Cinema: 'Thor: Ragnarok' is a Kitschy, Colorful Space Adventure
Thor has always struggled to find his footing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While a welcome and formidable presence in the Avengers films, his solo outings, 2011’s Thor and 2013’s Thor: The Dark World have suffered from stuffy space politics and a general uncertainty as to how to best use the character. Is he a Shakespearean hero? Is he a dashing swashbuckler? Or a brawny, knuckleheaded bro? And most importantly: is he interesting enough to carry an entire film?
Thor: Ragnarok, the latest and potentially last installment in the franchise, tackles these issues in exultant fashion. By stripping away the weak spots and doubling down on the comedic highs of its predecessors, Ragnarok proves that not only can the God of Thunder carry an entire film, but he can do so with a swagger and exuberance to rival his more popular Avengers brethren.
As has become a Marvel third film tradition (Iron Man 3, Captain America: Civil War), Ragnarok finds the titular hero (Chris Hemsworth) at his lowest point. His hammer is destroyed, his hair is cut, and his claim to the throne of Asgard has been stolen by Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death. To make matters worse, he’s been banished to the dumpster fire of a planet that is Sakaar, and forced to fight for his life as a space gladiator. Fortunately, Thor bumps into the Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and the two “work friends” conspire to escape and stop Hela from destroying the rest of the galaxy.
As severe as these repercussions may seem, director Taika Waititi makes it clear that the film’s real magic comes from its kitschy, candy-coated sense of adventure. He basically hacks the franchise code by reinventing Thor as Flash Gordon for the millennial crowd, complete with arcade music (courtesy of Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh), cartoonish villains, and a self-awareness that gives the whole thing a sleek, sophisticated edge. The film knows it's going to be ridiculous, and it sets out to be the best ridiculous imaginable. Waititi is no stranger to this mantra, having previously directed the 2014 mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, and it's to the studio’s credit that they play up his eccentricities instead of suppress them.
Waititi’s influence does wonders for the cast, particularly Hemsworth, who turns in the finest of his Thor performances. He not only shines in the comedy department, sharpening his timing and smug delivery to perfection (someone cast the man in a rom-com already), but he’s also improved as an actor since the last film, and his handling of delicate moments is surprisingly strong. It’s the first time Hemsworth has been able to balance the levity and bravado of the character, and it suggests greater things to come in next year's Avengers: Infinity War.
Then there is Mark Ruffalo, who if not for Hemsworth’s vast improvement, would’ve stolen the film outright. He’s given an extremely difficult task here, in that he plays the nerdy intellectual foil to Thor when he’s Banner, and the dim-witted physical foil when he’s Hulk. Ruffalo shines in both instances, evolving distinct-- and distinctly hilarious-- characters that are impossible not to root for. Early on, Thor attempts to convince the Hulk that he much prefers the big guy over Banner. Later, he does the same with Banner, saying that he much prefers him smaller and friendlier-- even though Banner doesn’t buy it (“You’re using me to get to the Hulk. That's gross!”). Clever bits like this are what make the film pop, while the duo’s banter and incompatibility make for a cosmically awesome odd couple.
These little detours prove so delightful, in fact, that the only time Ragnarok falls flat is when it tries to take a more conventional route. Waititi clearly favors the shenanigans on Sakaar to the larger, less unique conflict involving Hela, and promptly fails to bring the same excitement to her scenes. Instead of gaining momentum, the film actually loses it whenever it cuts to Asgard’s joyless takeover, as if biding time before it can return to Thor and colorful side characters like Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), and The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, playing a crazier Jeff Goldblum). There’s certainly an argument to be made that Ragnarok relies too heavily on set-pieces and punchlines and too little on dramatic stakes, and for some, it will keep the film from reaching the “classic” status of some of its peers.
Yet, for its perceived dramatic shortcomings, Thor: Ragnarok easily ranks among the loosest and funniest outings in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s ironic, given Thor’s new buzzcut, but the franchise feels like it's finally letting its hair down and taking advantage of the intergalactic canvas it has at its disposal. A Doctor Strange cameo? Sure. A nightmarish roller coaster ride set to the song “Pure Imagination”? Sounds logical. A space portal called “The Devil’s Anus”? Why not? Ragnarok might not be perfect, but like Thor himself, it's brazen, energetic, and willing to take some enormously fun risks along the way.