The latest entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe soars like Mjolnir on the vision of Taika Waititi and its exemplary cast.
Fun. There’s really no other way to start talking about Thor: Ragnarok. Perhaps that’s a bit odd, with the subtitle literally meaning the end of the world, but director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) brings his distinct touch to the MCU in the third Thor installment. Waititi, drawing heavily from the 80’s Thor comics by Walt Simonson, infuses this apocalyptic tale with his unique brand of humor and style that allows the film’s stunning cast to flourish at every turn.
The aesthetic of Marvel’s Thor character seems silly from the outside looking in, with its goofy helmets and Shakespearean tongues. But Waititi and the writers dug deep to find what truly makes this corner of the Marvel universe compelling. At its best, Thor is the perfect confluence of high fantasy and cosmic adventure with a distinctly metal or gothic touch. The prior two films, Thor (2011) and Thor: Dark World (2013) steered clear of this, instead choosing to play it safe by grounding the films in something more realistic while the MCU tried to find its legs. But in a post-Guardians of the Galaxy world, all that can be thrown the trash heap of Sakkar.
Thor: Ragnarok fully embraces its 1980s comic heritage. The sets and scenery pay homage to the decade’s fantasy films while incorporating Simonson and Jack Kirby’s art style into the designs. The score from Mark Mothersbaugh is wonderful space rock, expertly accentuated with Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” And the story draws fire demons, undead soldiers, and the Queen of Hel into an interstellar road trip narrative with spaceship setpieces and an intergalactic gladiatorial tournament to boot. Imagery is pulled straight from the comics in some of the film’s most iconic scenes, but none of it feels belabored or forced. All of it coalesces into a perfect homage to the Thor mythos while telling a brand new tale.
The film starts with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) searching for his missing father Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), who had been banished by Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) at the end of Dark World. With an assist from another Marvel hero, Thor and Loki find Odin in Norway, who has some harrowing news for his sons. They have an older sister named Hela (Cate Blanchett), whose sole purpose is to bring chaos and destruction to Asgard and the cosmos writ large. Odin can no longer hold her back, however, and Thor and Loki are left to deal with oncoming doom.
Hela wastes no time in her conquest; destroying Thor’s hammer Mjolnir immediately upon arrival, she banishes the brothers to the trash world of Sakkar, and then proceeds to singlehandedly conquer Asgard, laying waste to its soldiers in one fell swoop. Thor, now a slave of the Grand Master (Jeff Goldblum), is sent to Sakkar’s fighting pits, where he is put up against none other than his Avengers teammate Bruce Banner, aka The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).
From here, Thor must break free of his bondage and return to unseat Hela, now fashioning herself as Queen of Asgard. To do so, he enlists Hulk, Loki, and Valkyrie (the brilliant Tessa Thompson) to his cause. Valkyrie is an Asgardian herself, who had miraculously survived Hela’s first attempt to conquer Asgard and has been a drunken mercenary outcast ever since. The stakes this time are much higher, though; with Hela sitting on the throne, Ragnarok, the Nordic apocalypse heralding the death of the gods, is afoot.
Between the murderous Hela, the slaveholding Grand Master, and the pending Armageddon, the subject matter is grim. But this is where Taika Waititi performs his magic, knowing perfectly when to inject comedy, or to subvert a moment just when the narrative is becoming too heavy. On top of Waititi’s earnest yet odd sense of humor, the film is also peppered with several cameos that will delight audiences, from Hollywood actors to alumni of Waititi’s previous films.
But laugh too hard and you may miss the subtle messaging underneath the comic book veneer. Hela reveals to us a time before Odin’s benevolence, when the two of them would cover the cosmos in war and devastation, acting as nothing but conquerors. The paradise that is Asgard is built on the blood and genocide of other races, which is applicable to Western society today, especially regarding the US and Waititi’s own New Zealand’s wiping out of indigenous people.
Goldblum’s Grand Master also has these subtle touches; he’s unequivocally a slaveowner and one who puts his slaves into mortal combat against each other. But he finds the word “slaves” too unpalatable for his cultured sensibilities, which invokes the discourse surrounding slavery in American history and even the modern use of prison labor. It’s a testament to Waititi and the writers that they get this messaging through without heavy handedness or sacrificing the pacing and momentum of the story.
But what makes this movie so much fun (there’s that word again) is the cast — one of the most jaw-dropping ensembles ever in a blockbuster [Editor’s note: Until Black Panther, you mean!]. Chris Hemsworth shines in the title role, combining his machismo from earlier Thor films with expert comedic timing that he’s demonstrated elsewhere (Ghostbusters). Hiddleston brings all the charm and mischief that has made him the object of Tumblr’s affection. Blanchett and Goldblum chew the scenery in the best possible way, relishing evil and having a blast all the while. And even smaller characters, such as Skurge the Executioner (Karl Urban) and Korg the Stone Man (played by Waititi himself) are given moments to shine.
But Thompson’s Valkyrie is the show stealer. Her arc is the most pronounced, as the disgraced Asgardian tries to find her role in the universe after running from it for eons. She has instant chemistry with Thor and Banner, and she’s given a sense of vulnerability despite her warrior spirit that makes her a singular addition into the MCU pantheon. And her big action setpiece as our band attempts to return to Asgard is among the most fist-pumping moments in any Marvel film.
All told, Thor: Ragnarok is immediately among the elite inner circle of Marvel films (personally, right behind Winter Soldier). It takes a dark subject matter, injects it with both metal and humor elements that feed off each other, and the rest is left to the tremendously talented cast. Marvel stepped out of the box by offering this film to Taika Waititi, who breaks the traditional style mold for these movies, and that risk paid off in spades. The film offers a promise that the MCU can mature into something altogether new (and altogether weird) as it enters its fourth phase. But above all else, it offers fun.