This is all spoilers.
Thor: Ragnarok is one of the most unusual blockbusters in recent years because it answers a question that has been haunting the edges of Hollywood’s latest round of overinflated, unasked for franchises: how do you finish out a trilogy of films about which nobody gives a single shit?
We can sit here and argue the relative merits of Thor and Thor: The Dark World all day long, but I think that we have to agree that these films are probably the least of all the Marvel Cinematic Universe works, and that out of all the MCU movies they’re the most like the sort of forced franchise that the public can’t really get worked up about (see the currently collapsing Dark Universe for an example of the forced franchise phenomenon reaching the end of its life cycle). Out of the initial wave of MCU characters, Thor had the most intriguing and offbeat source material, and yet it somehow never quite worked onscreen. Loki popped more than Thor or any of the Asgardian side characters. The movies made some money but never captured the popular imagination in a meaningful way; in comic book terms they’re the issues in a crossover event that you buy out of a weird materialistic sense of obligation.
Enter Ragnarok, which tackles this problem head-on. The solution that director Taika Waititi came up with was to just drop all the stuff nobody cares about, to essentially reboot the character of Thor and to make a movie that’s a party, devoid of even the most fundamental stakes. This is a movie where Asgard – fabled home of the gods, and a major setting of the last two films – is completely destroyed and yet there is zero emotional resonance to that turn of events. And it’s quite clearly intentional. Thor: Ragnarok is a hard reset of the Thor corner of the MCU, nonchalantly throwing an arm across the game board, spilling all the pieces off and never bothering to clean them up.
In the first minute of the movie Ragnarok lets you know what’s up – it opens with Thor doing a meme bit, a variation on the joke where the frame freezes, a record scratches and a character says “Yup, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I got into that situation.” It’s a Twitter gag, mostly, and Waititi uses it establish that this Thor is funnier than before and that he’s absolutely uninterested in the rest of the MCU. Thor casually dismisses his Infinity Stone quest – his whole spin-off plotline from Age of Ultron – in one sentence.
The rest of the opening sequence is like a fractal representation of the film, containing everything you need to know about Thor: Ragnarok before the title card even plays. You learn that Thor is now a Jack Burton-esque doofus hero, if much more capable than Burton. You learn that the MCU is now finally getting some good design sense, after a decade of drably grounded aesthetics. You learn that Thor himself has gotten an upgrade in how he uses Mjolnir and his general action style. But most importantly you learn that Waititi is bringing with him his comedic sensibility – everything in Thor: Ragnarok will either be underplayed (see the entire character of Korg) or undercut. There is no moment that Waititi will let play out – even the destruction of Asgard – without undercutting it with a joke.
This is not exactly a complaint. Thor: Ragnarok really, really works. I’ve seen it twice now and it’s an absolute blast. It’s a party of a movie. But the second time through I began to realize that every character is comedic relief. Only Heimdall and Odin escape being jokey, and since Odin’s sequences were reshot (during original photography he was a homeless man in New York City) I wonder if that was a request from Marvel Studios to get a little bit of gravitas into this thing.
And Waititi isn’t campy. While Ragnarok is big and loud and colorful (so wonderfully colorful!), the jokes don’t lie in those places. The colors and designs aren’t intended to be silly, they’re intended to be fucking cool, and they are. The jokes all arise from the characters and how they interact, and all the jokes come FROM the characters, almost never AT the characters.
Again, that everyone is jokey isn’t a problem. I’m okay with even Surtur being a dipshit (although I think Skurge could have been less silly, which would have made his third act turn more meaningful), but when every character is a vehicle for a gag or when their whole function is to be undercut at every turn, the movie becomes increasingly light. Which, again, isn’t a problem, but it leads to Ragnarok’s strange status as a truly enjoyable movie that has many weighty moments and events yet feels like it’s filled with helium. RAGNAROK isn’t even a dramedy – it’s basically a really good sitcom.
All good sitcoms live and die on their characters, and thankfully Ragnarok is full of great characters. I like this new Thor, who seems more influenced by his Avengers appearances than by his own previous two movies. Hulk is terrific this go-round, having evolved into the world’s scariest toddler. Valkyrie is an awesome addition to the MCU and to the world of action franchises, a female character defined by her own traumas that have nothing to do with the hero, with her own capabilities that actually outstrip the hero, and whose flaws are deep and real. She’s not here to save Thor OR be saved by him; her story happens to overlap with Thor’s for a while.
When I visited the set of Ragnarok last year I got the distinct sense there were two different films happening, and I was right. Thor and friends are off on Sakaar, having gladiator adventures, while Hela is off in Asgard doing… stuff. The script for Ragnarok is disjointed as hell (the first act is basically the script bending over backwards to get Thor and Loki through as many magical portals as possible to get them to Sakaar), and the fact that the A and B stories don’t connect in any meaningful way doesn’t help at all. Interestingly you can see places where there could be thematic echoes – as Heimdall forges a resistance on Asgard, Thor forges one on Sakaar – but the film itself doesn’t really go there.
