The best part in the original Thor film is a throwaway line of comedy. Thor drinks a cup of coffee, exclaims he wants another, then smashes the cup like a viking out of water. The film was Shakespearean in scope, and not just because Kenneth Branagh directed it: it was about the Bard’s constant themes of betrayal, family, leadership, and responsibility. Still, the movie’s biggest laugh was the best indication of where the films would go: Chris Hemsworth revealed himself as a gifted comic actor, and now the franchise reflect those sensibilities. Thor: Ragnarok is the closest the Marvel Cinematic Universe has gotten to a full-on comedy, but even with Taika Waititi directing, it cannot overcome the problems facing this franchise – problems that have only more glaring as it continues.
When we meet Thor, he ably defeats a fire demon in order to prevent Ragnarok, an apocalyptic event that would destroy his homeland. Upon returning to Asgard, he cannot find his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) explains Odin retired to Earth, so the brothers make a visit to the Fjord where Odin resides. Odin confesses to Thor and Loki that their estranged, deranged sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) wants to restore Asgard to its former glory (she is the God of Death, so her plan involves a lot of killing). Thor tries to stop her, only to lose his hammer and land on a strange planet that functions is an inter-planetary landfill. The planet is run by The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), a kooky MC for the gladiatorial combat that’s seemingly the planet’s sole source of entertainment. He conscripts Thor for combat against his champion, who happens to be The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).
Taika Waititi is not a household name, yet he has made some of the most entertaining films of the past couple years. His horror spoof What We Do in the Shadows is way funnier than it sounds, while Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a delightful family adventure that avoids sentiment at every possible turn. Waititi brings along a few of his collaborators, including Sam Neill, all in effort to preserve the gentle comic surprise from his earlier films. Unfortunately, all the punch lines are borne out of Marvel clichés, instead of human nature. There are at least three times where characters underplay their heroism, only to fall on their face, and the first was not that inspired, anyway. Some jokes are deep references from the last Avengers film, and will only appeal to those who have seen it multiple times. There is nothing wrong with self-referential comedy, except Thor Ragnarok never ventures beyond it. The jokes register as jokes, but most of them will not make you laugh.
The film’s bright spots are few and far between, and I mean that literally. Once again, the Marvel Cinematic Universe persists in a palette that is muted, not vivid. The Grandmaster’s planet is teeming with color, and yet it all congeals into a sickly cocktail of browns and greens. Asgard looks like a Disney theme park, and will make you yearn for the evocative facades from Lord of the Rings (the appearance of Blanchett and Karl Urban only invite that comparison). Still, whenever the script calls for Waititi to create exaggerated imagery, he nails it. There is an operatic flashback where Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) relives her failed charge against Hela’s forces, and another weirdo sequence where Hela fights Thor along the astral plane. Even characters like the aforementioned Grandmaster and a rock monster – played by Waititi – ultimately suffer from muddled effects and production design that betray a genuine attempt to seem delightfully weird.
It is useful to think of Thor: Ragnarok as a high-concept buddy caper. The script by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost invite such comparisons since they frequently pair Thor against someone disagreeable, whether it’s Loki, Hulk, or Valkyrie. Hemsworth does what he can to save these pairings, using his abundant charisma to his advantage, and there is no real spark since the tension between Thor and others have no stakes. These relationships have a foregone conclusions, and so the meat of the conflict (i.e. the character-driven bumps and wounds along the way) come off as insincere. Thompson is a welcome addition to the MCU – fierce, guarded, laconic – though her beats are lazily constructed. Blanchett is the biggest acting heavy, riffing on Galadriel, albeit with less menace and a few pithy one-liners. The only who emerges is unscathed is Idris Elba, who finds genuine reserves of stoic heroism as Heimdall.
Thor: Ragnarok attempts an admirable, casual tone for most of its run time. For a while, anyway, Waititi and his actors genuinely want their film to function as amiable shaggy dog entertainment, instead of the dramatic bombast we find in most superhero films. In its climax, of course longtime producer Kevin Feige has its way, with yet another protracted action sequence where good and evil fling magic bullets at each other (the climax takes place on a bridge, seemingly without any spatial coherence). Most MCU films end this way, to the point where I’m getting diminishing marginal returns. Surely Feige feels obligated to his fans/shareholders for a Big Battle, and yet it would be truer to the film’s tone if Waititi had the chance to blow the special effects budget on a joke. Thor: Ragnarok already includes the biggest, most expensive Goatse reference I have ever seen. If they had continued with such playful subversion, this film could have represented a welcome change in direction, instead of a half-measure.