THOR: RAGNAROK Review

You know those ideas that are better in conception that they ever turn out to be in actuality? The ones where the pairing of two things, like Vince Vaughn and True Detective, sound fantastic, but when the reality of it comes into being it only serves to prove that some mediums and personalities just weren't meant to be meshed? Well, for the first twenty or so minutes of the third solo Thor film I thought that might be what was happening. The idea of taking darling indie comedy director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) and pairing him with the massive machine that is Marvel to bring their most self-serious and most dour hero into the new phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that might bridge the Shakespearian those ideas that almost felt too good to be true, you know, like Edgar Wright making a Marvel Studios film (which, it turned out, was in fact just that). It was an idea that seemed it might produce something truly singular for the long-standing MCU, but would it be too weird for Kevin Feige and the gang to really let slide? Honestly, I was waiting for the moment over the last two years when the news would break that Marvel and Waititi had to break over "creative differences" but to my pleasant surprise that day never came and today we sit here with Thor: Ragnarok, the best solo Thor movie that has been made to date, the first Thor movie that truly seems to utilize the full spectrum of the character and the world he inhabits and the never ending reaches of the cosmos he can inhabit while also upending many of the story conventions we've come to expect from our super hero epics. That is all, of course, after the rather nerve-wracking twenty or so minutes at the beginning of the film where it looked as if Waititi had bitten off more than he could chew in terms of managing a production the size of Ragnarok while also in the simple splicing together of jokes and story, of tender moments and CGI-filled natural environments where it was apparent that maybe the best choices had not been made. It's a rough start, but this only makes all that follows that much more assuring in its competency. Thor: Ragnarok is slight to be sure, but it is a ton of fun and serves up just enough freshness for the title character and his present situations that it's impossible not to throw your hands in the air and just enjoy the cheeky ride this take on the super hero genre offers.

Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) find themselves under some unique circumstances in Thor: Ragnarok.
© 2017 - Disney/Marvel
If you’ve been wondering for a year and a half where Thor and Bruce Banner’s Hulk were during all of that Civil War commotion then Ragnarok is here to remedy those questions as Ragnarok begins by introducing Chris Hemsworth’s Thor as he lays trapped within the bowels of the fire demon Surtur’s pit where he has come to find himself in the wake of his nightmares that we caught a glimpse of in Age of Ultron. Having now been unsuccessfully tracking down those pesky infinity stones for two years it seems the right time that something more substantial might occur n Thor's life. It is here that Surtur tells Thor his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), is no longer on Asgard prompting the rightful heir to the throne to return home (but not before Thor defeats Surtur and claims his crown, believing he has prevented Ragnarok) where he finds things aren’t as he left them. Apparently, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki has been running things the whole time Thor has been out trying to save the universe, impersonating their father, leading Thor back to earth in a quest to locate what Odin has been up to or where Loki has banished him. This is all to serve the purpose of reuniting the brothers in order to introduce a bigger threat than their volatile relationship in Cate Blanchett’s Hela, the Goddess of Death, who has returned to claim her rightful place as the ruler of Asgard. On her return trip home she dispenses of Thor and Loki on a planet known as Sakaar or a garbage heap of an orb where all the galaxy’s trash is dumped through a countless number of wormholes that pollute the planet’s sky. On Sakaar, Thor is taken prisoner immediately by Scrapper 142 AKA Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) for the purposes of serving in Grandmaster Jeff Goldblum’s (which is not the full character name, of course, but it probably should be) gladiator matches. Naturally, Loki has already wormed his way into the Grandmaster’s good graces while Thor is told that any hope of escape can only come from him defeating the Grandmaster’s grand champion which turns out to be none other than Mark Ruffalo’s Incredible Hulk who has been living it up on Sakaar as grand champion since the Quinjet crash landed there after the events in Sokovia. As these things go, Hulk and Thor come to form something of an unexpected, but totally expected bond that propels both Avengers back to Asgard who, with the help of Loki and Valkyrie, fight to defeat Hela and her new henchman Sjurge (Karl Urban) before she’s able to use the Bifröst to expand Asgard's empire for her own, evil purposes.