Thankfully the Asgard stuff is anchored by Cate Blanchett, whose performance can only be described as delicious. She sinks her teeth into the sort of broadly haughty and gleeful evil that could provide years worth of material for drag shows. She gets the tone, and she embraces it fully, and still manages to find a character under those awesome, comics-accurate horns. Blanchett’s Hela has a line that I think sums up the character: “I’m not a queen or a monster, I’m the Goddess of Death.” This Hela is just doing what she was built to do, and she’s the grinning, strutting reminder of Asgard’s colonial past. Odin built his golden halls on the bones of many civilizations, and he’s tried to downplay that. Hela relishes it.
That makes me like her a lot. Who wants touchy-feely Norse gods? As Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song (used to AWESOME effect here) says:
We’ll drive our ships to new lands
To fight the horde, and sing and cry
Valhalla, I am coming!
Fuck yeah, that’s my Norse god shit, and Hela gets it. I mean, she’s wrong, but I get her point of view. She wants to party like a Viking again. Blanchett’s disdain for the softness of the gods who came after her is wonderful.
We get some glimpses at that epic Viking stuff in this film. There are MIND BLOWING painterly slomo shots that give us a look at what the Thor films might have been if the first two had been done correctly. Those shots, truly some of the best moments in ten years of the MCU, are what Waititi is truly undercutting this whole movie – the idea of what a Thor movie SHOULD BE, not what the Thor movies have been.
I haven’t mentioned Loki yet, and that’s really because I haven’t quite decided how I feel about him this go-round. In Dark World he was the star; his arc was serviced the most and to the greatest effect. This time he’s running in place, and even Thor, his dumb brother, sees it. Loki never feels like he’s in control here, and he always seems to be a step behind everyone else. That’s an interesting place for the God of Mischief to be, but the film doesn’t really explore it.
I also don’t believe his motivation at the end of the film. I simply can’t see Loki destroying Asgard, at least not without more scenes showing me that he hated ruling it. That I believe – when Loki finally takes the throne he discovers it’s a shitty job – but the movie doesn’t show me that at all. That would make his willingness to destroy the realm more believable at the end, but as presented his sudden agreement to just torch the place he’s been so desperate to control doesn’t make sense. Of course it could be argued that he simply wants to be the savior to the Asgardians (we do see this), but he swallows “Asgard isn’t a place, it’s a people” quicker than seems reasonable.
That said, Loki’s secondary and reactive position here allows Thor to finally grow through to the end of his arc with his adopted brother, coming to understand what acceptance means. Thor understands that he can’t change Loki, that Loki is who Loki is, and while Thor doesn’t love it he accepts it. What’s more, he comes to accept it enough to deal with Loki on his own terms, avoiding getting backstabbed (and, we’re possibly meant to believe, setting Loki up to come in with the save? It’s not clear to me if that was intentional). Look, it’s called Thor, so Thor’s arc should come first.
Intriguingly Ragnarok actually completes Thor’s arc as begun in the first film… on paper, anyway. In the first film Thor is a callow young man, full of hubris and entitlement. Odin seeks to teach his son how to be ruler, and so he forces him to learn humility. In The Dark World Thor learns valuable lessons about family and duty and sacrifice. Finally, in Ragnarok we see Thor take full bloom as a leader, despite never leading anyone. His true leadership quality comes in the way he empowers Korg to lead his revolution. But, and this goes back to the disjointed nature of the script, we don’t truly FEEL that. We see it – there are scenes establishing it – but Korg’s revolution is such an off-screen afterthought that it doesn’t quite land. On paper Thor is able to be inspirational and delegate responsibilities – perhaps the most important skills for a leader at the level of King of Asgard – but emotionally we never feel these things.
And that, at the end, sums up Ragnarok. There are wonderful character moments and beats and little arc closures, but they land with the touch of a butterfly on your nose. They’re colorful and wonderful, but they’re also barely there, and they flit away as soon as they land. On the other side of the coin there is no real threat because the villains are either silly (Jeff Goldblum’s wonderful Grandmaster) or killing characters we literally do not care about and perhaps cannot name (see: The Warriors Three, two-thirds of whom are dispatched with astonishing nonchalance).
So how do you wrap up a trilogy of films that absolutely no one cares about? If you’re Taika Waititi you party it up, have the best time, dutifully hit the beats you need to hit to move the larger MCU along (Loki seeing the Tesseract is surely a major plot point in the upcoming Infinity War), and generally have a good time with it. In the process you make what is easily the best Thor film, a movie that is an absolute delight to watch, but that feels weirdly disposable. Ragnarok has heart, but it doesn’t have the emotional heft that Waititi brought to What We Do In The Shadows, which was actually moving in parts while still being incredibly silly.
I know all of this sounds incredibly negative, but it isn’t. I really liked the film; I paid to see it twice. I didn’t see the first two films more than once in theaters (and I like Dark World better than most people). Rather, I’m intrigued by the way Ragnarok works despite having no stakes, no emotional resonance and no impact. It’s so fun, so good, so delightful that you simply don’t care that Banner’s decision to Hulk out again, possibly sacrificing himself forever, is underplayed and turned into a laugh. It just doesn’t matter because Waititi is so good at making everything amenable and loveable, traits the previous Thor films didn’t have.
“Listen, we have to make this movie no matter what,” seems to have been the thought process behind Ragnarok. “So why don’t we just fucking rock out with it, not take it too seriously and make it very, very cool?”
Sometimes that’s all you need.