play in the film. The messages Waititi conveys are strong, and very relevant, exploring everything from colonial imperialism to cultural identity. Enjoy the slapstick jokes and clean-cut action scenes — but also, look closer. There is more to this film than meets the eye.
Thor: Ragnarok was released Nov. 3. It is 2hr 10min in length and is rated PG-13. The film is currently playing at the Grandview Theater.
by Kori Suzuki