If I said the Thor movies have suffered a far harder climb up the hill of greatness than their cinematic Marvel siblings, I don't think I'd be going out on a particularly untested limb. The God of Thunder's 2011 debut is, at best, north of serviceable. With its hamfisted handling of rival brothers vying for the throne of Asgard and the respect of their father, a love interest so forced, unnecessary, and artificial it elicited eye rolls from even the most forgiving of fans, relatively low stakes being played for at the film's climax, and what might just be the 2nd most forgettable villain in the MCU - a walking toaster oven that shoots fire - it's impressive the franchise didn't die right then and there.
Thor: The Dark World, the former's 2013 followup, doubled down on the tedium, again burdening us with the love affair that no one bought and a villain whose name and motivation I challenge anyone to recall without resorting to a Google search. It featured fleeting moments of well-played drama, most notably when addressing how the death of Loki's mother affected him, and was, in truth, only saved by the inclusion of Benicio Del Toro's Collector, the introduction of a new Infinity Stone, and a telegraphed but appetite-whetting surprise ending that had us all amped for the third installment, which is impressive considering how little the franchise had really given us thus far.
I dare say only Iron Man's two lackluster sequels have come close to usurping the Thor franchise's very underwhelming crown, and I actually liked Iron Man 3.
Thor 2 ending on such a huge reveal was ballsy when you weigh the knowledge we had to wait four years for the resolution. To put it into perspective, we got two Captain America films, two Guardians of the Galaxy outings, and a whole new Avengers between the release of The Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok. The wait was long. The fact the movie came out at all means I owe half a dozen people a Coke because I was firmly in the "Never Gonna Happen" camp. So, was it worth the wait? Was all of my hand wringing and teeth gnashing warranted? Ehh. That's where things get tricky.
First things first. When Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows) was announced to direct, I turned several cartwheels. Figurative ones. I'm not twenty anymore. And with screenwriting credits going to Christopher Yost and Craig Kyle of Star Wars: Rebels and all Marvel things animated, respectively, I was ready to forgive, forget, and welcome Ragnarok into my arteries like a barbecue bacon double cheeseburger topped with onion rings and a fried egg.
And for the most part, it didn't disappoint. It feels very little like its predecessors, both in appearance and in tone. The previous two entries frequently swam in dour waters, especially the latter, each, at times, taking themselves so seriously that you forgot to have fun on your journey through the worlds of gods and monsters. But Ragnarok finds the fun and the humor, effortlessly showcasing both in gleeful, reckless abundance.
Chris Hemsworth seems most at ease with this new, more lighthearted fare, and plays the eponymous role almost as though a great weight has finally been lifted off his shoulders. Tom Hiddleston's trouble-making Loki also delivers in all the ways you've come to expect. Idris Elba and Karl Urban are along for the ride as Heimdall and Skurge, though neither really has a terrible lot to do. There is simply so much going on in this chapter that some characters kinda get swept up by the wave. For instance, if Fandrell, Volstagg, and Lady Sif are anywhere in this wonderfully cacophonous, technicolor rollercoaster of a movie, I certainly didn't notice them.
Newcomer Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie is engaging literally from the first moment she appears on screen. She doesn't miss a step in asserting herself as an equal, keeping up with the more seasoned players in this realm as though she'd been there all along. Cate Blanchett's performance as Hela, the Goddess of Death and the film's primary antagonist, is equal parts funny and fearful. But what can you say about Cate Blanchett that hasn't been said already? She's a treasure. I could have used more of her, especially in the moments when she reminisces over Asgard in her time, before the (she would say) misguided efforts of Odin dragged it down from its former "glory."
Mark Ruffalo puts in another fantastic turn as Bruce Banner and his gigantic green alter-ego the Hulk. In many ways, this is his movie, and every scene he's in stands out. Even Benedict Cumberbatch makes a brief but amusing appearance as Sorcerer Supreme Stephen Strange, which isn't at all a spoiler provided you stayed for the credits of Doctor Strange.
But I think, even after all of this, the man everybody showed up to beat has got to be Jeff Goldblum's Grandmaster, a kind of whimsically sadistic mini boss who looks and sounds like he spends happy hour swapping stories with Benicio Del Toro's Taneleer Tivan from Guardians of the Galaxy. Goldblum is so wonderfully bizarre here, so far south of normal. At this point, it's almost like he's doing a Jeff Goldblum impression. And it works perfectly.
Ragnarok borrows liberally from what's come before, taking from everywhere, which is appropriate given that much of the narrative takes place on a planet made up of other planets' garbage. In the hands of a lesser director, this type of setting could easily have been bleak, but it is instead a wild, colorful mishmash of styles. From its brilliant visuals, which hearken back to everything from Star Wars and Gladiator to Tron and Willy Wonka, to its oddly fitting 80's synth-pop soundtrack, it seeks to overload your senses at every turn, and very nearly succeeds.
The action sequences are kinetic and fast-paced, even if the editing gets a little too frenetic for my taste during some of the fight scenes. It's genuinely fun to witness Thor, Hulk, and Valkyrie really using their considerable super strength and agility. There are moments that feel like you're watching an old school side-scroller like Mega Man or Metal Slug as the action is approached with such fearlessness, such willful abandon.
Unfortunately, the film is not without its shortcomings. I'm not even certain I'd call them flaws; they were just things that didn't work for me. The big one is simply that I wasn't prepared for just how much of a comedy this was going to be. Don't get me wrong. It's damn funny. And frequently. And it has some heart. Not a lot. But some. But there was an almost pathological need to undercut any and all drama, tension, or suspense on display with jokes. And these jokes ran the gamut. People falling down (repeatedly), people getting hit on the head (repeatedly), grand gestures robbed (repeatedly) of emotional impact time and again, all for the sake of the joke. I left feeling like the cast of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 would have watched this and recommended they take it down a notch.
If there is anything I'd change about Thor: Ragnarok, it's this. However, in its defense (or in defense of the comedy, at least), Avengers: Infinity War is fast approaching. Thanos is coming, and he's not going to be happy when he gets here. It's not hard to imagine things are going to get very grim for a lot of characters we love very soon. Maybe Ragnarok has it right. Maybe things only seem bad now. And maybe we should all get in our laughs while we still can.
My Rating: 4 out of 5