Director: Taika Waititi
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, Mark Ruffalo, Karl Urban, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Taika Waititi, Anthony Hopkins
After nine years, sixteen films, and over US$12.5 billion in box office takings, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is undoubtedly one of the most successful blockbuster franchises in history. However, despite this popular and critical success, the Thor films have remained a clear weak point of the MCU. While Chris Hemsworth is relatively charismatic in the titular role, and the series has produced the MCU’s best villain in Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, it is fair to say that neither of the Norse god of thunder’s two solo outings have hit the nail on the head. With Thor: Ragnarok, Marvel Studios have thrown caution to the wind, attempting to remedy this situation with a bold change in direction by handing the reins to celebrated Kiwi director, and 2017 New Zealander of the Year, Taika Waititi.
Having discovered that his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), whom he believed to be dead, has been sitting on the throne of Asgard disguised as his father, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) journey’s to Earth to recover the actual Odin (Anthony Hopkins). While there he encounters Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death and, gasp, his older sister. Having lived in exile for many years, Hela is determined to return to Asgard and claim her rightful throne. She maroons Thor on the junk planet of Sakaar, where he is forced by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) to compete as a gladiator in the Contest of Champions. There he crosses paths with old friend the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), a former Asgardian warrior, and the three must find a way to escape in order to return to Thor’s home and prevent Ragnorok, the foretold destruction of Asgard.
Marvel Studios does not really have a reputation for being a director’s studio. The combination of the overarching authorial presence of studio president Kevin Feige, and the situation which saw Edgar Wright walk away from Ant-Man after years attached to the project, have created the impression that Marvel Studios is not particularly accomodating to a director with a distinctive style and sensibility. All of this meant that the announcement of Taika Waititi as director for Thor: Ragnarok was greeted with great excitement but more than a few raised eyebrows. Waititi has clearly been given license to make a Taika Waititi film, and Ragnarok is undoubtedly that. With their fantasy kingdoms, other worlds and interplanetary rainbow travel, the Thor films are easily the most preposterous of the MCU films, and where the first two films took it all slightly too seriously, Ragnarok abandons any such pretence. When we first arrive at Asgard we witness a group of players (featuring a number of fun cameos which I don’t wish to spoil) performing a pantomime rendition of the death of Loki from the end of Thor: The Dark World. From the get go, Ragnarok revels in this tongue-in-cheek irreverence. Where Marvel’s films have always had humour in them, this is the first that would appropriately be classified as a comedy.
But while Waititi has produced easily the funniest film in the MCU, Ragnarok’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. The film lacks balance. Rather than a funny Marvel movie, it begins to feel like a parody of a Marvel movie. Working from a screenplay by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost, Waititi’s approach to the comedy undercuts every moment with a witty line or a gag, a strategy which ultimately impedes your ability to invest in any way in the narrative. Despite the film dealing with some pretty heavy scenarios – namely genocide and apocalypse – this constant undermining in the name of comedy removes any sense of there being actual stakes. Ragnarok is missing some of the sincerity which served Waititi’s last film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, so well.
After his scene-stealing turn in Ghostbusters, Chris Hemsworth again proves himself right at home with the comedic change of pace. His character has evolved since we first met him, seemingly having mellowed as a result of spending more time on Earth, away from the pseudo-Shakespearean realm of Asgard. With Thor and the Hulk reunited for the first time since Avengers: Age of Ultron, Hemsworth and Ruffalo get to enjoy working in buddy comedy mode. Unlike in previous appearances, Ruffalo spends most of his screen time here as the giant green monster rather than his alter ego Bruce Banner, and Ruffalo does a strong job of drawing the humour out of the now more articulate Hulk, while also playing the straight man role as Banner. Cate Blanchett is unfortunately a bit pantomimy and one-note as Hela the goddess of death, and Hiddleston’s Loki, in his fourth MCU appearance, seems to be victim of the law of diminishing returns, but Jeff Goldblum is fantastic addition as the gloriously camp Grandmaster. Waititi also carves out a small role for himself, a CGI rock monster named Korg who is fighting in the Contest of Champions, bringing some big laughs and the wonderful disconnect of hearing a Kiwi accent in the MCU.
Is Thor: Ragnarok the best Thor film so far? Hands down. But that isn’t necessarily saying a lot. While clearly setting the scene for the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War, Ragnarok appears to nicely round out Thor’s individual arc while giving the audience more than a few laughs and a healthy dose of CG spectacle along the way.
Review by Duncan McLean
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