Movie Review - Thor: Ragnarok
The short version is to just say ‘Go see it, it’s amazing.’
But since when have I ever been short about anything? There’s a lot to appreciate in Thor Ragnarok, but I think perhaps the best way to get into this review is by first addressing the folks at Marvel directly.
First of all, congratulations on a great film. The way the Norse apocalypse is handled here, juxtaposed to some fantastic comedy, creates a unique thematic balance that could have easily spelled disaster. And that’s in a way what I wanted to talk to you about. Taika Waititi is a great find (just look at our review of What We Do in the Shadows) and in his first film for you guys he not only knocks it out of the park, but he belongs up there with James Gunn as one of the better directors in your bullpen. [Only old school Marvel Comics fans are going to get that. – Ed.] And like Gunn, he seamlessly meshes the action and humor elements of your films. The problem is…the vast majority of your filmmakers, well, utterly fail at this. With that said, I’m hoping that we can spend a little time here talking about what you should take away from this…and what I feel you’re actually going to take away from this (and thus make a catastrophic blunder). I’m hoping that you come away from this appreciating how difficult balancing humor can be and, as such, is best handled by those that have a talent for it. Unfortunately, particularly when I consider the other films within the MCU, I know what you’re going to take from this: all of our movies must be funny! No…just…no. I know I’m overstating that a bit, but in some ways, I feel like your films are in desperate need of an intervention. You need to understand that humor is just one tool in the toolbox. Let’s go back to the source material for a second. These movies are based on comics, right? Well, I don’t laugh every time I read a comic or a graphic novel. Sometimes there’s just no room for it in a story…whether it risks breaking the feel or mood of the story or if it runs contrary to the themes or plot. For example, it’s hard to believe anyone reading say…Alan Moore’s Watchmen is going to be chuckling at some point. Take Doctor Strange for example…the film that is. The humor there was, let’s be polite and say ‘haphazard’. Exhibit A would be the whole ‘Wi-Fi password’ gag. That still pisses me off to this day. Don’t be afraid to break away from your typical formula…hell, you’ve made enough money from each of your releases that you should be feeling free to experiment but I have the sneaking suspicion that the giant Mouse behind you is serving as little more than an enabler: encouraging you to remain stagnant because it’s a proven money-maker. Take some time and think about it, this tactic will not only kill you…but the comic book movie genre as a whole…and I don’t think any of us want to see that.
Okay, I got that off my chest. Now let’s take a look at what makes this film definitely one of my favorites in the MCU. First of all, again, extremely high praise for what director Waititi has accomplished here. While he was a known quantity when it came to comedy, the way he presented spectacle and action here are just as gifted. And remember too…this is his first blockbuster film and associated budget. Those kinds of large numbers can cause lesser directors to go overboard, focusing on spectacle while forgetting about plot and character and nuance or exposing other garish weaknesses the director might have. [Michael Bay, we’re looking at you… - Ed.] The way Ragnarok swings from comedy to action to heartbreaking character moments and back again is a testament to a master filmmaker plying his tools in such a fantastic way. And if it’s true what Waititi claims…that about 80% of the film was improvised? Wow. That not only shows the aforementioned mastery, but also a complete trust and true collaboration with his actors to create something that really stands out. Another thing worth mentioning here are the visuals. Asgard has already been established for us but Waititi takes us away from the palaces we’ve already seen and actually takes us out into the less thought about regions of the realm…including some Asgardian wilderness. Then, when we reach Sakaar, we’re overwhelmed by bright and conflicting colors in high contrast…not only visually cueing us to the conflict within the setting itself but also tying in to James Gunn’s vision and color scheme for Marvel’s cosmic films established in Guardians of the Galaxy volumes 1 and 2. Oh, and the Kirby-esque armors present throughout Sakaar and the Grandmaster’s underlings…awesome. Stan Lee’s obligatory cameo even bears a striking resemblance to a certain devourer of worlds.
