Of the long running singular Marvel Cinematic Universe heroes, Thor has often been deemed as less than mighty with his previous two films, 2011’s Thor and particularly 2013’s Thor: The Dark World, often cited as among the weakest in the now 17 episode franchise. With Thor: Ragnarok, a new direction and tone has been grafted onto the Norse hero in an effort to distinguish him as more than the apparent fish-out-of-water bumbler with serious family baggage. The result is a film with a bigger identity crisis than Thor’s surprise co-star – the Hulk!
When Hela the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett) returns to Asgard seeking domination of the Nine Realms and beyond, Thor quickly finds himself overpowered and banished to a garbage planet run by the eccentric Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Captured and forced into gladiatorial battle, Thor plots an escape fearing that Hela’s return signals Raganrok – the total destruction the his world. In desperation, he forms an unlikely bond with a dangerous (and often inebriated) bounty hunter (Tessa Thompson), a disoriented Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and his duplicitous adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in an effort to save his people.
Thor: Ragnarok is a mixed bag. Gone are the Shakespearean elements that defined the first film in favor of a comedic tone directly inspired by Guardians of the Galaxy. Though at first it seems like a fresh take on the character, the film overdoes it with a barrage of quips that undercut much of the drama presented (it is reported by director Taika Waititi that up to 80% of the dialogue was improvised). While it effectively showcases Hemsworth’s natural talent for comedy, it decimates much of the horror and carnage presented on screen in favor of cheap laughs. Heck, when a 9/11 scale event occurs nary a second goes by before a character breaks the solemn moment with a pathetic joke. Much of the comedy, outside of Jeff Goldblum’s character, isn’t organic to the story; rather, it’s hammered in with the force of Thor’s go-to weapon. It’s so desperate to be entertaining that it sacrifices itself for attention.
Also gone are Thor staples such as Jaimie Alexander’s Lady Sif (no explanation is given for her absence), Stellan Skarsgård, Kat Dennings’s annoying comedy relief, and Natalie Portman as Thor’s Earth-based girlfriend. While the latter two omissions are a step in the right direction (Portman’s role in The Dark World was already indicative of the series’ struggle to keep her relevant), Ragnarok seems so hell bent on washing away the earlier iterations of the series that it flippantly red-shirts fan favorites with the subtly of a dramatic William Shatner performance.
Despite its faults, the best result is a far more relaxed Hemsworth. He is clearly enjoying himself and it’s a contagious feeling regardless of the excess of wisecracks. For once, his character doesn’t have to rely on supporting players to make him interesting. Tom Hiddleston and Mark Ruffalo are icing on the cake rather than being forced to provide an alternative supplement to Thor’s lack of ingredients.
Furthermore, Tessa Thompson adds some spunk as Valkyrie, serving as a far more dynamic partner to Thor than Portman, and Jeff Goldblum is…Jeff Goldblum (need I say more?). Cate Blanchett as Hela is serviceable but she too falls victim as a punchline/exposition machine in lieu of a truly menacing villainess (her most memorable trait is a gaudy antler headdress). Karl Urban is basically there so she has someone to exposit to.
Visually the film is a colorful ride, providing euphoric imagery and action in line with the aforementioned Guardians films and Doctor Strange (who has a welcome cameo early on). Mark Mothersbaugh‘s retro score is fitting and the film’s use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” provides a rocking (Ragna-rocking?) punch whenever it pops up on the soundtrack. With its Viking inspired lyrics, it’s actually surprising that it hasn’t appeared in this series before albeit it’s probably emblematic of yet another Guardians influence.
Overall, Thor: Ragnarok is a fun (despite its worst efforts) but highly flawed picture. While its realms away better than The Dark World, it’s missing the heart and gravitas that were so well defined in the original film. It’s ridiculous at worst, visually exciting at best, and enough gags land that it’s amusing as a passable comedy if nothing more. Yes, it’s finally fun to see Thor smile more and joke around more – too bad it’s in a film about the destruction of his race and planet.