With a stellar cast and renewed sense of humour thanks to director Taika Waiti, Thor’s third go-around isn’t just his best – it might be Marvel’s best too.
Marvel movies, generally speaking, can eat my butt. Since 2008, Disney has churned out sixteen unambitious, bland movies that have ranged in quality from ‘totally serviceable’ (the Captain America series) to ‘totally garbage’ (Iron Man 2), with maybe an exception for the two Guardians of the Galaxy titles. There is maybe nothing worse than hearing someone invoke the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ – the commercial glue disguised as narrative consistency binding all these Disney properties together – except when people refer to it by its acronym, the MCU, which makes it sound like a college for people who aspire to host open mic nights.
And still, I’ve watched them all, each time exiting the theater trying to decide if I’m more disappointed in the movie or in myself for expecting more from Marvel’s cinematic pyramid scheme. When I saw Taika Waititi was attached to the newest Thor, I got my hopes up again, knowing rationally they’d be dashed by the final product. But I was dead fucking wrong. Thor: Ragnarok bangs – and it bangs like few superhero movies to come before it.
In some ways, the required viewing before Ragnarok isn’t the first two underwhelming Thor movies, but Waititi’s singularly excellent comedy The Hunt for the Wilderpeople – a simple but good-natured movie about an orphan who runs away into the New Zealand bush with a grizzled Sam Neill. Sure, Thor may have cost $177.5 million more than Wilderpeople, but the spirit of a comedic romp is still there. Just start with the look: The worst consistency across the Marvel universe is that every movie looks bland and washed out, as if they were all filmed by a pair of faded khakis. By contrast, Ragnarok is a Technicolor dreamscape. It’s a movie of brilliant cosmic hues and lasers and spaceships and other sorts of pulpy sci-fi cheese – elevated by an ‘80s-tinged Mark Mothersbaugh soundtrack and the occasional touch of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song.’ Waititi recognized just how ridiculous a movie about an arrogant space Viking is and just leaned all the way in.
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Even with Ragnarok’s decided unseriousness, the stakes are still traditional superhero stuff. Thor learns that he has a secret gothy older sister named Hela (played by a delightfully campy Cate Blanchett), and that she has a penchant for shooting bladed missiles through people’s chests. She resurrects a giant wolf and an undead army in order to conquer Thor’s home planet of Asgard, etc., whatever, who cares. Ragnarok moves through all these perfunctory plot points quickly, because the movie trusts its audience enough to roll with it. Waititi and screenwriter Eric Pearson recognize that all of these details are just an excuse to put Chris Hemsworth in a position to punch some people and make a lot of jokes.
And while some of the punching in Thor: Ragnarok is pretty good, the best thing going for this movie is that it actually wants to be a comedy with characters rather than gags. After an initial encounter with Hela, hurtling through space via a very dope rainbow beam, Thor crash-lands on a junkyard planet called Sakaar, where he reunites with old friends, like the Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and makes new ones. In fact, the supporting cast of Ragnarok might be its most delightful feature. Tessa Thompson (Westworld) is stunning as an alcoholic Asgardian Valkyrie; Waititi gifts his kiwi accent to a rock monster named Korg; even Karl Urban, whose greatest acting talent relies on looking angry and constipated, finds a good comedic turn as Hela’s henchman. But chief of all is Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster, the eccentric alien dictator of a scrapyard planet who is more or less just real-life Jeff Goldblum with a touch of blue face paint. His weird energy feels right at home in the oddball science-fiction universe that Waititi has created.
Even when Thor returns to Asgard to confront Hela, the jokes keep coming. Waititi is committed to making a funny movie through and through – and it’s maybe the only truly funny Marvel movie. Sure, Robert Downey Jr.’s smug charm can overcome a flat script, but Marvel flicks are rarely funny because they lean so heavily on wink-y meta-humour (see: any and all Stan Lee cameos). There’s an annoying Stan Lee cameo in Ragnarok, but that aside, this is a movie that wants to be funny on its own terms. The fraternal teasing between Thor and his malevolent brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) continues to be heart of the series. But Waititi’s sense of humour relies on constantly undermining the pomp and circumstance of superhero movies. Before a gladiatorial contest, Thor refers to the Hulk as ‘a friend from work.’ Later the Hulk, the universe’s fiercest killing machine, grapples with his insecurity about being liked by Earthlings. Korg laments the failure of his failed rebellion due to a lack of pamphlets. Plus, there’s a decent amount of effective slapstick. (Ragnarok is worth the price of admission just on the strength of a bit called ‘get help, he’s dying.’)
And that’s ultimately what makes Waititi’s Thor stand out from everything else in the Marvel camp. For a Cinematic Universe, the Marvel stuff tends to be contained to a terrestrial imagination. Waititi took things interstellar. Which is why Thor: Ragnarok is easily Marvel’s boldest film to date – and not coincidentally, its best.
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