Updated: Jan 29, 2022
It’s hard not to instantly smile at Thor: Ragnarok (2017), for it is rare to encounter such unapologetic swagger, and an almost punkish commitment to subverting established order. It’s rather apt that the story is galactic in scale, as such wanton cockiness really wouldn’t function in a single room under a dull grey sky, as one broods about existentialism. Director Taika Waititi was tasked with reinvigorating the seemingly moribund Thor franchise, and his approach was simple: Liberal lashings of laughs, wherever possible. The first two 'Thor' films were rather staid affairs, seeking to evoke the gravitas and pathos of Shakespeare, only with added hammers and long, lustrous hair. To wit, the first Thor (2011) was directed by none other than Kenneth ‘RSC’ Branagh, and featured a resplendent Anthony Hopkins in the role of Odin.
Thor and its sequel, Thor: Dark World (2013), were both decent films. They harnessed the usual Marvel medley of excellent leading actors wedded to a brisk, action-packed narrative. Yet somehow the films didn’t fully connect with audiences in the manner of their contemporaries within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Chris Hemsworth’s very pretty Thor was constricted by the character’s daft dialogue and stilted acts of chivalry, and his thunder - no pun intended - was comprehensively stolen by Tom Hiddleston and his now-beloved portrayal of Loki. In a franchise apparently bound to seriousness, the scheming, supercilious demeanour of Loki wafted through both films - and the first assemblage of the Avengers - gifting Marvel a dynamic villain fans were only too happy to embrace. As a character, Thor was powerful but creatively undefined, and when not swinging Mjolnir, consigned to the shadows.
Chris Hemsworth was perfectly aware of this. Tired of portraying a CG-assisted oil painting and wielding contractual freedom, one of the few weapons Disney truly fears, Hemsworth craved a more fulfilling experience. The Thor character was undoubtedly popular, even if his films were less so. With the MCU producing billion dollar films seemingly on a whim, Hemsworth was paid and persuaded, and a third act was commissioned. The resultant film is as close to pure comedy as any Marvel movie would likely dare to tread. The film begins with a monologue, but not of the Shakespearean variety. The once-earnest Asgardian is now a self-deprecating comedian with a taste for Led Zeppelin. The concept of Ragnarök is immediately introduced, and what would’ve previously been ultra serious fare is denigrated; almost to the point of mockery. This is entirely deliberate, and the first of many such symbolic acts within the story. This film wants you to know that everything about Thor and his universe is now transient. Thor: Ragnarok does willingly, and with malice of forethought, dismantle a franchise with almost frightening relish.
Anthony Hopkins’ previously omnipotent Odin is literally consigned to a retirement home before trotting off to Valhalla, in a poignant scene that is stunningly photographed and played with grace and subtlety by one of the great actors of any generation. The arrival of Hela, Goddess of Death (played with the utmost glee by Cate Blanchett) heralds both familial revelation and the destruction of Mjolnir. She dispenses with both Thor and Loki, and consigns them to the arsehole of the universe. She then takes to Asgard, killing all, including the once-relevant Warriors Three. It took Disney six years and four films to establish the Thor mythology. Sixty genocidal minutes later and all that remains of this endeavour is a smouldering ruin, and Chris Hemsworth, sporting shorter, less lustrous hair.
Such disregard for the rules shouldn’t work, yet somehow it does, and riotously so. Ragnarok tears down its foundations so it can rebuild itself as a hilarious-yet-loving parody of both its own origins, and the comic book movie genre in general. Hemsworth seems to finally enjoy the role of Thor, as he flaunts his comedic credentials and hams up his ridiculous superhero persona. He is ably assisted by the surprise presence of the Hulk/Bruce Banner. Ragnarok’s incarnation of Hulk - inspired by the ‘Planet Hulk’ comic storyline - is more self-aware and quite garrulous, and represents by far the most engaging MCU depiction of the character. Mark Ruffalo returns to play both Hulk and Bruce Banner, and he stands as a suitably befuddled foil for Thor’s posturing. The cherry on top of our cake is provided by a truly absurd-looking Jeff Goldblum (as Grandmaster). The very first shot of him is a positively gleaming close-up, designed to highlight and celebrate his glorious presence. And why not?
Amidst the madness, there is drama. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie is at the epicentre of such intent, and the revelation of her tragic lineage lends heft to the threat and power of Hela. Thompson plays Valkyrie as both wounded anti-hero and sassy love interest for Thor, and her performance is enjoyable; successfully erasing Natalie ‘ball and chain’ Portman from our collective memories. It’s ironic that the Thor franchise’s one undoubted success story - Loki - is rather underused here, but Tom Hiddleston remains as self-assured as ever, and when he’s on-screen, your eyes and ears are sure to follow. Credit must also go to Idris Elba (as Heimdal) and Karl Urban (playing Skurge). They successfully overcome limited screen time to respectively hone and craft compelling additions to the story, and contribute to what is a stellar ensemble.
