It’s been way too long since I last wrote for TM2M, but I’m glad to be back. It feels fitting, then, that my first review upon returning is for Thor: Ragnarok, a film all about returning to old haunts. Unlike my reviews, this movie seems to go scorched-earth on its archive. And while a lot of fun, I’m not sure it’s the wisest idea for the series as a whole.
Always the fussy, old-fashioned member of the Avengers line-up, previous Thor films have been messy in their attempts to bring their mythological inspirations to the big screen. I’d always liked them for the family-oriented character drama, but was dubious about this installment. But after hearing that the series was going to be directed by one of my faves Taika Waititi, known for his vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows as well as his heartfelt, vaguely-similar-to-Pixar’s-Up Hunt for the Wilderpeople, I was excited. Cautiously optimistic. And as more press came in during production, slightly-less-cautiously optimistic. Maybe this would be the Thor film that actually worked?
As it turns out, it was. As of the time of writing, Ragnarok is currently sitting pretty at a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, tied with Spiderman: Homecoming and The Avengers for second place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And I can see why. It’s funny, daring, more than a little clever, and visually stunning. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is at his best as the comedic straight man to everyone else, seeming somehow mildly confused and annoyed at every increasingly absurd obstacle he runs into. A rock monster named Korg (Waititi) whose revolution failed because he didn’t advertise it well enough? Why not. A Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in a hot tub? Sure. A Sorcerer Supreme (cameo Benedict Cumberbatch) who seems to be upending reality itself, pint by pint? Might as well.
And crazy spectacles are what the movie delivers in spades. Half of the film is spent on Sakaar, a garbage-laden planet that feels like a hellish cross between the Capitol of Panem and Honnouji Academy, run by Jeff Goldblum in gold lamé—sorry, I mean Grandmaster. Here, he runs his sick and twisted gladiatorial games, featuring his champion prizefighter, the Hulk. But Thor is a new contender, captured by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), a washed-up former Asgardian warrior who fled after facing defeat at the hands of Hela (Cate Blanchett), Thor and Loki’s bloodthirsty elder sister. She’s the other half of the plot, trying to take over Asgard as her birthright. So it’s time for Thor, Hulk, Valkyrie, and a mildly-reformed Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to stop her.
On paper, it seems a really funny, if mildly overstuffed, movie. So why, then, do I find myself feeling not totally into it, for lack of a better phrase? Why did it fall just a little flat? Honestly, I’m not fully sure. It’s a funny movie—Waititi’s a genius with a clever script, this cannot be stated enough. Each of the individual set pieces are stunning, especially the hedonistic Sakaar, from its Hulk-green explosive powders to the mile-tall fireworks hologram of Jeff Goldblum. (Which every sci-fi film would be improved by, let’s be honest.)
But in trying to move forward, this film felt like it left too much behind. Sure, now the series has had some new and sorely needed life breathed back into it, but did it have to come at the expense of almost everything familiar? The killing of the Warriors Three, Thor’s brothers-in-arms, in an almost absurdly quick and flippant manner for supposedly important characters, is definitely symbolic here—and I’m not the only one who noticed. Honestly, the entire movie felt like it was trying to scrub itself of its past. Gone is Thor’s trademark hammer, his long hair, his comrades… By the end of this film, Thor, Loki, and Heimdall (Idris Elba) are the only named characters from the original movie still alive.
And as much as this new movie is a crazy careening bucket of fun, honestly, it doesn’t feel like Thor. It’s Guardians of the Galaxy meets Star Wars—is the alcoholic smuggler Han Solo or Valkyrie?—for Thor, Loki, and company, from giant blasters to family squabbles turned galactic to high-speed chases in spaceships. When it tries to actually focus on the Asgardian plot, it’s noticeably weaker. Hela was retconned in as their never-before-mentioned sister so aggressively that it’s hard to take seriously. When she walks into the palace’s treasure vault, casting aside items we’ve seen on these pedestals previously as fake and worthless, it’s like the film is talking to its own history. And when Thor and Loki induce Ragnarok, the “doom of the gods” and the end of everything, to destroy Asgard itself and start anew, it’s a giant flaming metaphor with a sword.
Don’t take this the wrong way. I really enjoyed watching the movie. I was cackling in my seat at most of the dialogue. The character motivations were all fairly logical, and I can’t really point to a single significant flaw in the film at all. It’s just something about the vibe. It didn’t feel like the campy pseudo-Shakespearean melodrama I’ve come to expect from the Thor franchise. It felt like the awkward teenage lovechild of high fantasy and deep sci-fi. But, very funny. And hey, anything’s better than Thor: The Dark World.