Like I mentioned before, if this film was truly mostly improvised, then this cast deserves just as much credit as the director…and there isn’t a weak one in the bunch. Chris Hemsworth continues to be a great Thor, but now with the humor that was present in the ‘Team Thor’ YouTube videos explaining why he wasn’t involved in Civil War. And it’s gotta be said…he is really good at comedy. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki remains the only fully three dimensional villain in the MCU and we are shown even more facets to the character here…and handled with the high level of excellence we’ve come to expect from the actor. And his reaction when he sees Hulk for the first time since the first Avengers film…classic. Cate Blanchet as Hela proves to be a bit better than most of the MCU villains. Most critics I’ve seen or read with regards to this film sometimes critique her performance as being a bit too exposition-y and a little heavy on the monologues…but Blanchet pulls this off so well that I honestly didn’t feel that way about her performance. It helped to flesh out her character in a way that we don’t typically see from Marvel villains…but it still falls a little bit short in creating a fully three dimensional character. I’d say she’s right around two-and-a-half dimensional…and that’s not bad for Marvel. Okay, and to be fair…with the long black hair and skin tight suit…damn, Ms. Blanchet is hot. [Cool it hornball or you get the hose again. – Ed.] Still, this was perfect casting. While I’ve heard some critics call Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie “a revelation”…well, I didn’t find it to be that but she does do a fine job in the role. As it is said, an actor is at their best if they can make the audience feel a certain way about their character…and Thompson’s performance does that extremely well. So…high marks there. Jeff Goldblum plays the Grandmaster…who is playing Jeff Goldblum. I mean, really, it’s just Jeff Goldblum being Jeff Goldblum. So his performance will be judged by whether or not you like Jeff Goldblum. [You’re really trying to get this review flagged for anyone doing a Google search for Jeff Goldblum, aren’t you? Dammit…now I’ve done it! – Ed.] I thought it was fine and fit with the tone of the movie. Anthony Hopkins does his usual fantastic job as both Odin and Loki’s illusion of Odin. Lastly we have Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner and the Hulk who is doing a great job making this character his own. Here we have a Banner that’s been buried inside the Hulk for two full years and is rife with the fear that if he changes again, he may never come back…yet still chooses to do so when he’s needed the most. As for the emerald alter-ego, he’s never been more fleshed out…and I mean that literally in at least one scene. Ruffalo has said in interviews promoting the film that this film starts a character arc for Banner and Hulk that will carry over the next two Avengers films…in essence using three films to make a single Hulk film. And if you’re a fan of Peter David’s work on the character (which was when I was reading Hulk comics)…then you’ve got something to look forward to. Ruffalo’s performance builds a solid foundation for this arc to proceed along and if it’s heading where I think it is…this should be a pretty cool thing to see transpire.
To think I haven’t even gone on to the plot yet! I’ll try to avoid spoilers. The film opens with Thor in chains in the lair of Surtur when his quest for the Infinity Stones clearly takes a bad turn. This opening scene really sets the tone for the whole movie as it is equally hilarious and badass all at the same time. [With Led Zepplin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ blaring in the background. – Ed.] Naturally Thor escapes and returns to Asgard where he’s able to see through Loki’s deception of posing as Odin and rule the realm. Between Thor’s quest and Loki’s rule, Asgard finds itself in a weakened state allowing for the return of Hela, Odin’s firstborn daughter and Goddess of Death. [Hardcore comics fans will be miffed about this change, with her being Loki’s daughter in the source material. I’m sure the internet bitching has already commenced. – Ed.] With her return and bloodthirsty ambitions, the two brothers stand to fight her…only to find themselves scattered to the cosmic winds eventually meeting up on the planet of Sakaar, ruled by the Grandmaster and home to the Contest of Champions. The current champion, as you’ve already seen in the trailers, is none other than the incredible Hulk…and yes, this section of the film does indeed borrow heavily from Greg Pak’s Planet Hulk storyline. This is where we also meet Scrapper 142…who is actually an Asgardian Valkyrie in self-imposed exile. Thor hopes to unite these disparate characters into a team that can take down Hela and keep the twilight of the gods at bay. The film unfolds at a pretty good clip and this speed coupled with all the emotions this film hits, calling it a roller coaster is a pretty apt metaphor. There are emotional highs and lows but you’re ALWAYS having fun and by the time you get to the end, you kinda want to jump back in line and ride it again.
