Earlier today, I had the pleasure of seeing the third installment in Marvel’s Thor series. Directed by Taika Waititi of What We Do in the Shadows fame, Thor: Ragnarok has almost everyone head over heels with delight. And they’ve got good reason to be. Ragnarok is hilarious. From its absurd settings, colorful cast of characters, and heart-wrenching ending, this film is sure to please fans of the MCU and nab a few naysayers along the way.
Ragnarok‘s best features are its colorful visuals and stunning cast. Viewers would be right to see some favorable comparison to the Guardians of the Galaxy films. Ragnarok has almost as many unique locations populated by vibrant scenery, sets, and people. The previous two Thor films have been fairly muted from a color perspective, either because the locations have been in dark spaces (both films), in Asgard (both films), or in deserts (Thor). Here, the scenery is variable, drifting from Asgard to glorified trash cities to colorful parades and even a little bit of Norway. This lifts the film from its dreary premise (the end of the world, obviously) to give some levity for the eyes. The newest location, Sakaar, is sort of like ancient Rome if it were built on the refuse of a thousand other empires. But it’s also a gorgeous location full of some truly delightful worldbuilding, from its massive city structures to its garbage piles to its gladiator-style stadium and more. Also: the Hulk in a hot tub may be the one weird image you never thought you’d have in your head — and now you will.
All of this colorful imagery and worldbuilding leads to a cast that is both surprising and brilliant. If you go into this cold, you’ll notice a lot of actors doing things you never would have expected of them, including one very cringe-worthy (and hilarious) former Megacity judge. Hemsworth gets an opportunity to shine as a comedic actor in a lead role, and he does so with just a hint of “I’m actually having fun doing this.” Meanwhile, Jeff Goldblum’s Grand Master adds so much quirky villainy to the film that you actually start to miss him when he’s no longer on screen. Opposite him is the character pretty much everyone is talking about: Tessa Thompson’s Valkryie. She’s the standout here, and it’s such a shame that she doesn’t get nearly the screen time she deserves. And speaking of women with unnecessarily less screen time: the true villain of the film, Blanchett’s Hela, has the difficult task of creating the overarching narrative tension. Sadly, I was more compelled by Blanchett’s general performance and her costume design than I was with the narrative she presented to us. The film attempts to link her into the Thor family drama, but it does little to elevate her above another “I’m going to destroy everything” villain — of which she is but the second. While she is menacing, I had hoped there would be more to her character. Still, round out the cast with some stealth selections, all sorts of strange and wonderful critters with unique eccentricities, and some familiar faces, and you’ve got near perfection.
All of these things do well to elevate another major feature in this film: comedy. It would be fair to say that Ragnarok may be the most “fun” of the Thor films, though I’d put it just slightly below Guardians of the Galaxy in terms of execution. Waititi’s direction pretty much privileges humor over almost any other consideration, which both makes for a film that occasionally feels disjointed and that, like Deadpool, is bound to get almost anyone chuckling. The humor also has a through-line, with references at the start or middle of the film having their punchline delivered in the climax. One particular scene with literal guns a-blazing had me in fits for that exact reason. Despite any reservations I have about the film, I have to admit that I came out of it with a smile on my face. In a lot of ways, that’s all this movie needed to do. Unlike the tone-deaf hellspawn that was Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017), Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and Thor: Ragnarok have shown us that making silly, wide-reaching space opera (broadly defined) can actually work. There’s also a sense that Waititi put a lot of trust in the cast. I’m finding it hard to think of a single character that didn’t make me laugh, and I can’t imagine that arising by accident. There’s some real magic going on here, and I sincerely hope we’ll see more big tentpole films from Waititi in the future.1
What I find least pleasing, however, is the sense that the humor comes at the expense of the often unacknowledged depth of Thor’s story. Practically every moment of this film feels like a punchline waiting to be activated, and this has the effect of turning otherwise heartfelt moments into half-measures. The result is a lot of laughter and not enough of everything else. This particularly bothered me because Ragnarok is the third feature-length exploration of the relationship between Thor and Loki.2 What little we do get of the unfinished business between them feels rushed or outright dribbled for the sake of moving the plot forward. When we do get a conclusion, it lacks the justification necessary for it to make sense. It also leaves us wide open to more of the same. Is this dance the only one we can do, or is it possible to get a Marvel movie that finally comes to a conclusion and sticks to it? For all the talk about this film’s approach to family, Ragnarok falls a bit flat. That’s also true of its “big bad,” which is supposed to be “the end of the world” but feels more like “this week’s big monster.” Even the concluding scene, which should be more emotionally damaging felt less like something truly terrible had happened and more like everyone went to get a pumpkin spice latte and couldn’t find a Starbuck’s that had any left. I just wanted a less shallow exploration of the core themes so we could end up somewhere knew in a way that seemed earned.
What I’ve wanted out of Thor movies since the first one has been a careful balance between delightful camp and family-oriented emotion. Here, I think we’ve gone so far into the camp territory that the balance is lost. While this makes for a visually-appealing, rollicking adventure, it doesn’t make for a film that seems to offer more than Guardians of the Galaxy or the previous two Thor films.3 That’s OK, I suppose, but it does leave something to be desired. Still, I’d watch it again without you having to pull my teeth. You’d have to pay me ungodly amounts of money to watch Valerian again…