Directed by Taika Waititi
Written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Tessa Thompson, and Cate Blanchett
You know how the saying goes. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
In the case of Taika Waititi’s introduction to all things Marvel with Thor: Ragnarok, sometimes taking something that doesn’t work and wrecking the formula is precisely what is necessary.
I don’t need to be the one to tell you that Thor hasn’t exactly had the most excited film series on screen. His introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2011, courtesy of Kenneth Branagh, had the right feel and aesthetic style with introducing audiences to Asgard but perhaps was a bit heavy in the Shakespearean tropes. And while Alan Taylor’s steady hand may have worked well for Game of Thrones, those same skills couldn’t save Thor: The Dark World from feeling a bit too common. Here again we are though, the brothers Thor and Loki squabbling with each other, Thor trying to do what is best for the people of Asgard, Heimdall still looking as cross as ever, an unstoppable foe of the family on the horizon.
Yeah, sure sounds familiar. But what Ragnarok lacks in story, Waititi makes up for with his ability to allow his cast to flip the script and totally riff on the script. Rather than delivering a movie that wallows more in petty sibling rivalry (with action thrown in for good measure), we instead are treated to a very bright and light action/comedy with dialogue that feels more real than rehearsed, finally bringing audiences what they’ve deserved to watch unfold for six years – a brash and bare knuckle Thor whose wit and humanity combined make him finally feel like the real son of Odin.
The script comes from not one but three individuals, all of whom have served in Marvel’s employ before. Eric Pearson is responsible for those enjoyable yet brief Marvel One-Shot shorts of yesteryear, while Christopher Yost (who co-wrote 2013’s Thor: The Dark World) and Craig Kyle are no strangers to the Marvel family either with Lionsgate’s direct-to-video Marvel animated films. (They’re also actually the creators of X-23 – Wolverine’s daughter, Laura Kinney.) But if you sit in the theater and watch Ragnarok unfold for its plot, then you’re in the wrong theater. The story doesn’t break the mold for originality at all. Rather, the plot may be the weakest aspect of Ragnarok from beginning to end, occasionally even sweeping the carpet away from underneath your feet. Odin’s firstborn, Hela, has broken free of her banishment and, with her father no longer on the throne in Asgard, plans to claim what is rightfully hers. Naturally, Thor can’t stop Hela from ascending through the Bifrost and ends up stranded on Sakaar. Hulk, fellow Asgardian Valkyrie, the Grandmaster, a plot for rebellion, a desire to run home to Asgard to thwart Hela, well, yeah, from there the story becomes as you expect – predictable. (Especially if you’re well-versed with Greg Pak’s 2006 Planet Hulk saga.) And while you aren’t seeing Ragnarok for its story, you are seeing it because the trailers showed you a promise of something else.
That would be the comedic factor. The camp. After all, the best bits of both Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron were the humorous moments between Thor and Hulk, brothers bonded by their love of the action and of destruction. Now, imagine those moments just aren’t brief moments but make up the entirety of a film’s run-time. The jocular dialogue, the real-feel connections among characters. Within the first three minutes I was already laughing heartily at the screen. The film runs at a breakneck pace, almost like indulging in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China, taking brief pauses to slow the action down to check in with our characters. And when your movie shares a shooting style that is very reminiscent of Sam Raimi, well, you don’t feel like you’re just watching the movie unfold. You’re placed in the midst of the action. The characters are coming directly towards the camera, talking to you via the lens and framed front and center. The humor even feels plucked from one of Raimi’s various films too, as well as certain tracking shots and cues in the action scenes. Furthermore rumor during production was that Waititi, known for his loose and fast directing style, was keen to have the dialogue be more improvised during shooting. Given how hip the dialogue pops off the screen and doesn’t feel bogged down by jargon or long meticulous monologues, I would say Waititi’s style works perfectly. The characters interact almost like another Marvel franchise that’s finally hits its stride. Gee, I think it could be James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
Pretty sure I’m not wrong in that claim either. Ditching the theatrics of Asgard and thrusting Thor into the Planet Hulk story-line is the right change of pace this franchise needed. Setting aside most of the Norse mythology, only using bits and pieces to tie characters together to Asgard, we instead see Thor a stranger in a strange land setting, totally bewildered about where he’s been dumped. A fish out of water story was definitely a step in the right direction to make the third Thor entry more accessible, but the real query was the inclusion of Hulk. Getting payoff for Hulk’s abrupt departure from Earth in 2015’s Age of Ultron has always been a plot point left unresolved until Ragnarok. While the adaptation of Greg Pak’s event series is very loose – rather than Hulk being booted off Earth by its heroes, Hulk instead leaves on his own accord – the basic gist remains unchanged. But man, to finally get more of Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, this has been a long time coming and worth the wait. Rather than the barbaric infant we’ve seen previously, Hulk has matured (minutely) and more of a mammoth man-child with titanic temper tantrums. I wish we could get a solo Hulk movie from Marvel Studios, hey, thank you Universal. (Sorry, I don’t mean ‘thank you’ at all.) Legal rights have the character unusable in solo films but, given that Ragnarok is the start of a three-film story-line for Ruffalo’s Banner/Hulk, I’m more intrigued to see what they have cooking for the character’s redemption upon return to Earth.
