Marvel Studios seems so have found a soft spot with many critics. Unlike their DC competition, Marvel movies are generally well received by critics who (as I gabbed about in my “Justice League” review) appreciate the MCU’s willingness to be a bit more lighthearted and poke fun at itself. Never has that been more true than with “Thor: Ragnarok”.
With a Rotten Tomatoes score of 92% and over $820 million in the box office bank (so far), Thor’s third solo film and seventeenth installment in Marvel’s cinematic universe has been yet another critical and commercial success. But what made is such a treat for many critics is part of what held me back.
Easily the most intriguing thing about “Thor: Ragnarok” was the choice of director. Taika Waititi has made two of my favorite straight comedies of the past several years. “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” showcased Waititi’s hyper-quirky brand of humor. Handing him the reins of a Marvel franchise film was guaranteeing something different.
The story begins with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) held captive by the flaming demon Surtur. Thor learns that his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has left his throne and Surtur plans to fulfill the Ragnarok prophecy and destroy Asgard. The God of Thunder will have none of that. Waititi wastes no time showing his comic intentions. This quick opening sequence summarizes the balance the entire film wants to maintain – wacky humor and superhero action.
For the remainder of the first act the story hurriedly hops from one plot point to the next. Thinking he has prevented Ragnarok, Thor returns to Asgard and soon learns the true threat to the realm is none other than Cate Blanchett. She plays Hela, the Goddess of Death and Odom’s long-lost firstborn who returns to Asgard to take the throne and wake her army of the dead. Her intent is the same as most MCU baddies – power, world domination, the usual. But Blanchett is wickedly fun, a bit dry at times but a hoot.
Hela wins round one and Thor finds himself stranded on a trashy planet ran by Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster. No one else in the film can match Goldblum whose performance is both bizarre and hysterical. Waititi urged Goldblum to improvise and the actor runs with it without the slightest restraint. I can see some audience members bewildered by what he’s doing. I found him to be an absolute scene stealer.
Adding to the fun is the return of the mischievous Loki (Tom Hiddleston). We also get an overly chatty Hulk played partly by Mark Ruffalo and partly by a lot of green CGI. Idris Elba also returns as Heimdall, Asgard’s guardian sentry. The biggest new addition is Tessa Thompson who plays a hard-as-nails bounty hunter with a complicated past. Thompson adds plenty of energy even though she occasionally overplays the hard-drinking scoundrel type.
Waititi and company put together a lot of big action, but the film plays more as a comedy which means plenty of funny moments. But his treatment of Thor clashes with the past Marvel movies. From his first film Thor has been a bit of a lug. “Ragnarok” portrays him as more of a wisecracking dimwit. There are scenes where he steps outside of that box and reminds us of why he’s one of Marvel’s powerhouses. But after this movie it will be hard for some to see him as much more than a goof. The same could be said with Hulk. The film makes some weird moves with him and it will be interesting to see how it effects the character going forward.
Those not interested in continuity or source material won’t have any problems with “Thor: Ragnarok”. That’s probably the best way to approach it. For me, despite having some truly great aspects, something felt off. I can’t deny the film’s charm and there are some genuinely funny scenes. By no means is it a difficult watch. But I find its skittish first act and some questionable character handling is still gnawing at me.
VERDICT – 3 STARS