To avoid sounding like a shill, there are some negatives to the film. Fortunately, they’re all pretty minor and never enter into deal-breaker territory. First is Valkyrie’s horribly clichéd character arc. It’s the usual bitter “I left that place because I hated it so you’re not getting any help from me” start to the “Okay, you’re right, I’ll help” by the end of the second act. To Tessa Thompson’s credit, she did a fantastic job of making me hate the character, so that’s a huge credit to her acting, but it felt like yet another instance where Marvel just went with a formula to avoid doing anything original or, dare I say it, interesting. Second…okay, I know this is minor and maybe a bit petty, but seriously, the wig they used on Idris Elba was horrid. Look, I’m the sort of movie watcher that falls pretty quickly under the spell of a film and thusly will tend to overlook those sorts of things…but when it stands out that bad that I can detect it whilst in the thrall of the movie? That’s bad! Lastly, a fair number of effects shots with Hela didn’t look quite finished…or perhaps polished might be the best descriptor. Remember that scene from the trailer where she smashes Thor’s hammer to pieces? Well, they changed where that occurs (as in location)…and it really shows. By that I mean that it appears so blatantly green-screened that it belongs in that awesomely retro “VHS trailer” they released on YouTube. Some of her fight scenes also look a little rubbery with the CGI, again briefly breaking the illusion.
Let me circle back to one more positive of the film: the music, both the use of the aforementioned Zepplin track and the score itself by Mark Mothersbaugh. You see, back when I reviewed Thor: The Dark World, I suggested that they let Brian Tyler, that film’s composer compose all of the scores. I didn’t think they were listening…because to some degree, they did! Well, not literally as he only officially composed music for Thor 2, Iron Man 3 and Avengers 2 (with Danny Elfman). But he’s part of a problem that some critics have identified with the MCU: no memorable music or themes. Keeping our minds in the Thor series, we actually have Patrick Doyle, composer of the first film and often collaborator with that film’s director, Kenneth Branagh, actually composing some themes for the film…that might have become more memorable had they re-emerged in Thor 2. Tyler opted to go in a completely different musical direction, favoring a more bombastic and yet ultimately forgettable score. I say forgettable because the musical identity of the Marvel films become more muddled and harder to differentiate as we get into Phase 2. There’s a video HERE that does a really good job pointing out the problem. Mothersbaugh thankfully takes the first baby steps into possibly changing this by invoking the themes that Doyle introduced in the first film…returning Thor’s musical identity. Aside from the standard orchestral fare, Mothersbaugh also delves into the synthesizer in his score as well, which of course makes sense given both his past work and his status as one of the founding members of Devo. Given I’ve been listening to a lot of Synthwave recently…these turns in the score were right up my alley. Certainly some comparisons to James Gunn will arise, given his use of old songs for his soundtracks and the fact that Zepplin is used here, but with a mix of synth and orchestra, Mothersbaugh crafts a truly unique score and one of the few Marvel soundtracks I’m actually looking forward to owning and listening to multiple times.
There’s a lot to love about this movie. As an amateur film critic and fan of comic book films, I’ve never really understood why the Thor films were essentially the red-headed stepchildren of the MCU. The first film was solid and handled in a classical Shakespearian way by Branagh. Sure, the second film was kind of forgettable, but then again, so was Iron Man 2 and I’m not seeing the kind of hate or shade thrown at that franchise the way I’ve seen with Thor. Biased or not though, the reviews out there telling you that this is the best Thor movie of the three aren’t wrong…even though to some that might seem like ‘damning with faint praise’. But with a lot of reviews also saying that this is one of the best Marvel films to date? Yup, that’s spot on too. I definitely put it in the top 5. [Now there’s fodder for a future article. – Ed.] So yeah, there, I’m done…now go see the damn movie.
Our Rating: Hypno Cat!
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