Written PostMarvel Triumphs Again With Thor: Ragnarok!

Marvel Triumphs Again With Thor: Ragnarok!

Thor: Ragnarok is the third Thor film, but more importantly it is the incredible seventeenth film in the continuing and expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Looking back over these seventeen films, it is astounding to consider the incredibly high quality that Marvel has been able to deliver film after film after film.  There hasn’t been a single truly bad film in the mix!  Even the weaker films (Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World, The Incredible Hulk) are all perfectly fine and entertaining.  And the recent run of films has been amazing; just this year we have gotten Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2, The Amazing Spider-Man, and now the terrific, hilarious Thor: Ragnarok.

As this film opens, Hela the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett) returns, eager to wreak havoc on Asgard and the family of Odin who, she feels, wronged her millennia ago.  Thor’s initial attempt to confront her ends disastrously, as Hela destroys his hammer Mjolnir and banishes Thor to the far corners of the universe.  Thor finds himself on a trash-filled planet ruled by The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who oversees brutal gladiatorial-like competitions between captured aliens.  Thor will need to defeat incredible odds to triumph in the gladiatorial games, then somehow find his way back to Asgard to defeat the unbeatable Hela before she slaughters every last man, woman and child living there.

That all sounds like a very serious, dour story for the film.  But Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi, is a marvelously loopy, silly, joy-filled concoction.  It has been widely praised as the funniest Marvel film, and it is definitely in the run for that title.  (I am not sure it is funnier than James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films or Joss Whedon’s Avengers, but it is defintely in the top five.).

I was a little worried, when I started hearing about the light, comedic touch that Mr. Waititi had brought to this film, that it would turn into a farce that wouldn’t have any emotional weight.  But those fears proved unfounded.  Thor: Ragnarok is an exciting action-adventure film that fits smoothly into the continuing story of the Marvel cinematic universe, while also being nearly non-stop hilariously funny.

In some respects, the movie completely reinvents the character of Thor, turning the somewhat pompous warrior we have met before into a complete goofball.  It has been clear before now that Chris Hemsworth had strong comedic chops — see his work in the rebooted Ghostbusters as well as the shorts revealing what Thor was up to during Captain America: Civil War.  What Taika Waititi has done is allow Chris Hemsworth to basically play Chris Hemsworth here, rather than the Thor we knew.  This could be a recipe for disaster, but somehow it works amazingly well.  Mr. Hemsworth is wonderful as this looser, sillier Thor.  I miraculously didn’t feel any cognitive dissonance trying to square this Thor with the Thor we’d seen before — and even within this film, Mr. Hemsworth was able to shift gears smoothly in order to sell the dramatic moments as well as the film’s big action climax back on Asgard.  Credit goes to Mr. Hemsworth’s skilled performance and Mr. Waititi’s talented hands on the reins, keeping total control of the film’s tone.

After that first Avengers film, I wondered how it would work for the characters to go back to their solo films following that team-up.  Wouldn’t it be awkward that they didn’t assemble their fellow super-heroes every time one of them had a problem?  And, indeed, while most of the Phase 2 films were solid, I did find myself asking that question as I watched films like Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World.  What’s been fun, and impressive, about most of the Phase 3 films is how Marvel hasn’t felt the need to keep its heroes isolated in their solo films.  Captain America: Civil War featured almost every single super-hero introduced to that point (except Thor) and several new ones (Black Panther, Spider-Man) as well.

Thor: Ragnarok follows that pattern.  Just as Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark was basically the co-lead of Captain America: Civil War, Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk has a major role here is Ragnarok, and it is a joy to behold.  As the film’s trailers revealed, this film borrows heavily from the Planet: Hulk story-line from the comics, as we see that the Hulk, after flying off in a Quinjet at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron, has wound up as a gladiator on an alien planet.  It was a very clever idea to marry this popular-with-the-fans Planet Hulk story with a Thor movie.  The Thor films have always been interesting in the way they presented the fantasy aspects of the Thor/Asgard mythos with a science-fiction bent, and that was taken to the next level with this film, which feels closer to the universe of the Guardians of the Galaxy films than most of the other earth-bound Marvel films.  Whereas the first Thor film introduced Asgard but spent much of its time on Earth, Thor: Ragnarok doesn’t have a single scene set on Earth!!  I loved that!

