2017 has proven to be a banner year for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in terms of giving audiences varied and creatively distinct films (Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and now Thor: Ragnarok). The first two films on Marvel’s slate were well-received and met expectations, but the Taika Waititi-helmed third film already had a few strikes against it leading up to its release. The previous Thor films were undercooked and remain particularly divisive among the MCU fandom because they did the Asgardian warrior’s story no justice. So the pressure was on for Thor: Ragnarok.
Chris Hemsworth returns as the titular character, along with Tom Hiddleston who also reprises the role of arguably the best MCU villain, Loki, as they face the impending threat of Ragnarok—an event that will destroy their homeworld of Asgard. In their attempts to stop the crisis, the brothers find themselves stranded on a strange world, where they face a new threat, and find an old friend. In another director’s hands that could fall victim to cliches, but Waititi takes some bold chances with Ragnarok—namely with the creative direction of the visuals and the musical choices standing out from the rest. The movie feels like a departure from the normally sterile-looking Marvel film, and it is in terms of theme and even storytelling.
In shifting Thor from a bastard-child comedy/action hybrid into a full on comedy, Thor: Ragnarok is the first MCU movie since Iron Man to feel like a completely new experience altogether within the genre. The comedy works, with inspired casting choices that include Jeff Goldblum and the returning Mark Ruffalo (and Hulk!) bouncing off well with Hemsworth, while the new and returning characters are given a fresh spin under his direction. The greatest victory, though, is that Thor is finally given an arc that doesn’t saddle him with being a petulant jock, instead turning the powerful God of Thunder into a flawed yet relatable character. Ragnarok deals heavily with identity and the role of fathers, which admittedly has been done similarly in the Iron Man films but is used to great effect to finally humanize and give us a reason to root for Thor. There’s no doubt about it—Thor: Ragnarok is a shot in the arm that the MCU has needed for a while, but even the best projects has a flaw or two. Here are some of the things that Thor: Ragnarok did right (and wrong!) on its way to glory.
WHAT IT GOT RIGHT:
Visuals: Director Taika Waititi set out to make a Marvel film with his own visual flair, and he succeeds tenfold in Thor: Ragnarok. By taking the fantastical elements from the best parts of the Thor movies and turning them up to 100 while discarding the boring Earth sections that dragged it down, Ragnarok is one of the freshest entries into the MCU. While the Guardians Of The Galaxy films attempt to explore the weird and galactic in their own sterile and mostly muted way, Watiti’s Asgard and Planet Sakaar are drenched in color. The movie looks and feels like a comic book, with effects popping off the screen with everything from Thor’s lightning to Hela’s demonic weaponry having their own distinct effects. Thor: Ragnarok looks and feels like an updated version of Flash Gordon, and that’s a good thing.
Comedy: Thor: Ragnarok has finally embraced the overall silliness of Thor and his world, and it’s all the better off for it. It’s no secret that the Marvel Cinematic Universe uses comedy to break up the inherent silliness of men (and women) in tights and big green monsters, and at times it becomes a detriment to the storytelling. Ragnarok instead goes full comedy from the jump, without attempting to try and juggle multiple thematic shifts. The shift to this style also suits Thor greatly as a character. He’s the big, dumb jock who thinks he’s the strongest of the Avengers; before being brought down a peg multiple times in the movie. Stripped of his hammer and with his home burning, Thor finally recognizes that he needs help—and the road to get there is as enjoyable as it is side-splittingly funny. His shortcomings are played to great effect in the movie, and using the sharp comedic writing and the timing of the marvelous cast to finally breathe some life into the Thor franchise.
It’s a Standalone Entry: Nothing brings me more joy than seeing movies like Wonder Woman and now Thor: Ragnarok be completely standalone entries that aren’t trying to sell us on an upcoming movie (or three) or team-up. Besides a few winks at past MCU entries, and a couple of cameos from previous characters, Ragnarok is a completely Thor-focused entry into the canon. That’s right, no gawking over the Infinity Stones (even though there is a really funny Thanos gag), and no Tony Stark swooping in to give a one-liner. The movie has faith in its characters, not the fanservice, and that’s why it works better than most of the MCU films.
Chris Hemsworth x Tessa Thompson = Besties: Sure, everyone is talking about Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk returning in Thor: Ragnarok, but the real power couple is Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Tessa Thompson’s debut as Valkyrie. For my money, I’d wager that Valkyrie is one of the best written female characters in the MCU (side eye at Black Widow)—she’s given competent motivation as a fallen hero who reluctantly wants to join Thor in his battle against the villainous Hela. More than just holding her own against the hordes of the undead, she has great chemistry with Thor, who has been saddled with boring female counterparts to bounce off of since his first movie. Valkyrie and Thor work better together as allies (not love interests) because they both share the pain of losing something near and dear to them—their home.
WHAT IT GOT WRONG:
Third Act Problems (Spoilers): It’s starting to become a bit of a trope for the “Everything Bad/Good” series, but here it is again—Thor: Ragnarok has major third act problems. While everything leading up to the big battle for Asgard works well, when all of the plot points converge in one place, it becomes extremely hokey. Things like Hela inexplicably not choosing to just kill Thor when we’ve seen that she has the ability to one-shot her enemies in the blink of an eye, the predictable “Hulk fights a big monster” story hook, or a general lack of geographical sense—the third act of the movie throws in the kitchen sink instead of reeling back and making the final battle mean something. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the huge, special-effects laden final half of the movie wraps up the story threads in a weak way while giving the audience a few hero moments—severely weakening the goodwill the movie made in the previous hour. By the time Thor starts chucking thunder like Raiden from Mortal Kombat, you’ll be looking at your watch wondering when it’s over.
Cate Blanchett’s Hela is undercooked: The most hyped casting for Thor: Ragnarok had to be Cate Blanchett playing Hela, Thor’s sister and the Goddess of Death, but she suffers from the longstanding superhero movie tradition of having a big bad who is charismatic but essentially one-note. Her motivations are two-dimensional (as the rightful heir to Odin’s throne, she wants to destroy the world just because), and her powers are grossly under explained within the movie itself. I don’t blame Blanchett for taking the role, she doesn’t have to flex any of her acting chops here, chewing scenery as “bad person #100 who will be defeated only to never be seen again” in the MCU. She also disappears for long stretches of time in the movie after doling out exposition that grinds the movie to a halt. This is another example of the kind of stunt-casting that wastes the time and talent of all involved.
Side Plot overload: Thor: Ragnarok is without a doubt one of the most stacked Marvel movies that don’t feature all of the Avengers—with the return of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki and Mark Ruffalo as Hulk, Jeff Goldblum, Cate Blanchett, and Tessa Thompson. The only issue is, the movie only has but so much time to devote to ALL of these characters. It bounces back and forth from character to character in an attempt to give equal focus to Loki’s struggle to change his duplicitous ways, Bruce Banner AND Hulk living on a new planet, and Hela’s takeover of Asgard while STILL giving time to Thor’s main plot. The movie feels overstuffed at times, and while it’s not enough to sink it completely—I don’t think I needed five minutes of Karl Urban’s Skurge character arc...especially if that takes away time from Idris Elba’s turn as bad-ass Heimdall (who returns in Ragnarok for like five minutes total). Even with these deficiencies in plot, Thor: Ragnarok is the best MCU offering of 2017, and possibly top five, firmly planting the unlikely Thor character into the upper echelon of the colorful cast of characters we’ve been following for the past decade.