It is this rather detached and wonky story structure that doesn't necessarily adhere to your typical beats of hero fights, hero wins, hero encounters new world-ending plot, hero and villain play cat and mouse before villain seemingly defeats our hero only to teach that hero the very thing they need to learn in order to redeem themselves and save the world. I mean, it kind of adheres to that, but it makes enough odd stops along the way and comes up with a weird enough way of getting to each of these points that it feels like a diversion which makes for a nice balance between what we've been conditioned to expect from these kinds of movies while simultaneously being surprised as well. That there is anything left to mine in these tropes that allow audiences to still be surprised (this is the seventeenth Marvel Studios film!) is a wonder in its own right, so kudos to Waititi and his writing team of Eric Pearson (Agent Carter), Craig Kyle (tons of animated Marvel features), and Christopher Yost (Thor: The Dark World) for that alone. What Waititi does especially well is upend the certain staples of these films in clever and genuinely funny ways without ever coming off as mocking. Whenever there is a moment when we think we know how things are going to play out or at least subconsciously recognize how this certain line of dialogue will be delivered only to provoke another specific type of response the audience has been conditioned to see coming from a mile away Waititi will throw in a joke, or a pratfall, or in what are some of his best twists-take an obvious aspect of such situations we might not have considered before or have always been dismissed because of inconvenience and play into the comedy of them. This is made evident almost immediately as, in the opening scene where Thor is chained and held prisoner by Surtur, he dangles from a chain while having a conversation with the demon that one would assume to be all ego and anger, but as much is quickly dispelled when Thor unexpectedly halts the conversation every time he spins slowly away from Surtur. This isn't to spoil the joke, but more to give an indication of the type of humor that Ragnarok possesses and that Waititi employs to play with the audience's expectations of what has come to be expected and how that can still be honored while being infused with something equally entertaining. And Thor: Ragnarok is nothing if not entertaining as everyone from returning cast members to new additions seem to be having an enviable time at work. Hemsworth seems especially tickled to be given the opportunity to improvise as much as he has while Blanchett is fully aware of what kind of movie she's in, Goldblum is doing his best and biggest Goldblum impression, Thompson comes off as bad ass as anyone else on screen, while Ruffalo finally is afforded the opportunity to not only portray Banner, but fully inhabit Hulk in what is the most engaging depiction of the the big green guy to ever grace the big screen.

Cate Blanchett is Hela, The Goddess of Death, and is here to Ragna-rock Thor's world.
© 2017 - Disney/Marvel
Speaking of balance though, it is in the balance of this humor with everything else that Waititi gets a little carried away while not being able to find his way back around to the heart of the matter-if there even is one. This means Thor: Ragnarok's biggest shortcoming is the fact it packs a laugh a minute, but has nothing meaningful, nothing substantial beyond these amusing nods to all that has come before while setting us up for everything to come after. While some may have felt the trailers for Ragnarok indicated a similarity to that of the tone of Guardians of the Galaxy those James Gunn pictures possess a striking balance between outlandish humor and real heart. In other words, those movies feel like they're about something more than just the spectacle and the laughs, but rather they possess actual themes and thoughts on aspects of existence and relationships whereas the deepest Ragnarok gets is a short moment in an elevator between Thor and Loki where they come to grips with where each of them have fallen in their relationship despite once being truly bound by, if not blood, at least trust. Of course, that has all since been shattered and Hiddleston continues to display a knack for making Loki deceptively charming even if the act has grown somewhat familiar in his fourth appearance in the MCU. Though Waititi is able to lend a lighter touch to this tale of Norse mythology than either of his predecessors in Kenneth Branagh or Alan Taylor he is unable to lend the proceedings any weight to make any of what we see in bold, bright colors remain a lasting impression. That isn't to say there is anything necessarily wrong with this approach as I had a great time in the moment, experiencing Ragnarok for what it is and will undoubtedly watch it again when it is released on Blu-Ray, but to say it moved me, or will stay with me in any capacity would be to give it more credit than it's due. That said, it would be a shame to write a full review of the film and Waititi's contributions to the ever-evolving MCU without mentioning Korg. Korg is a rock monster whom Thor meets on Sakaar who is intent on little more than helping others, starting revolutions, and making friends out of all those who come to land in the same unfortunate circumstances as he. As played by Waititi who gives this intimidating persona a colloquial New Zealand accent Korg offers some of the most relentlessly hilarious moments in the film and would undoubtedly feel a little lacking without his presence. It's a shame that in some instances the visual effects look as cheap as they do (why would you shoot that cliff on a green screen?!?!) while others are far and away some of the best motion capture moments put to screen (Hulk talk!), but through the good and the bad, the good bets and the missteps Thor: Ragnarok is a (bloody) good time at the movies with a killer Mark Motherbaugh score that helps propel it to that slight if not significant bit of escapsism.