Mark Ruffalo proves, yet again, that he is by far the best actor to portray Bruce Banner/the Hulk that we have ever seen.  I absolutely adore his work in this movie.  Bruce Banner is usually presented as a tortured, miserable loner, and while there are certainly aspects of that in Mr. Ruffalo’s performance, there is such humor and lightness that he somehow manages to incorporate into his portrayal.  It is always a joy to watch Mr. Ruffalo as this character, never a dour drag.  His chemistry with Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, whether he is in Hulk or Banner form, is tremendous.  Here in Thor: Ragnarok they transform into an incredible comedy duo.

We see more of Hulk in this film than we ever have before.  The visual effects that have been utilized to bring the Hulk to life on screen here are extraordinary.  I love the look of the Hulk in this film.  He is massive; he looks real and not cartoony, yet he has a certain stylization about him rather than being too realistically rendered with lots of veins and sinews popping out everywhere.  I love the look of Gladiator Hulk, which wonderfully captures the character’s iconic Planet Hulk look from the comics.  More than ever before, Mark Ruffalo’s face and expressions have been incorporated into the Hulk’s face.  Hulk still looks like Hulk, but also like Mark Ruffalo!  It’s a magnificent balancing act, expressing the hard work of scores of talented craftspeople.

The film also gives us many other wonderful nods to both the Marvel cinematic universe and Marvel comics lore.  We knew from the post-credits scene of Doctor Strange that he and Thor would be crossing paths in this film.  I had expected that to happen in the film’s third act, but actually their crossover happens very early in the movie.  It’s as much fun as I had hoped (even if that Doctor Strange post-credits scene sort of spoiled all of the best bits).  Bennedict Cumberbatch is once again terrific as Strange.  It’s fun to see that Strange has progressed in his skills, and his interactions with Thor are as oil-and-water as I might have hoped.

I have loved seeing these Marvel films, particularly the two Guardians of the Galaxy films, explore some of the obscure corners of the Marvel comics universe that I never, ever, in a million years expected to see depicted on-screen.  In particular, I have always loved Jim Starlin’s cosmic stories from the seventies and eighties, and seeing some of those characters depicted in these movies has been and continues to be a delight.  I can’t believe the Grandmaster is in this movie!  And whoever had the idea of casting Jeff Goldblum deserves a raise.  Mr. Goldblum is terrific, so bizarre and funny as this egocentric character.

I wasn’t sure how Loki would be involved in this Planet Hulk story, but I was pleased by how central he was to the story.  Well, OK, I guess Loki doesn’t actually have too much to do with the film’s main plot, but they did nevertheless find good ways to weave Loki in and out of the story in a satisfying manner.  Tom Hiddleston is, as always, terrific as this character, and I am glad they incorporated him into the story.  It wouldn’t have been a Thor film without him.  I was also pleased to see Sir Anthony Hopkins back as Odin.  Look at the dramatically different ways that Sir Hopkins plays Odin in those early scenes, when we are watching an Odin who is actually Loki in disguise, with how he plays the character when the boys find him on Earth, and marvel at the amazing skill of this actor.  He’s not in the movie much, but I’m glad for what we got.

(Though actually, one of my only complaints with this film was how quickly they dispensed with the dramatic cliffhanger from Thor: The Dark World, from back in 2013, with Loki having taken control of Asgard as Odin in disguise.  We’ve had five years to wonder what would come of Loki’s deceit, and I was a little bummed to see this unraveled in one silly scene.  Now, granted, that scene is a lot of fun.  That ridiculous play was hilarious, and seeing Loki-as-Odin enjoying a hedonistic life of leisure was great.  But this was one place where I’d have preferred had the story not been played for a joke.)

