Currently holding strong on 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, Thor Ragnarok is the best reviewed of the Marvel films so far. So is it as good as its cracked up to be?
To start with the short answer, its a definite yes from me. This film is an absolute blast, from beginning to end. Once again taking a chance on a relatively unknown director (in blockbuster terms) Taiki Waititi, the MCU comes up trumps with a film that is just non stop fun from start to finish. One criticism we see a lot of the MCU is that some of its films are starting to feel (or for some people have felt like for some time) very samey, despite the slight genre fusions of films like Winter Soldier and Ant Man. For me though, what can be used as a stick to beat them with is also one of their greatest strengths. Tonal consistency is just one of those things that makes a cinematic universe feels tangible, so to see an entirely different kind of film from the MCU at this point would just feel plain wrong.
Thats not to say that things couldn’t change post Infinity War of course, but for now, I for one am happy with things the way they are. If I want dark I can always go for the latest Nolan film after all (incidentally this is not a Nolan criticism as I’m a big fan of his films)!
Anyway, lets talk about Thor. To date the first two Thor films for me were quite good fun, particularly the slightly Shakepearian vibe that Branagh gave the first one. I know however that there are many who consider them to be among the weaker MCU films, and to be fair I think you could probably make that case. For the third installment though, Waititi has delivered something that gives us that magic combination of big spectacle, laugh out loud comedy and buddy action that’s fueled some of the most successful action series of all time.
Waititi also manages to infuse the film with a slightly psychedelic, 60’s inspired colour palette and off beat costume design that takes us a million miles away from Thor’s more austere previous outings, and gives the film a unique vibe right from the off. This use of colour and numerous other visual flourishes, combined with the superb visual effects (Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk has never looked so authentic and painstakingly nuanced, breathing even more life into the character) really gives the film both visual impact as an effects drive extravaganza but also staying power.
As far as plot goes, Thor finds himself once again exiled form Asgard as Hela (the goddess of Death, played by the superb Cate Blanchett) takes over, destroying his hammer Mjolnir in the process. Thor is stuck on the world of Sakaar (a planet seemingly consisting of either garbage or monstrously large buildings), forced to take part in gladiatorial style combat with (amongst others) his old friend/foe/frenemy Bruce Banner aka The Hulk, now stuck in hulk form. Loki is of course also along for the ride, albeit ,moving in different circles.
What the writers and Waititi get overwhelmingly right here is the team ups. We get Thor/Hulk, Thor/Loki, Thor/Banner, Thor/Valkyrie – each providing their own dynamic and new context/agency to the main character. Waititi mainly plays these dynamics for laughs (although there are some dramatic moments amongst the wisecracks), and for the most part this really works well. Loki we know well so we already know we are in for a treat with their dynamic but for many Hulk and/or Valkyrie will be the real scene stealers, as we haven’t seen them interact too much (or at all) with Thor before, beyond one key scene in the original Avengers film. Hulk is fleshed out with real vocabulary and has his own arc in the film, coming as close to a solo film as we’re likely to see for some time.
Valkyrie is also a great standout character, once again indicative of a character that as little as five years again might have been given shorter shrift (as Marvel allegedly did with Rebecca Hall’s character in Iron Man 3, where she was originally supposed to be the villain but had her role reduced on the basis that allegedly she wouldn’t sell enough toys). She has a compelling arc and agency of her own, which is really refreshing and heartening to see in the context of a post Wonder Woman universe.
On the subject of the female characters, Hela is also for me a decent villain and probably Marvel’s best since Loki, even if her motivations seem rather superficial. I think its really a case here of the actor just elevating the material, as Blanchett just looks like she’s having so much fun chewing scenery and is clearly relishing the chance to play slightly against type here. She doesn’t get much to do character development wise, but she definitely brings an air of unpredictability and menace to the role which we just didn’t see from Malkeith in Thor 2 or even Loki in Thor 1 (Loki is of course a great villain not because he’s menacing but because he’s got some complexity to him).
Speaking of Loki, even he gets a mini arc of sorts here that results in a decent pay off (won’t spoil it for you here), so overall its quite impressive how many of the main characters have interesting stories of their own that intertwine relatively comfortably with the main plot. This definitely shows the strength of this film as an ensemble piece, something I didnt expect from this film and I think it is all the better for it. Thor isn’t quite a straight man, but setting him alongside some of these more eccentric characters just makes for great entertainment and I think this was by far the cleverest use of additional marvel characters that we’ve seen in one of their films to date.
Thor Ragnarok is simply for me what popcorn saturday night cinema does so well. Its not a film that will make you think. It isn’t a film that will move you emotionally and it probably won’t be listed as an all time classic. What it does do is entertain – it knows what it wants to be and does it with great style. As long as you go in with those expectations and this is what you’re looking for you will love this film.