If anything, the one thing that makes Thor: Ragnarok such a joy to behold is that it is very much director Taika Waititi’s film through and through, and while he isn’t credited as a writer (that goes to Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost), his fingerprints are all over this. Granted, he’s not reinventing the wheel here, but considering how much of a well-oiled machine the Marvel Cinematic Universe is, he doesn’t need to. However, he does bring in some personality, which can go a long way, especially in the realm of big budget productions.
This third installment of the Thor series follows our hunky title character, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who finds himself stuck on a planet far from Asgard, which has been taken over by the recently awakened Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death. He then teams up with Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to escape from the planet and defeat Hela before Asgard is completely destroyed.
And, yeah, that’s basically it. It’s a simple enough plot line, but it gives Taika Waititi and his cast more than enough room to run wild with hijinks, humor, and action. And on that level it absolutely delivers. The film moves fast, it’s often very funny, and the action is colorful, Jack Kirby-esque spectacle. People seem to forget that the Thor films are no stranger to comedy, in fact, all of them have leaned heavier on comedy more than most of the other MCU films. The difference this time around is the distinctive voice behind the humor here. Like I said, it’s unabashedly a Taika Waititi film, and his use of the mundane, long winded, conversational humor that made What We Do in the Shadows, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (both of which you should watch immediately if you haven’t already) so great and unique. And like many of the best Marvel films, the humor works because it has a good balance of being self-aware, occasionally bordering on pure farce, but still taking the characters seriously, and celebrates the comic booky-ness of it all, rather than mocking it.
Thor: Ragnarok also differentiates itself rather well from the likes of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films. Both are certainly humor heavy, and have an 80s inspired aesthetic, but Guardians leans more on the trashier side of sci-fi while Ragnarok leans more on the campiness of something like Flash Gordon. It also lacks the pathos and earnestness that you find with the two Guardians films since Ragnarok is more of a go-for-broke, laugh-a-minute style comedy. One style is not inherently better than the other, but it is worth noting that they don’t step in each other’s spaces as one might expec given the superficial similarities.
However, the film also has something to say. Though, Hela is hardly interesting in and of herself, gloriously over-the-top performance aside, the larger context around her is very compelling. She reveals that she once rode alongside Odin (Anthony Hopkins) in the past as they conquered various lands and peoples, and when he decided to stop, and she wanted to go further, he had her imprisoned. He then tried to hide this brutal past, literally painting over it as it gets shown at one point, emphasizing the more peaceful aspect of Odin’s rule with his two sons. It’s a film very much about confronting a colonialist past instead of trying to hide it. This is further supported by a revolution that is being built up in the backdrop of the planet that Thor is stuck on, rising up against the eccentric but sadistic Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). It’s a throughline that gives the film some surprising relevancy, and it makes it for much stronger film in general.
The film does stumble a bit, though. Waititi himself has said that 80% of the dialogue is improvised, and while most of the jokes do land, there are moments where the improvisation gets in the way of consistent characterization. Occasionally characters will bend way too far for the sake of a joke. The film is a comedy, so the fact that it’s loaded with jokes isn’t a problem, so much as the fast and loose quality of the filmmaking sometimes shows through. That’s especially true in the scenes on Asgard where we just follow Hela doing her thing while Thor is still making his way, and those scenes tend to be dry, and a jarring tone shift from the more zany scenes with Thor and his friends. There’s also a sequence with a character that Thor bumps into on Earth that felt, to put it bluntly, obligatory. The film is willing to go to a lot of places for a joke, and it makes the film not as streamlined as it could be. And of course, once the third act kicks in, it can give you that “business as usual” feel that you expect from a lot of superhero films. Your tolerance might vary, but none of these were even close to taking me out of the movie.
Thor: Ragnarok, while certainly flawed in some elements, is still a total blast from start to finish. It’s a fast, stylish, self-assured, and hilarious turn from Taika Waititi, whose personal touch adds a lot. The cast is fantastic all around, not just with the returning members, but also the newcomers with Jeff Goldblum, Cate Blanchett, Taika Waititi (you can’t help but admire the audacity of the director to cast himself as the scene stealer), and the real highlight of the film, Tessa Thompson, who plays Valkyrie like a constantly drunk Han Solo type, and probably the best new addition to the MCU in a while. It’s a film with an interesting message underneath all the irreverence and humor, which keeps it from feeling like amusing-but-disposable fluff like Marvel Studios’ previous film, Spider-Man: Homecoming. Also, you get to see some Hulk butt. So, that’s something.