I was happy to see Idris Elba back as Heimdall, and though he’s not in the movie much, I was happy to see him.  On the other hand, I was very unhappy to see the Warriors Three dispatched so quickly, and I was really bummed that Jaimie Alexander was not in the movie at all as the Lady Sif.  This is a character with great potential who I felt didn’t get enough attention in either of the first two Thor films, so I was very saddened to see her completely excluded from this film.  (Though I guess not seeing her at all is better that than having her getting killed off immediately like the Warriors Three…)  Frankly, I think the entire character of Valkyrie in this film should have been Sif.

That being said, Tessa Thompson was great as Valkyrie.  She brought a lot of sass and energy and humor to the role.  I enjoyed her playful chemistry with both Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo.  I’d heard that Valkyrie would be the first bisexual character in a Marvel film, but I guess that got cut out, which is a bit of a shame.  We’re just left with her flirtation with Thor, which I enjoyed (though, again, I was sad that Sif was forgotten, by Thor and the movie!!)  (Also, I wish this character actually had a name.  She is referred to as Valkyrie in the film’s credits, and indeed there is a Marvel Comics character called Valkyrie, but in the context of the movie she was ONE of the Valkyrie, that’s not actually her name…)

Cate Blanchett was terrific, vamping it up as the evil Hela.  There’s not too much depth to Hela (a regular weakness of Marvel movie villains, it seems), but Ms. Blanchett brought her all to every single scene.  (The idea that Odin was once as bad as she was, but then tried to hide away that unpleasant truth, is a potent idea that I wish the film explored a bit more deeply.  Was Odin truly once that violent and bloodthirsty?  What made him change his mind?  What does he feel about the act of hiding away his daughter for millennia??)  I love the look of the character, and the way she runs her hands back along her head to reveal Hela’s elaborate crown/horns.  I love Ms. Blanchett’s hauteur and her elegance.

The great Karl Urban (so great as McCoy in the rebooted Star Trek movies) is great as the Asgardian henchman Skurge, bringing a lot more life and pathos than one might have expected from this character who, on the page, seems rather simplistic.  (He also looked perfect, a wonderful recreation of the character from the comics.)

In addition to so skillfully directing this film, Taika Waititi also was hilarious as the voice of the rock-creature Korg, whom Thor meets in the gladiator pits of Sakaar.  It’s immediately funny to hear such a gentle, high-pitched voice emerge from the mouth of this fearsome-looking warrior, but beyond that initial joke, Mr. Waititi’s voice-work continually elevated every scene this character was in, landing great joke after great joke. He steals the movie.

I enjoyed the use of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song at the start and end of the film, though otherwise I found the soundtrack, like the soundtrack for most Mavel films (with the notable exception of the two Guardians of the Galaxy films, which had both a fantastic soundtrack of pop music and a terrific, memorable score by Tyler Bates) to be a bit lackluster.  (In particular, the space-ship fight as Thor, Banner, and Valkyrie attempt to escape Sakaar felt to me like it cried out for a propulsive piece of score to make that sequence more exciting).

Let’s discuss the film’s ending.  (BEWARE SPOILERS.)

Marvel had been promoting this film as being the Phase 3 equivalent of Phase 2’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, shaking up the status quo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The film doesn’t quite deliver on that, but I was pleasantly surprised by the ending in which Ragnarok does actually happen and Asgard is destroyed.  It will be interesting to see how that affects future Marvel films.  Of immediate importance, we know that the Tesseract, one of the Infinity Stones that Thanos is after, is no longer protected in Odin’s vaults.  (The film suggests that Loki has taken it.  We’ll see in this summer’s Avengers: Infinity War, I suppose!)

I was pleasantly surprised by the way that Thor, the character, was changed by the end of the film.  I am shocked that Mjolnir remained destroyed when the closing credits rolled!  Will we never again see Thor with Mjolnir?  That seems hard to believe (because Mjolnir is such an iconic element of the character) though the lightning-powered Thor we saw in this film’s climax didn’t seem to have any further need of it.  I was also surprised by the whole eye thing.  Marvel hid that well, showing shots from that fight in the trailers, but altered so Thor still had both eyes in those clips.  Clever.

