The emergent narrative about Thor: Ragnarok was that the whole franchise needed to be fixed. Whether or not that was the plan before they brought on Taika Waititi: Professional Weirdo to direct remains unknown, but the fact that audiences loved this movie so much indicates they agree with that emergent narrative. Thor: Ragnarok was quickly regarded as one of the best movies in the MCU. But as much as I wanted to love it, I can’t help feeling that something is just.... off.
Thor: Ragnarok is a movie about a prince who must take charge of his kingdom after the death of the king, and when a challenger to the throne arrives with secrets that threaten the integrity of the kingdom, he loses his position, powers, and gets thrown out only to return and reclaim his place as king. Waititi makes this feel new by infusing this story with a peculiar sensibility, pouring in jokes to fill every available gap and layering in a distinctive style that evokes geeky 80s sci-fi fantasy fare like Heavy Metal. The inclusion of the Hulk is exactly the kind of advantage you get from a rich shared universe, and he is so prevalent that this could be called Hulk’s movie as much as Thor’s. Both Thor and Loki end up on the inhospitable world of Sakaar, where Hulk has been enhulkened for two years and now has the speech patterns and general demeanor of a young spoiled child. Sakaar is ruled by Jeff Goldblum at his highest level of Goldblumousness, and is basically a cosmic garbage dump from which it’s made clear there is no escape. The populace have resigned themselves to hopeless lives of digging through the trash, distracting themselves with the dominant form of entertainment: gladiator fights. Predictably, this leads to Thor and Hulk going head to head in one of the best sequences of this movie (even if it was spoiled by the trailer) but I kept getting a strong Mojo-World vibe from the whole thing.
His four previous MCU appearances have defined Thor as having a modest dignity gained from his exile to Earth, while dutifully carrying the responsibility of a protector of both Asgard and Earth. At least that’s what he used to be because from the beginning of this movie he is an oafish buffoon; awkward, vain, constantly cracking wise, and obsessed with his own heroics. Tessa Thompson’s character, Valkyrie, also suffers from an identity crisis, but her problem is weak characterizations. Valkyrie’s details are clear; she is an Asgardian warrior running from her past by staying hidden at the bottom of a bottle on Sakaar. But aside from a general defensiveness, there isn’t much in her character that tells us what she cares about. Nor are there clear motivations for Hela, our villain du jour. The movie seems to be telling us that she is a fearsome badass, but it just doesn’t land right. Within minutes of her introduction she destroys Thor’s hammer, defeats both Thor and Loki, and kills the Warriors Three along with the entire Asgardian army. She starts off so completely overpowered that she has nowhere to go, robbing her character of any dynamic. That might not be a problem if she had clear motivations, but the only thing she seems to care about is revealing Asgard’s warmongering origins, and wanting to conquer shit. Add to that her flippant jokes and posturing like an annoyed diva, and the two mismatched personality traits tear each other down until the character is a thoroughly uninteresting mess. Hulk dodged these kind of problems since there wasn’t much existing character for him beyond a love of smashing, and the childish mannerisms they gave him make for some of the best laughs in the movie.
The relationship between Thor and Loki has always been a core part of this franchise, and this movie does a good job evolving it in a way that retains its integrity. By the end of the movie, Thor seems to have forgiven Loki for his misdeeds by accepting him for who he is, not who Thor would like him to be. Loki has the chance to return to the lawless garbage planet where he can thrive, but he chooses to stay with his brother as Thor reluctantly accepts the throne. It could be that Loki was only looking for acceptance all along, or that he now understands he is unfit to lead, but you can never really tell with Loki. The ending makes a nice capstone to the series, as the first movie was about Thor realizing he is not ready to rule, then the second movie ends with him deciding he doesn’t want to. Retrospectively, it seems this series was about Thor’s long and winding road to becoming the king of Asgard.
The movie seems to only take itself seriously as a compromise and delights in those moments where it can throw the canon to the wind, shedding as much of the Thor mythology as they can get away with. They start off by wisely dropping Natalie Portman’s character which sharpens the focus of the movie. Then Odin abruptly dies, followed pretty quickly by the destruction of Thor’s hammer and his stranding on Sakaar, where they chop off his hair. By the end, the entire realm of Asgard has been destroyed and Thor has lost an eye as well. The rebellious nature of the movie extends into the tone, not just with the overflowing jokes I mentioned, but also in the 80s inspired synth heavy soundtrack and the dayglo color scheme amidst the trashiness of Sakaar that puts this movie more in line visually with Guardians than the other Thor movies. The result is a mass market movie that feels more like the realization of a singular, personal vision rather than a big collaboration. Marvel seems to be taking more risks in letting their filmmakers’ voices shine through, but in this case, it has come at the expense of a well paced story. This movie wastes no time introducing Hela and getting us to Sakaar, but we spend way too much time there. The story loses momentum for the sake of marveling at the weirdness of its setting, which drains the finale of a critical dramatic tension. The last act has some pretty exhilarating moments, but it feels a bit tacked on to a movie that would have rather stayed on Sakaar. It’s a pretty odd thing to say about a movie that makes such huge sweeping changes to its canon, but the whole thing ends up feeling pretty inconsequential.
Thor: Ragnarok is a revolution in the sense that it was popular, flashy, destructive, not well planned, and may lead to something worse. Every movie in the MCU exists within a continuum, and apart from being individually enjoyable, it must reinforce the shared narrative and identity. This movie approaches breaking both. But it’s a very fun ride. The offbeat tone is delightful and refreshing, and we get to meet Korg, who steals every scene he is in. All that fun unfortunately wrings most of the gravitas from this movie as almost every serious moment gets undercut with a flood of jokes that make it hard to feel what the actual stakes are. I’m conflicted because I really love that they had the courage to take such big risks in the first place. I like the rich tone of this movie, and I like the big changes they made. I just don’t like them together. 3/5
Coming up next: Black Panther (2018)