I’ve really come to hate reviewing Marvel films. It’s not that I hate the films themselves, you understand, and I certainly don’t hate watching them. I just hate reviewing them.
It’s like I’m somehow obligated to cover the movie and publish my opinion, even if my opinion means jack shit. I type up a positive review and I’m just another voice among millions, I type up a negative review and I’m a lunatic baiting so many frothing comments, and do you really give a fuck either way? Is it really going to make a difference whether you see this movie or not?
I mean, the last blog entry I wrote was for Tragedy Girls, a brilliant and demented little indie gem that you probably never would’ve heard of otherwise. Right now, I could be spending time writing up a piece on why you should totally give your time and money to one of the many underappreciated arthouse movies in my rapidly growing backlog. But no, I’m here typing up a review about a movie that you already know whether or not you’re going to see, and it’s going to make several hundred million dollars either way.
Well, for what it’s worth, I’m quite confident that you’ll have a good time with Thor: Ragnarok. I certainly did, though the movie had some seriously crippling flaws.
For those just tuning in, Thor: The Dark World ended with Loki (Tom Hiddleston) faking his death and taking over the throne of Asgard while disguised as Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Shortly afterward, following the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) went out exploring the cosmos in a wild goose chase for the Infinity Stones. So with the queen dead (again, see Thor: The Dark World), the king replaced by an impostor, one prince (assumed) dead and the other MIA, Asgard has fallen into disrepair. Which means in turn that chaos has been widespread throughout the nine realms.
Thor sees through Loki’s charade so quickly that it begs the question of why this farce went on for as long as it did. So the two of them set out to retrieve Odin (with some help from an extended Benedict Cumberbatch cameo, paying off the end-credits stinger of Doctor Strange), who promptly dies before he can be taken back to Asgard.
And that’s when things really go wrong. Because it turns out that Odin was the only thing keeping away the banished first-born daughter that nobody knew he had. Whoops.
Hela (Cate Blanchett) is the goddess of death, and she really is a deeply impressive villain. By the thirty-minute mark, Hela has succeeded in destroying Mjolnir, casting Loki and Thor deep into the cosmos, killing the Warriors Three, and slaughtering the entire Asgardian army. On her own. With her bare hands. Like a boss. Uneven CGI aside, it’s a terrifying and glorious thing to watch. It certainly helps that Blanchett makes a meal of this role, chewing scenery in such a way that it somehow makes her more legitimately threatening and so much more fun to hate. Compare that to Skurge (Karl Urban), who’s only ever a sniveling and cowardly ineffectual idiot, far more of a comic relief than a plausible threat. What a waste.
So, Hela has pretty much taken over Asgard. From there, she can use the Bifrost Bridge to reach across all of creation, waging unholy war to expand her dominion to all nine realms and beyond. Problem: Of course the all-seeing Heimdall (Idris Elba) knew that Odin was replaced with an imposter and Hela was on her way. So he went into hiding, took the key to the Bifrost Bridge, and he’s been leading a resistance ever since. If the rumors are true that Elba was asking for a bigger role to play in this franchise, he damn well got it here and made it count.
As for Loki and Thor (who, you’ll remember, doesn’t have Mjolnir anymore), they’ve wound up on the planet of Sakaar, which is apparently the Great Garbage Patch where all the cast-off debris in the universe washes up. So, does that mean Loki wound up here after the end of the first Thor movie? Is Red Skull hanging around here somewhere? No answers are given.
And what of our female leads? Well, we’re informed in a throwaway line that Jane and Thor broke it off at some point between movies. Good riddance. Natalie Portman was wasted in the role and the whole romance was misguided from the first. But what about Lady Sif?
“It’s been in the works for many years, right, since we finished Dark World. What has Loki been doing on that throne in guise of Odin? […] And the idea that he would have to get rid of Heimdall, because Heimdall can see everything. That was an idea – and probably the Warriors Three, to discount them… which is probably an answer to a question I’ve been asked a few times today: Sif was probably banished. She’s off somewhere.” — Kevin Feige
…FUCK YOU, FEIGE!!!
Seriously, the most instantly memorable female character in this franchise. Thor’s equal in banter and in combat. The warrior who damn well should have been his love interest from the start (as she was in the original Norse mythology, by the way). She could potentially have done so much for the Asgardian storyline in this movie, and her death beside the Warriors Three (if she died at all) could have been a powerful heartbreaking moment. But no, she was simply shuffled out of the franchise without so much as a throwaway line of dialogue, like she was never there in the first place. Bull. Fucking. Shit.
On the bright side, at least we get a capable female lead in Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), a fallen Asgardian warrior gone to bury her PTSD in booze. She’s the one who takes Thor to the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who runs the planet and keeps the masses happy by staging gladiator matches. And the current champion is none other than Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who somehow washed up onto this planet after Avengers: Age of Ultron.
