Sunday, June 23, 2024

‘Thor: Ragnarok’ Breathes Life And Personality Into The Marvel-verse

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Thor: Ragnarok is easily the best Thor movie Marvel has made to date. There’s wonderful sense of screwball sensibility with a keen eye for the art of slapstick. In short Thor: Ragnarok is a blast and a half.

Taika Waititi wallows in a sense of visual freedom that other Marvel directors either could not do or chose not to. Not since James Gunn has a Marvel film looked so distinctive with it’s own rhythms and idiosyncratic story beats. Thor: Ragnarok understands Thor and his family are a Shakespearean soap opera and behaves accordingly.

So much of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is bravado and confidence that in many ways if you don’t undercut it he becomes cheesy or intolerable. Waititi makes Thor a hero not by bashing him to the ground but by letting him, trip, fall, miscalculate, and fail like we all do. Thor is relatable because of his desire to be good and to do good.

Part of the genius of the script by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost is how it seemingly starts in the middle of one story and then just barrels headlong into another one. There’s hardly any time to catch our bearings between when Thor battles Surtur (Clancy Brown) to when Thor returns home and discovers Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has disguised himself as Odin, taken the throne, and told everybody that Loki died saving Asgard. And that’s just the opening few minutes.

Tom Hiddleston has long been a fan favorite. Often considered one of the best if not the only good Marvel villain. He’s suffered quite frankly from overuse. Thor: Ragnarok figures out the best way to use a duplicitous jerk weed is to never have him stop being a duplicitous jerk weed. Much like Hemsworth, there’s great joy in seeing Hiddleston’s Loki fall or get slapped.

Suffice to say in some ways Thor: Ragnarok follows the basic premise of “Loki does something, it inevitably leads to Thor being almost killed or imprisoned, followed by the very existence of Asgard being put in jeopardy.” In that sense Waititi does nothing new except here it works. It works because Waititi understands the inherent silliness of it all.

Underneath all the Asgardian mythology and intricate plot threads of the Marvel universe, lies the heart of Thor: Ragnarok. It’s a buddy road movie. Thor and Loki travel to Earth, have some misadventures, learn about their older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett), she destroys Thor’s hammer, Thor lands on Sakar, and fights his way home. Then he must reclaim his throne and save Asgard from certain destruction. Along the way he meets allies, enemies, and of course Loki.

Cate Blanchett possesses the remarkable ability to vamp and camp it up while somehow never appearing false or overly arch. She struts across the screen as if her absurd form fitting onesie is a complete and natural choice. There is menace and genuine darkness inside of her Hela. She’s having so much fun with Hela that it would be easy to miss the moments of pathos Waititi allows her. Waititi and his screenwriters make Hela evil, yes, but her anger and hurt in of themselves are relatable.

Thor finds himself on Sakar, a trash planet at the center of multiple wormholes. He is found, rescued, and then captured by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson)—an Asgardian older than Thor, but who seems to be aging fantastically. She was, fittingly, a member of the Valkyries. They were an elite army of warrior women dispatched by Odin to stop Hela. They failed and Valkyrie saw her love and her friends slaughtered before her.

Thompson falls into our hearts as she seamlessly takes a tumble straight into bad ass-dom. Her Valkyrie is cocky and full of braggadocio but unlike Thor she’s more cognizant of her surroundings.

Valkyrie sells Thor to the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). One of the many, many, many pleasures of Thor: Ragnarok is how it pauses to allow its characters to talk. Whether it’s Goldblum’s Grandmaster perplexed by his servant’s anger at the world or Thor and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) arguing in Hulk’s bedroom, Waititi and the script allows for his characters to express themselves.

None of this works without Chris Hemsworth as Thor. Hemsworth has often felt shackled by how Thor has been portrayed. Hemsworth has impeccable comedic timing and is allowed to not just utilize it but to play in it. There’s a sort of larger than life aura about Thor and Hemsworth. So large in fact it’s difficult to take seriously. The key Waititi has discovered is that you don’t have to. Thor is a decent, goodhearted man. He also happens to be a giant goof who puffs his chest at the wrong time, but he means well.

There’s such immense fun laden into every frame of Thor: Ragnarok. Waititi allows his camera and his characters to play together. There is a moment where Valkyrie mounts a gatling gun in a ship during one of the many action scenes. The way Waititi and his cameraman Javier Aguirresarobe frame this had me giggling long after the movie. It is far and away one of my favorite moments of bawdy visual humor this year. 

But there’s something more under all the delightfully vulgar and heedless joy. Underneath the gorgeous production design, pratfalls, banter, and blossoming romances, there is a very powerful statement against nationalism. “Asgard isn’t about a place. It’s about a people.” To put it simply: what makes an Asgardian an Asgardian? Being born in Asgard? Or living in Asgard? Can someone who was born on Skree, landed on Sakar, but ended up on Asgard, be Asgardian?

To put it another way, what makes an American an American? There’s a quote from one of my favorite musicals 1776 in which John Adams defines what an American is. “They are people and they are here. If there was ever any other requirement I’ve never heard of it.” Ragnarok is the destruction of Asgard, their end times. But if Asgard is destroyed but the people are not, are they still Asgardians?

Waititi has taken pages both from James Gunn and from the DC cinematic universe. His cast is diverse both in terms of gender, race, and sexuality. Granted it’s a blink if you miss it on par with Beauty and the Beast but it’s there. I would even argue that, despite having ended up on the cutting room floor, Valkyrie’s moment of bisexual acknowledgement is an important and emotional cornerstone to her character arc, as Tessa Thompson herself confesses.

There are glaring signs of studio meddling, edits in the middle of a line of dialogue, but these are overall nit picks. Thor: Ragnarok makes fun of itself and it’s characters but never in a snide demeaning way. Waititi loves his characters and it shines through with every frame. From the way Blanchett puts on her ‘death mask’ to the way Odin smiles at Thor and asks “Are you the God of Hammers?”

I loved Thor: Ragnarok.  I loved every Led Zepplin head banging, quippy moment of it. Maybe I just needed a laugh after the devastating anticlimactic loss of the Dodgers in Game 7 of the World Series. All I know is that afterword Thor: Ragnarok felt like the movie I needed and wanted. You can’t ask much more from a movie than that.

Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

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