By now, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has easily reached a point in which Marvel Studios can safely construct films adhering to a successful formula that will guarantee a profit. That being said, it’s comforting to know that Marvel continually seeks out interesting filmmakers to inject some variety into each new chapter of the MCU. Their latest, Thor: Ragnarok, finds at its helm the zany New Zealand director Taika Waititi, who perhaps takes too much liberty in imbuing his style of awkward comedy into the Norse God of Thunder’s latest adventure. Thor: Ragnarok is the third Thor film and the seventeenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; that is, it’s meant to cap off Thor’s solo outings, as well as lead directly into the finale of Phase Three of the MCU. Unfortunately, Waititi and company opt to undermine any opportunity for weight or consequence in lieu of opportunities for laughs.
Thor: Ragnarok certainly isn’t the first Marvel movie to be fun. All MCU titles have taken pride in having a playful mix of laughs and action, especially since Joss Whedon introduced quips as a major tool for superhero filmmaking in The Avengers (2012). However, the laughs aren’t what make the movie effectively fun; it’s how and when these laughs are blended in to capitalize on moments that need some levity. The implications of this film’s subtitle, Ragnarok, are meant to be catastrophic: the Norse apocalypse, an epic battle that shall destroy the realm of Asgard. Yet, with so much bumbling and fooling around, much of the magnitude and impact of the impending destruction of Thor’s home are lost.
Two years after the events of the Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been traversing the realms in search of the remaining Infinity Stones when he comes home to pick up the dangling plot threads of Thor: The Dark World (2013). He finds his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) impersonating their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), whom Loki banished, and now they must together embark on an adventure to find him. All of that could have taken up an entire film by itself. Instead, all of that gets wrapped up before the end of the first act, thanks to a wacky cameo or two, and we’re off to the cosmic gag that takes up the second third of the film. Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Norse Goddess of Death, shows up, crushes Thor’s hammer, and sends them both off to another movie so that she can take over Asgard and bring about Ragnarok without being disturbed. While Blanchett does her level best to add some panache to a pretty typical superhero nemesis—lively without devolving into Joel Schumacher-esque camp scene-stealing—there’s not much going on here other than bloodlust. She’s pretty much just in the movie to hurl out exposition and blow things up while the main players have fun elsewhere.
The large middle chunk of Thor: Ragnarok takes place in a pseudo-adaptation of the Planet Hulk comic arc. Thor and Loki end up on Sakaar, a trash planet surrounded by wormholes and ruled by Jeff Goldblum’s interpretation of classic Marvel character The Grandmaster—an interpretation that is mostly just Jeff Goldblum in a funny costume acting so self-consciously off and undeniably hilarious that any scene which he’s not in is irritating to watch. Goldblum may be 65, but his trademark dry asides turn out to be well-suited to the movie’s Millennial sense of humor. Sakaar itself is as colorful as Goldblum but devoid of his personality. For a planet inhabited only by castaways and refugees, inklings of culture or social commentary are nowhere to be found on Sakaar. And while the planet is designed with myriad colors, the palette, devoid of any black points, is uninteresting, instead a splurge of pastels. The metals look like plastics, and while there’s a great deal of geometric design, alluding to the art of Jack Kirby, it’s done in just the ugliest way possible; it’s as if the designers are allergic to texture.
As is the film’s main selling point, the Grandmaster pits Thor in a gladiatorial battle against his champion, who happens to be the Hulk (how the big guy got to this planet, I’ll never know), and this battle is largely disappointing. While there is, of course, comedy to be reaped from the existing relationships between Thor, Hulk, and Loki, the constant pursuit for laughs bereaves this monumental battle of any tension. Whereas fellow Avengers Captain America and Iron Man duked it out last year in a truly emotional and brutal confrontation, the infinitely more powerful Thor and Hulk find themselves in a forgettable scuffle, the consequence of which is merely the butt of another joke. In truth, the realization of this battle between two comic book titans is criminal in its ineptitude.
