The worst thing about Thor: Ragnarok is just how much of this wild ride has already been given away freely in the film’s successful marketing material.
The first Thor is an underrated fish-out-of-water tale masquerading as a superhero origin story while the second, Thor: The Dark World, is a compromised mess. But the latest in the series goes somewhere entirely different. Everything positive anyone has ever ascribed to Marvel’s two Guardians of the Galaxy films should have been reserved for Thor: Ragnarok, a rapturous reinvention of the superhero movie as a lovably dorky exploration of space fantasy arcana. James Gunn has been given quite a bit of praise for making films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that were idiosyncratic rule-breakers (some of it deserved), but Hunt for the Wilderpeople helmer Taika Waititi has taken the Thor franchise down a path far weirder and more rewarding than any amount of Chris Pratt and a fucking tree dancing to ‘70s AM radio hits ever could.
The worst thing about Thor: Ragnarok is just how much of this wild ride has already been given away freely in the film’s successful marketing material. The initial teaser trailer outlines nearly all of the film’s beats, but luckily, this isn’t a plot-driven exercise. The film concerns Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returning to Asgard only to discover a new threat in the form of Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett), who dispenses with the Thunder God quite easily. He winds up on a faraway gladiator planet run by the deliriously odd Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), where he’s forced to fight this planet’s champion, who just so happens to be the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Thor’s got to recruit the big lug to go back to Asgard and save his people. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is there, too, as is a long-lost Valkyrie played by Tessa Thompson. That’s the basic size and shape of the narrative, but expounding on the details more would just ruin the fun.
Honestly, the test audience that got to watch the final cut of this film without having seen a peep of marketing were a truly lucky group of souls. Anyone reading this review or going to see the film opening weekend already has a pretty clear idea of what they’re in for. That knowledge isn’t going to sour the experience for them, hopefully, but there’s no denying the film’s overall tenor would bowl over anyone expecting another run-of-the-mill Marvel flick. From the moment the movie begins, there’s a severe tonal deviation from the two films that preceded it. The Thor that Hemsworth plays here is no longer the clueless warrior humorously acquainting himself with Midgard customs and slowly maturing into a true hero. He’s a genuine comedic leading man, cracking wise and taking point from the get go.
Every supporting player follows suit as well, with Hiddleston being the least irritating he’s been in any MCU turn yet simply by playing the straight man. Thompson’s got charm for days and more chemistry with Hemsworth than Natalie Portman ever had. Even Anthony Hopkins, whose turn as Odin in the last two films mostly consisted of him blatantly struggling to find his marks in any given scene, has a good time here, no longer slumming it for a paycheck. It’s a shame Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgård are nowhere to be found, but when they’re replaced by Goldblum as an intergalactic club owner and Blanchett as a murder-queen slaying every moment of screen time with such ease, it’s hard to care.
Waititi has created a new lane for Marvel’s movies to inhabit, one that aims for actual laughs and not just chuckle-worthy “wit” or lighthearted banter. The movie functions and breathes like a straight comedy by embracing the inherent goofiness of the source material, but not in the smarmy, self-aware way one might expect. This isn’t parody. When the film has to transition into real drama, when real characters die and real carnage ensues, it’s not whiplash. Waititi uses humor to engender deeper connections with the main players so that when the shit hits the fan the audience is more invested than they might have been otherwise. It’s a tough balancing act that’s made all the more impressive given the film’s 130-minute runtime.
Making a big comic book spectacle funny is one thing, but making one this gorgeous is something else entirely. This is a Marvel movie shot by Javier Aguirresarobe, the same cinematographer who lensed Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her. As such, the film’s many cosmic bits are awash in lush colors and vibrant contrasts, owing as much to Jack Kirby as Heavy Metal magazine. Also, for the first time ever, a Marvel movie has an amazing score, full of synth burbles and lightning stabs courtesy of frequent Wes Anderson collaborator Mark Mothersbaugh. It’s a Marvel movie in that it still ticks all the necessary boxes to fit inside the MCU, but at its heart, the film feels like a throwback in all the best ways possible, a genuine love letter rather than a fan service-y smattering of nostalgia.
Thor: Ragnarok is destined to be a massive critical and commercial hit, but the question remains, will this be the start of Marvel Studios maven Kevin Feige letting more interesting filmmakers run with the IP ball, or will they awkwardly try to recapture this film’s specific magic to diminished returns in the future? Only time will tell.