Thor: Ragnarok Wins with Comedy and Character, Even When its Story Sags


Some of the best aspects of the original Star Wars movie were its characters, its humor, and its surfeit of enjoyable, individual moments. The film’s special effects were innovative, and its famed myth arc was substantial, but the hero’s journey and all that technical splendor might have fallen apart if we hadn’t felt the warm, jostling connection between Luke, Leia, and Han, or laughed at their antics, or been able to so enjoy their interactions even apart from the larger story. Thor: Ragnarok, while not nearly as good as A New Hope, can rely on the same saving grace.

The third solo Thor flick can boast some pretty impressive special effects of its own. With scant few minutes of screen time spent on Earth, a first for a Thor movie, director and franchise newcomer Taika Waititi goes wild with imagination in locales throughout the (conspicuously unguarded) galaxy. The design work in the film is impeccable, with candy-colored wastelands; lurid pro wrestling-style showdowns, and fresco-like flashbacks. There’s the expected quotient of CGI combat and magical mayhem, which commendable if common, but visually, Ragnarok delivers on the promise of the weirdness and variety of Marvel’s cosmic realm.

The film also delivers its own myth arc, one centered on a prophesied apocalypse (the oft named-dropped Ragnarok) that will supposedly leave Asgard in ruins. Thor aims to prevent this from happening, whether it means stealing the crown of a fire demon, defending against the ambitious, conquest-minded villain, or foiling the plans of his own treacherous brother Loki. The main plot of the film sees Hela, Ragnarok’s major antagonist, trying to take over Thor’s homeland, with eyes on claiming the whole universe as her domain, while Thor, stranded on the forgotten planet Sakaar, tries to marshal resource and allies to return home and take her down.

But as decent a framework as that provides for a superhero flick, the plot almost feels perfunctory to this film. So do the character arcs, the good guy/bad guy fights, and the inevitable continuity nods and cameos. Instead, what makes Ragnarok work is how it gives Waititi a bunch of new toys and lets him welcome the audience into his sandbox for a while. The movie doesn’t break much new ground for the genre, or make anything more than cosmetic changes to its major characters over the course of film, but it’s entertaining as hell from moment to moment, and that earns it plenty of goodwill.

 

He should really clean up that sandbox...

 

That’s not a shock after Waititi’s directorial effort in What We Do in the Shadows. The film, a hilarious vampire mockumentary, has an overarching story that gives it some direction, but it’s more a collection of amusing scenes and episodes than a tightly-written, propulsive story. Ragnarok has a similar persistent but not unwelcome shagginess to it. The main plot takes forever to kick into gear. As the film bounces between corners of the galaxy, many scenes exist only to either deliver staid exposition or just show our heroes hanging around with one another. And by the time the inevitable third act uberclash arrives, it feels like more of a mandatory capper than a culmination of all that came before.

And yet, Ragnarok is an enjoyable, if occasionally lumpy two hours of superhero fun, and much of that comes from the simple joys of watching these characters bounce off of one another. Chris Hemsworth has found his light as Thor, bringing an irrepressible comic rounding to the high fantasy figure. As Loki, Thor’s ever-present foil, Tom Hiddleston is one of the few breakout villains from the Marvel stable, and he acquits himself with his usual aplomb. The trailers gave away that The Hulk is along for this ride, and between the green monster’s toddler-esque demeanor and Mark Ruffalo flipping the franchise’s usual fish-out-of-water routine on its head, both sides of the character make for fun additions to the film. And Tessa Thompson joins the fray as Valkyrie, whose standard tragic backstory isn’t nearly as compelling as her presence as a hard-drinking, no-B.S. “scrapper” who fits nicely into Waititi’s milieu.

And that’s before you even get to the scenery-chewing bad guys. Neither Hela (the film’s big bad) nor Grandmaster (the film’s intermediate annoyance) have all that much to do here. The former issues the usual assortment of threats and boasts, and the latter is given the usual corrupt leader schtick.

But that’s the beauty of enlisting ringers like Cate Blanchett and Jeff Goldblum to breathe life into these underwritten roles. Blanchett vamps it up with abandon as Hela. Between the killer design work and Blanchett’s inimitable presence, Hela feels far more textured and compelling than she might seem on the page. The actress goes big but, as always, delivers in spades. By the same token, Goldblum is at his Goldblum-y apotheosis in the scenes set on Sakaar, with the stuttery, self-possessed charm that makes his character a boon to the film’s comic intentions and more than just an easily-overcome obstacle.

 

"In my spare time I volunteer as a towel rack."

 

Throw in ringers like Karl Urban as Hela’s lieutenant, who finds a distinctive personality for a generic brute, and Idris Elba, who returns as Heimdall and once again proves himself capable of making even the most shopworn blockbuster banalities sound profound, and you get a movie that’s just fun to watch on a scene-to-scene basis, even when it’s not clear that it’s really going anywhere.

That’s not to say that Ragnarok has nothing on its mind. While the metaphor never anywhere further than skin deep, there’s an interesting parallel between Asgard and real world colonial empires at the center of the film. The villain Hela is a partisan of a bygone era, one where Thor’s father, Odin, conquered neighboring realms to build his kingdom. Thor is the inheritor of that kingdom, and uneasy with that role and its legacy.

The conflict between the two characters, and the questioning and recriminations issued against Odin, nod toward the same reckonings happening in the modern world as industrialized nations try to reconcile their humanitarian presents with their dark, colonial pasts. Notions of writing over uncomfortable histories, finding pride in peoples rather than nations, and dealing with the bloody path to now loom large in Ragnarok, and the subtext is apparent.

But apart from those broader ideas, the third Thor movie is pretty lax about what it has to say about its characters. Thor learns a lesson akin to “the real power was in your heart all along.” Loki jumps back and forth along the heel-face line of demarcation as many times as you’d expect. And Hulk, Banner, and Valkyrie all find opportunities to confront their pasts in ways that, shock of shocks, dovetail nicely with the quest to defeat Hela.

 

Last seen on a 1980s rock album cover.

 

Those stock character arcs, however aren’t really the point. The point is Thor assuring Hulk that he doesn’t like Banner, and then just as quickly assuring Banner that he doesn’t like Hulk. The point is Goldblum’s Grandmaster making fun of the depowered “Lord of Thunder” for his ability to generate “sparkles.” The point is Valkyrie casually electrifying Thor while she sips some intergalactic brew in a silly bit of slapstick, wry asides about executioners from Hela, and amusing, soft-spoken rock monsters.

Waititi & Co. aren’t out to revolutionize the superhero film in the third installment of the Thor franchise. They don’t vary the formula all that much or take the characters in markedly new directions or craft some elegantly-constructed tale. Instead, they simply offering two hours of creative, endearing, and eminently laugh-worthy entertainment, as enjoyable in chunks and stretches as it as a whole. Ragnarok may be no more than the sum of its parts, but those parts are too entertaining, too funny, and too filled with charming personalities to care.


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