Moreover, most of the action in Thor: Ragnarok, while colorful and bombastic, is admittedly flaccid in execution, lacking any flair in choreography or in the use of the characters’ power sets. Those action set pieces that exist apart from humor purposes fail to invoke any reaction at all, lacking in both awe and emotion. The movie definitely understands the importance of having action, as mind-numbing action sequences are placed within the film exactly at the moments in which they would best benefit the progression of the narrative, but it misses opportunities to make anything out of these action sequences. Movie fight scenes tell a story, but the stories told by these altercations are thin at best, as director Taika Waititi is hesitant to innovate and opts only to use wide shots with little detail throughout action sequences. It is evident that while Waititi has genuine raw talent, he is still a developing director. His previous films, What We Do In The Shadows and The Hunt For The Wilderpeople, are delights that showcase his abilities in world building and character interactions. That talent is realized here as well, especially in the film’s second act, as he’s particularly skilled at boiling down characters and understanding fun ways in which they contrast and interact with others. But his specific proficiency in that regard accentuates his deficiency in delivering a complete Thor film. Quirky situational comedy can only get this film so far.
The film’s three-act structure is lopsided, obviously spending most of its expressive capital on the second act in Sakaar, speeding through a clunky first act that is hard to follow and leaving much to be desired when the final act finally comes around. This leaves the film fragmented by its clear preference for its B-storyline (Sakaar) over its A-storyline (Asgard). The film’s subtitle is Ragnarok, so maybe we should’ve spent more time concerning the eponymous catastrophe. Unfortunately, whenever the film does feel a need to check back on the evil things that Hela is doing on Asgard, the shift is dull and by-the-numbers, only showcasing a witty line or two followed by some arbitrary evil deed. For a film whose story stresses Thor’s connection to Asgard and its people, Asgard is bereft of any personality, which makes it near impossible to care about its fate as much as our protagonists end up having to. And being thrown from place to place, our protagonists lack virtually any agency throughout most of the film anyway, so there’s no character decisions to latch onto either.
Hemsworth has really come into the role of Thor as the character has developed throughout the films, especially when given the chance to flex his comedic muscles (of which the opportunity is ample), but Thor’s arc in Ragnarok is a missed opportunity to study how the once precocious prince must embrace his noble heritage and responsibility to his people. He sure does talk about how important the Asgardian people are to him, but, because his bluster is so often played for laughs, it’s hard to comply in the few moments when the film does demand we stop smiling. Robert Downey Jr. can pull off these extreme pivots as Iron Man, but Hemsworth is not in Downey’s universe when it comes to acting chops. The Thor brand is one of majesty and Hemsworth’s strengths lie mostly in comedy, but no filmmaker has been able to strike the right balance between the two since Joss Whedon.
The only emotional reaction that the film excels in eliciting is in the payoff from his relation to Loki. Tom Hiddleston has, by now, done all that he can with the character of Loki on his own. Like Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow (out of the gate he was on fire, but by now there’s nowhere for him to go), the performance has lost its bite. So the wise direction to go in is examining the relationship between the two brothers, whose “will they or won’t they” saga is one of the more impactful running plot lines of the entire MCU. As for other characters, there are so many that don’t have any actual effect on the plot that they come off as redundant in their purpose and execution. It is obvious that many of these ancillary characters were made purely for gags, and such is the thesis for many of the decisions made in the film overall.
Despite its deceptively bland color palette, aimless characters, and boring action sequences, Taika Waititi’s unique style of comedy does still elevate Thor: Ragnarok to being an objectively fun movie. It’s perhaps the funniest film in the MCU yet, but its desire to go for the gag also hurts the movie in key serious moments that deserved to pack more punch than they did. As much fun as it is, Thor: Ragnarok, by treating everything as an opportunity for a goof, forfeits any chance of taking root in your imagination. Nothing matters here, even the destruction of a planet, and since the characters are just quipping-and-fighting machines, they’re all expendable. It didn’t feel like a lot was at stake; deaths felt empty when juxtaposed against two hours of clowning around. And it is funny, for sure! But we should demand more from this movie, especially as it leads towards the end of a major chapter in the MCU. Where there is room for humorous irreverence and goofily upending genre tropes, there is also a necessity for providing the invested viewer with an experience that will alter the way we watch future comic book films.
Alas, I find myself longing for the days when superheroes played it straight. What should’ve been an epic galactic fantasy odyssey with huge repercussions and emotional payoff ends up as perhaps the weakest film of Phase Three of the MCU. That a Thor adventure across the cosmos masquerading as a Saturday morning cartoon with shades of Flash Gordon—featuring a battle against the Incredible Hulk, promising the destruction of the titular hero’s home and the culmination of his arc, and played to the tunes of a techno-shock soundtrack with sprinkles of Led Zeppelin—fails to deliver cohesive awesomeness is among the most monumental disappointments to fans of superhero genre fare, perhaps the punchline of this movie’s final joke.