Review: THOR: RAGNAROK Is The Absurdist Action Comedy The MCU Needed!


Let's begin this review with a wildly speculative statement: Thor was NOBODY'S favorite Avenger. Despite the impressive charisma and costume destroying physique of Chris Hemsworth, the character just never clicked. His solo movies fell firmly into Marvel's B-material and his presence in the Avengers films was overshadowed by everyone else on the team (except Hawkeye). This put Marvel in a position where they had nothing to lose by going a little crazy. So when the studio hired celebrated Kiwi director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows), it seemed like an idea just crazy enough to work. Not since Iron Man 3 has the studio thrown caution to the wind and put a film in the hands of an auteur director. A series of online shorts featuring the misadventures of Thor and his roommate Darryl made us realize there might be more to the character than we realized. Thor: Ragnarok had the potential to do for the character what Winter Soldier did for Captain America; turn a second-fiddle superhero into a star.

After a devastating run-in with the evil goddess, Hela (Cate Blanchette), Thor finds himself imprisoned on the planet of Sakkar. Here, he's forced into gladiatorial combat against his former ally, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Together, they have to escape the grasp of the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) and return to Asgard to save it from destruction.

Despite what the posters and trailers might tell you, the real star of this movie is director Taika Waititi. He puts his distinct personal stamp on the movie from the first line of dialogue to the closing moments of the film. Taika's comedic sensibility is miles away from the quippy banter that has defined the post-Whedon MCU (a welcome reprieve). Instead, he finds the inherent absurdity in the film's characters and situations, mining them for comedic gold. Amazingly, the Thor universe is so well suited to this absurdist comedy that you can't help but wonder why no one tried this sooner. Taika has taken characters who were relatively serious in their previous incarnations and made them ridiculous. The director also makes a cameo as Korg, a soft-spoken rock monster who befriends Thor during his time as a gladiator. The character may be little more than a vessel for jokes, but Taika embews him with heart that you just want to hug him every time he opens his mouth.

Up to now, Chris Hemsworth has mostly been utilized for his leading man looks and little else. That all changed last year when he appeared in the Ghostbusters reboot as the dim-witted receptionist, Kevin. Regardless of how you felt about the film, everyone agreed that Hemsworth's character was a highlight and made us all take a second look at him as a performer. Now, armed with better material and a better director (sorry Paul Feig), Hemsworth KILLS it. The man is effortlessly funny throughout the film and probably the funniest lead character in a Marvel movie yet. It's sometimes strange to see a character who was once played so straight suddenly become so overtly comedic; but the studio was banking on the audience being so disinterested in serious Thor that they'd welcome the change. Thor can still kick godly amounts of ass onscreen, but now he's much more likable between battles. He's practically a brand new character.

The rest of the returning cast fares similarly. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is still the trickster he always was, but has now become a vessel for (often hilarious) sight gags. Bruce Banner / Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) has grown exponentially. Banner has been the Hulk for over two years and now acts and communicates like an obnoxious child. This allows for some great scenes between the two that hilariously builds on the tumultuous relationship they've had since the first Avengers (2012). The only character who seems unchanged is Heimdall (Idris Elba). His character is now on the run and is working to protect the people of Asgard from Hela's reign of terror, giving him some great badass moments.

The film also introduces a quartet of colorful new characters. Hela, the film's primary villain, fairs about as well as the usual Marvel villain; not bad per-se, but doesn't really register with the audience due to neglect. The same fate befalls the character of Skurg (Karl Urban). Urban gets some terrific lines and sight gags in the early going of the film, but when he gets recruited by Hela he fades off into the background and is nearly forgotten. This lack of villain presence probably has a lot to do with the film's disinterest in the actual Ragnarok storyline (more on that later), which means the Grandmaster and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) fair much better since their characters are intorduced on Sakkar. 

The character of Valkyrie steals many a scene with her hard-drinking swagger and badass presence. Tessa Thompson effortlessly commands the screen and it would be a waste if her character wasn't explored in future (possibly solo) movies. Much has been made of her being the first bi-sexual character in the MCU, though it'd be a stretch to say that's well conveyed. Much like Beauty and the Beast earlier this year, this is another “groundbreaking” character that Disney has seen fit to subdue. In fact, the only way you'd even know she was bi-sexual is if you read one of many think-pieces about her character's sexual orientation (because the movie sure as hell doesn't make it obvious). Strangely, Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster seems to be WAY more “open minded” by comparison. Goldblum chews scenery like it's his job and may actually be Marvel's most intriguing and fun sub-villain. Jeff Goldblum is basically playing a meme of Jeff Goldblum by way of Space-Caligula and IT IS GLORIOUS.

Unfortunately, this film is not without its caveats. A consistent issue with the MCU is that the greater shared universe sometimes kneecaps the quality of the individual films; it's a problem that first reared its ugly head in Iron Man 2 (2010) and continues to do so in Thor: Ragnarok. Though Taika does get to put his stamp on much of the movie, from time to time the comedic tone and brisk pace are brought to a screeching halt by studio mandated shared universe-building. There's a cameo by Doctor Strange that makes little sense or have much purpose; though it may have significance five films from now, sooooo...... Despite being forced to deal with the story hooks left over from Thor: The Dark Age and Age of Ultron, Taika's film is almost comedically disinterested with dealing them. Ragnarok takes a “Resident Evil Sequel” approach to its problematic story threads; blowing through them as quickly as possible so it can get onto the story it actually WANTS to tell. Anyone familiar with Taika's previous work knows that he is adept at mixing comedy with drama, but it just doesn't gel here making Ragnarok feel like a major missed opportunity.

Where the film really surprises is how well its director adjusted to such an FX-heavy action comedy. It's not unusual for inexperienced directors to get lost in the shuffle of excessive CGI and green screen work, which can lead to a disjointed film. Surprisingly, Thor: Ragnarok remains consistently entertaining and distinctly “Taika” no matter how much CGI madness is going on on-screen. The world here is infinitely creative with a style bordering on Guardians of the Galaxy but also distinctly Thor. The action sequences are all effectively shot and edited (no shakycam!) and have an impressive sense of scale. This is a beautiful, visually impressive film that earns its place on the big screen.

Thor: Ragnarok is the best film in the Thor series.... and yet, it's possibly the weakest film directed by Taika Waititi. It's a hilarious film that is occasionally kneecapped by the fact that it's a part of the MCU and must adhere to certain conventions. If you've seen any of Taika's previous work (What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt For the Wilderpeople, etc.) then you may be frustrated by Marvel's tampering. But if you've never seen his films and you enjoy Ragnarok, then you owe it to yourself to watch them. Overall, this is an incredibly entertaining Marvel b-movie that might just make you change your mind about whether or not Thor is cool. It might not be the best or most significant Marvel movie, but it might just be the funniest.

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