Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok is a breath of fresh air in the MCU, but still feels very much like a Marvel movie – for better or worse.
Thor: Ragnarok is the third installment in Marvel Studios' Thor franchise - following Kenneth Branagh's Thor and Alan Taylor's Thor: The Dark World - and the fifth film the God of Thunder has appeared in (with the exception of the character's brief post-credits appearance in Doctor Strange). Although the previous two Thor standalone entries have been successful enough within the scope of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they've never been the most popular or the biggest hits at the box office. While the first two Thor films played it safe in terms of directors, it seemed Marvel Studios was taking a chance by bringing in a director more well known for indies and comedies. Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok is a breath of fresh air in the MCU, but still feels very much like a Marvel movie – for better or worse.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the God of Thunder, has spent a great deal of time away from his home of Asgard, choosing instead to travel the Nine Realms in search of Infinity Stones. However, Thor has begun to dream about the destruction of Asgard at the hands of Surtur in the event known as Ragnarok, so he finally returns home - but discovers that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been ruling over Asgard disguised as Odin (Anthony Hopkins). The brothers travel to Midgard/Earth to locate Odin, only to learn that Thor's dreams are prophesied to come true and Ragnarok will come to pass. Though Thor believes he can prevent Ragnarok, Odin reveals the events that lead to Asgard's destruction have already been put into motion.
Shortly thereafter, the Goddess of Death Hela (Cate Blanchett) appears, and claims the throne of Asgard for herself. Thor and Loki attempt to challenge Hela, but both wind up banished to Sakaar, a planet on the edges of the known universe. Though Loki is able to win the favor of Sakaar's ruler, The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), Thor is brought by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) to fight in the planet's Contest of Champions. Things begin to look up for Thor when he realizes he's set to battle the Hulk - the alter-ego of fellow member of The Avengers, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). However, Sakaar isn't an easy planet to get away from. Along with Loki, Valkyrie, and the Hulk, Thor must escape The Grandmaster and Sakaar in order to return to Asgard and save his home from the Goddess of Death and the prophesied Ragnarok.
Waititi directed Thor: Ragnarok from a script by Eric Pearson based on a story by Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost. All three writers are veterans of the Marvel machine, with Pearson having worked on a handful of the Marvel One-Shots in addition to Agent Carter, Yost on a great deal of Marvel comics titles as well as Thor: The Dark World, and Kyle in the animated Marvel TV realm. As such, the tone of the script falls exceptionally in line with the remainder of the MCU, balancing more dramatic and heroic moments with the comedy fans have come to expect from the more light-hearted Marvel movies - which, despite its name, Thor: Ragnarok sets out to be. Waititi's comedic background can be felt in the very fiber of the movie, taking the best of Thor's humorous moments from previous appearances and weaving them throughout the entirety of Ragnarok.
The set design of Sakaar, with its colorful garbage dump texture as well as The Grandmaster's ostentatious style pervading the landscape and costumes, additionally helps to bring a much different feel to Thor: Ragnarok. Whereas the realms beyond Asgard and Midgard were hardly explored in Thor and The Dark World, Sakaar is much more developed thanks to its design and the inhabitants working exceptionally well to bring this planet to life, especially Goldblum as the entertaining-as-hell Grandmaster. It's in the bright colors of Sakaar that Ragnarok's Jack Kirby inspirations are most auspiciously felt, but the throwback vibe pervades throughout the film due to the '80s-inspired score. All of these elements carry over into the scenes of Thor: Ragnarok not set on Sakaar, working to create a much different feeling Marvel movie, and especially, a much different Thor movie - at least on the surface.
Despite the benefit of Ragnarok featuring the MCU's first major female antagonist (on the film side, anyway) played by an Oscar-winning talent like Blanchett, the film still falls prey to the typical Marvel villain problem. Like many Marvel villains before her, Hela is underdeveloped with a rather thin motivation (this time, it's revenge and power) and an army of faceless drones at her back to give the film's heroes something to kill with no consequence. Even when Ragnarok truly attempts to give Hela's invasion of Asgard real stakes, Thor's realm and its inhabitants have been so neglected in previous films that those attempts to elevate Blanchett's villain fall flat. While the third act of Thor: Ragnarok delivers a somewhat different spin to the final battle formula of a Marvel movie - thanks in part to Surtur and Fenris Wolf - it's not enough to truly diverge from tradition.
Still, the reason Marvel movies so often neglect the villains is that the film places most of its focus on its heroes, and Thor: Ragnarok does the same. This time, however, Thor has traded in the Warriors Three for the Hulk, Valkyrie, and his brother, the God of Mischief Loki - much to the benefit of the movie. Hemsworth and Hiddleston, who have the benefit of portraying their respective Marvel characters in at least four movies each, easily fall back into their roles. For Hemsworth's part, he's also given a great deal more humor to work with, and he manages to shine more in this take on the God of Thunder than ever before. Ruffalo's Hulk is another fantastic addition to Thor's world, bouncing well off the film's eponymous warrior as well as the MCU's newest hero: Thompson's Valkyrie. Valkyrie is a relatively archetypal character - the soldier who drinks to escape from survivor's guilt and PTSD - but Thompson brings plenty of levity to the role, and a particularly beautiful memory sequence adds depth to the character. Thor: Ragnarok also features brief but memorable turns from Hopkins as Odin, as well as Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange.
All in all, Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok delivers another Marvel hit that excels insofar as it vastly improves upon the groundwork laid by Branagh's Thor and Taylor's Thor: The Dark World. Despite Waititi's unique directorial style and tone, Ragnarok still fits well into the MCU without challenging expectations from fans. That is both a positive in terms of delivering on the billion dollar Marvel brand, and a negative in that moviegoers have seen as many as 16 MCU installments prior to Thor: Ragnarok and may be growing tired. Rather than offer a completely new style, tone, and genre within the MCU, Waititi's entry reinvents Thor enough to provide a fun and entertaining adventure - just one that doesn't necessarily break the mold (not that it was really ever expected to). Still, Thor: Ragnarok will no doubt be enjoyable for Marvel diehards (and perhaps worth a trip to IMAX), and fun enough for casual moviegoers as well.
Thor: Ragnarok is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 130 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material.
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