Ancient wisdom contends that one cannot argue with either success or money. Thor: Ragnarok was rapturously received by the majority of fans and critics, breaking the billion dollar box office takings mark, and comfortably seeing off the challenge of DC’s Justice League (2017). Taken at face value it is a sharp, witty and thrilling romp, providing constant amusement and a plethora of enjoyable action sequences. It’s a long film but it never lags, although it does conclude in a sudden and somewhat cheap fashion, complete with its now-infamous ‘Asgard is its people’ cop-out. The actual ‘Ragnarök’ is reduced to the punchline of a gag planted at the beginning of the story, and one can almost feel the film patting itself on the back for its ingenuity. Regardless of its success or placement within the MCU, such smugness will always be alarming. In seeking out humour above all, the pre-existing 'Thor' franchise has been obliterated, and all attempts at mythological fidelity desecrated beyond repair. How damaging this truth is to your ability to appreciate the film is a matter of personal preference, but ultimately the primary job of any motion picture is to provide entertainment; deliberately so, if possible. In this regard, Thor: Ragnarok is an undeniable triumph.
When I came out of the cinema having watched Thor: Ragnarok, I texted a friend these words: “Loved it. Loved the story. Loved the score. Loved the colours. Loved the jokes.” I was relieved. Thor and Thor: The Dark World, the first two Thor films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, suffered from being rather po-faced and a little bit bland. This is a shame as Kenneth Branagh’s 2011 Thor is aesthetically very close to its source material, the original comic books but, being only the fourth MCU film, it landed before the franchise had really hit its stride. Followed two years later by the lacklustre sequel, the 'Thor' series needed a shot in the arm.
Enter Taika Waititi, New Zealand-born director of off-beat favourites like What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016). On paper, combining Waititi’s quirky, witty sensibilities with the world of Thor may seem like a mismatch. In reality, it’s a match made in Asgard. His first job seemed to have been to give Chris Hemsworth (the titular Thor) permission to loosen up and hammer home his funny bone. Hemsworth grabs the opportunity with both (extremely muscular) arms and proves you can be an immortal beefcake and be funny. According to Waititi, much of the film’s dialogue was improvised, and these ad-libbed moments are integrated a lot more successfully here than in other allegedly improvised ‘comedies’ that often come across as self-indulgent. There are occasions where Thor: Ragnarok is a little too pleased with itself, but the Marvel series has potentially earned the right to be a little self-referential by now. In truth, the vast majority of viewers have already climbed aboard the MCU juggernaut and have settled in for the ride, spotting the in-jokes and meticulously piecing together the ongoing narrative arc. After all, at the time of writing, we are ten years into the franchise and counting. But there is much to enjoy for the casual viewer too.
As Thor is left stranded on the junk planet of Sakaar, pitting him against the gleefully destructive Incredible Hulk in a gladiatorial bout is the work of a mad genius. They had butted heads before in previous films, but the extended fight sequence in the Contest of Champions gives rise to some wonderful interplay between the characters and some very amusing interjections from Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, turned up to ‘maximum Jeff’). Thor and Hulk have worked well amongst the camaraderie of the wider Avengers ensemble, but Thor: Ragnarok provides the characters with space and opportunity to shine on their own inimitable terms. Not only is it arguably the best Thor film, but it also serves as a remedial Hulk sequel after the disappointing Edward Norton vehicle, The Incredible Hulk (2008).
Stylistically, the film feels like a graphic novel unfolding on the screen, with some breath-taking visuals helped by the superb production design of Dan Hennah. The bold and bright colour palette, accompanied by Mark Mothersbaugh’s score – which seamlessly merges the orchestral with the synthesised, alongside the occasional blast of some classic rock – gives the film the texture and anachronistic feel of a 1980s science fiction fantasy. Marvel meets Flash Gordon (1980), in fact. As if to hammer this point home, the final battle on the Bifröst plays out like Expert level on Guitar Hero – ‘sparkles’ flying out of Thor’s fingers on a rainbow adorned bridge, all to the propulsive groove of Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Immigrant Song’. Rarely has Norse Mythology been this fun.
Some have criticised the more frivolous approach of Thor: Ragnarok, and there is little doubt that the universally well-received Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) somewhat paved the way for the more comedic style. Two particular characters who set the tone are the charmingly optimistic rock monster Korg (played by director Taika Waititi) and the aforementioned vain and egocentric Grandmaster. The tone of the film means that the pathos associated with the Bruce Banner/Hulk character is lost to some degree, and in truth, the MCU has yet to explore this avenue fully. It is mainly played for laughs. But what laughs they are. In a film replete with visual jokes that pretty much hit the mark every time, the hilarious result of Banner’s decision to try and save the day without resorting to his indestructible alter ego is foolish, painful and worth the price of admission alone.
There are clichés aplenty in Thor: Ragnarok, notably the introduction of an even more formidable power than that of the God of Thunder himself. This appears in the guise of Thor and Loki’s sister Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett), who immediately asserts her dominance by destroying Thor’s hammer. There’s nothing like a bit of sibling rivalry to provide dramatic tension. However, these clichés are wrapped up in such a goofy and entertaining spectacle that they barely register as such. In my opinion, Thor: Ragnarok stands as the crowning achievement of the MCU thus far.
Loved it. Loved the story. Loved the score. Loved the colours. Loved the jokes.