What’s interesting about Hulk in this movie is that here on Sakaar, the Jade Giant has been given carte blanche to be as angry and destructive as he wants for as long as he wants, while Bruce Banner is stranded on an alien planet ideally suited to stress him out. Thus Hulk has taken over the driver’s seat completely, and Bruce Banner has to put unprecedented effort into keeping his weapons-grade id under control. It makes the conflict between these two personalities far more visible than ever before, with stakes higher than they’ve ever been.
Moreover, this dovetails neatly with Thor’s development arc, as the both of them must learn how to focus their power and resist the urge to act rashly in the face of mortal peril. In turn, this nicely echoes what Thor went through when we first met him. Thor gets stuck without Mjolnir in both movies, but at least he had a prayer of getting it back in the first movie. This time, Thor has to find a way of rediscovering his inner strength, proving himself a capable King of Asgard worthy of his godly powers, all without the possibility of ever retrieving his trusted weapon. As he comes full circle, Thor has to remember that he’s not a badass because he has the magic hammer — he has the magic hammer because he’s a badass. Granted, the execution here comes within a hair’s breadth of deus ex machina, but it works very nicely in the context of the franchise at large.
It should go without saying at this point that Hemsworth, Hiddleston, and Hopkins are all marvelous to watch in roles that they’ve been playing for nearly a decade by now. And of course you won’t be surprised to hear that there are numerous cameos. I’ve already mentioned Doctor Strange’s appearance, which was totally forced and unnecessary but nonetheless entertaining. Scarlett Johansson gets a brief cameo as well, and man oh man the Stan Lee cameo this time is pure gold. Oh, and I suppose Clancy Brown counts as a returning player, following his bit part in season two of Daredevil — here, he puts that extraordinary voice to work as a demon.
Then we have a show-stopping three-fer in which Sam Neill, Luke Hemsworth, and freaking Matt Damon all share a cameo appearance together. I don’t dare say anything more than that.
This brings me to the one aspect that simultaneously makes and breaks this movie: the comedy. To be clear, it’s not the least bit unsurprising that this movie turned out to be a comedy, especially since the jokes and humor all bear the unmistakable fingerprints of director Taika Waititi (who also plays a timid rock monster named Korg). What’s more, several of the comical moments are among the movie’s high points: Loki’s reaction to seeing Hulk again for the first time was worth the price of admission by itself.
We expect our superhero movies to be fun, and this movie in particular was always going to need some degree of comic relief. But a little goes a long way. And therein lies the problem.
Remember, this is a movie about the literal apocalypse. It’s right there in the title. Asgard — Thor’s homeworld — is being torn to shreds by a pissed-off goddess of death, and she’s closing in on the means to either destroy or enslave the entire universe. Thor is enslaved on an alien planet, stripped of his powers, desperate to return to his kingdom before his entire race is hunted to extinction. Moreover, this is the capstone to a central trilogy within the MCU — one of the last stepping stones on the path to Avengers: Infinity War and the conclusion of Thor’s arc as the hero of his own standalone series.
Even though all of this is absolutely present in the movie, I couldn’t take any of it seriously. How could I, when nearly every single dramatic scene is undercut by a joke? Hell, Thor seems to be the only one who’s the least bit concerned about Hela and her reign of terror — if everyone else would rather banter with Thor, complaining about their own problems while making fun of him, how bad could this whole crisis really be?
We’ve already seen what can happen when a superhero movie doesn’t have enough levity (just ask DC/WB), but this movie has the opposite problem. The movie is so thoroughly drenched in comic relief, deploying jokes and gags with such predictable regularity, so constantly making fun of itself that we have no reason to treat the film itself as anything but a joke. There’s no weight to the dramatic moments and character development checkpoints because we know someone will say or do something stupid and completely deflate the scene. We never have to wonder what any character will do in any situation, because we know they’ll always go with the funnier option. There honestly came a point at the climax when I knew a hero would make his entrance falling flat on his face, resulting in a moment so predictable that it didn’t work as a joke or as a hero moment.
But when all is said and done, is that a dealbreaker? I don’t think so. Thor: Ragnarok decided to err on the side of being funny, which resulted in a far more enjoyable movie than the opposite choice would have yielded. Plus, the movie definitely has a strong sense of personality that sets itself above and apart from the two previous Thor pictures. It also helps that the movie looks great, the action scenes are a lot of fun, the actors all do solid work with what they’re given, and the score is nicely impressive. Plus, while the more deathly serious stuff has been watered down to an unhealthy degree, it’s unmistakably there nonetheless.
If you’re going to see the movie, go with adjusted expectations. And the whole film is so overblown that I’m sure the 3D would be way too much.