Hemsworth, though not the most famous Chris right now (that’d be Chris Pratt), finally lets loose and actually seems to be having fun as Thor. Rather than continue with a Thor that bemoans to all the shenanigans of his brother, this Thor seems to be much more of a braggart than before. He’s got no problem interjecting some light humor as he’s caught in a trap, spinning around senselessly and quipping about lack of control for his bounded body. He relishes tackling dozens of approaching enemies without needing to grit his teeth. Most of all, he is at ease to see his friends, especially the Hulk and even his brother Loki, who share some of the more dramatic slices of the film. Still, for once, Hemsworth actually commands the screen not with his chiseled chest nor boyish good looks but his comedic timing. We have seen Hemsworth’s comedy chops crop up in other performances – especially in the underappreciated Vacation sequel – but he’s able to really let loose and go with the flow in Ragnarok. His Thor doesn’t speak in eloquent diatribes, no no, this Thor is very slack-jawed with his vernacular. While the scenes with the Hulk may steal the show, Hemsworth is quite aware Ragnarok is still his movie and, much like good ol’ Jack Burton, takes control of the reigns when the story needs to shift focus back his way.
Oh, and I prefer not to ruin the rest of the film. Sure, we get Thor doing all he can to stand up to his older more powerful sister while trying to help Loki redeem his backstabbing behavior. And yes, the middle section of the film on Sakaar leads us to characters that are very colorful. (Waititi serves as the voice to secondary character Korg, who may be my second favorite character next to Baby Groot in the MCU this year.) But still, there’s much I haven’t touched upon. Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster, the complete antithesis of Ego? Tessa Thompson, who actually manages to steal the spotlight every chance she gets? Tom Hiddleston, finally letting loose of the seriousness of Loki? Cate Blanchett, whose Hela actually serves as the most destructive foe Thor’s faced yet? And…Benedict Cumerbatch wrapping his segment up from Doctor Strange?!
And – nope, not going to do it fully. Because, just like Hemsworth, the assembled cast all shine and relish in their competency to ad-lib on the fly and create a different sort of super hero movie that, much like this past May’s Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, doesn’t fully follow the Marvel formula. While Marvel’s movies have always embraced humor more than other franchises in Hollywood, the amount of genuine laughs evoked by Ragnarok solidify Waititi’s film as a whole different sort of blockbuster. Plus, the yuks alone to me are worth a second visit in a darkened theater surrounded by nerds such as myself all enjoying a film made with passion.
Just think, if you wish, that Thor: Ragnarok really serves as the jolt that kicks off Avengers: Infinity War in just six short months. You wouldn’t make that presumption based on the trailers which, by the way, feature shots not even in the final print. Yet, Taika Waititi’s first big budget action opus begins our long-gestating path towards Thanos and the Mad Titan’s quest to collect the Infinity Stones. Sure, Thor’s third entry into the MCU is far from the best of Marvel’s nine-year-old franchise, but the ability to enable a crowd to grin and giggle with glee is much welcome for a character more known to be a tad grave and long-faced. With Phase 3 culminating in May with Infinity War – and surely will pluck our beating hearts out of our chests – a non-stop goofy thrill ride down the rabbit hole is necessary. Whatever the Russo Brothers have in store for us in six months, don’t fret now. Waititi’s Ragnarok is sensational and serves as the whimsical escapist fare we need to brace ourselves for the mayhem that lies ahead.
Reber’s Rating – B