After the amazing multiple post-credits scenes in Guardians if the Galaxy vol. 2, the two post-credits scenes we git here were a little disappointing,  I liked the first one, in which the spaceship of Asgardians is intercepted by a humongous ship that presumably belongs to Thanos.  But just seeing one big ship dwarfed by another wasn’t, in itself, all that exciting.  I’d have preferred had that scene gone a little farther and actually shown us a glimpse of Thanos or one of his warriors.

The final scene, with some more silliness with Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster, was funny, though not quite funny enough to warrant sitting through all those credits.  (It was neither as funny nor as clever as, say, eating Shawarma at the end of Avengers, or seeing Howard the Duck at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy, or even more of those Cap videos at the end of Spider-Man: Homecoming.)  Oh well, they can’t all be winners!

Other thoughts:

* The film has a shockingly high body count of Asgardians.  The horror of that doesn’t quite land in this silly film.

* I loved the running gag regarding Thor’s repeated bungled attempts to use the hypnosis method of de-Hulking the Hulk from Avengers: Age of Ultron.  I expect that most movie-goers who haven’t recently rewatched Ultron might have no idea what to make of this, but I loved it.

* I thought it was clever that in previous films, on the rare occasion when Hulk spoke, he was voiced by Lou Ferrigno.  But here in Ragnarok, in which we see Hulk speaking far more than ever before, I loved that Mark Ruffalo himself provided Hulk’s voice.  Mr. Ruffalo is fantastic voicing the Hulk, and I really enjoyed this new, chattier version of the Hulk.

* I thought it was an interesting choice to make a joke about the Infinity Gauntlet in Odin’s vault being a fake.  That Gauntlet had indeed been glimpsed in the first Thor film, as an in-joke to comics fans.  Likely no one knew then that all these Marvel movies would be building to an adaptation of Jim Starlin’s Infinity Guantlet story-line.  (How close an adaptation remains to be seen.)  I was content to ignore that little glimpse as not actually being in the continuity of these films.  On the one hand, it’s nice that by bringing it up again here we see that everything matters in a Marvel film and that, since we’d seen that glimpse of the Gauntlet, it was important to clarify that it wasn’t real.  On the other hand, that suggests that there has ALREADY BEEN an Infinity Guantlet — that Thanos or someone else has already tried (and succeeded??) in assembling all of the Infinity Stones!  This feels like it might actually wind up being MORE of a contradiction to the upcoming Infinity War film than that one-off in-joke from Thor would have been…  I guess we’ll know for sure next year…

* I enjoyed the retro feel that many if the film’s promotional materials have had, and I liked how that played out in the film itself, from the title treatment to other aspects of the film’s look.

* Speaking of which, I adored the bright, primary-colors feel of Sakaar.  Its a great homage to the classic four-color look of comic books, but it totally works as both an original alien environment and one teaming with life.

* The film’s production values are incredible, with wonderful alien creatures and incredible sets and costumes.  And the visual effects.  Wow.  I can’t believe how HUGE these Marvel films have gotten!!  There is hardly a frame of this film that isn’t enhanced by an amazing visual effect, from the gorgeous alien landscapes of Asgard and Sakaar to all of the crazy fights to just the sheer amount of time we see the Hulk onscreen.  Amazing.  (I should say, incredible!)

* I wrote above about missing Jaimie Alexander’s Lady Sif.  Strangely, as I was watching the film, I didn’t find myself missing Natalie Portman as Jane Foster, despite her having been the co-lead of the first two Thor films.  Because this was such a cosmic film, taking place mostly on Asgard and the alien planet of Sakaar, I can see how it might have been awkward to incorporate Ms. Portman’s character into this story.  Still, I do hope that one joke about Thor being dumped isn’t the last we’ll see or hear of Ms. Portman’s character.  Jane Foster has been an important part of Thor’s story, and I do hope that somehow, in a future film, we’ll at least get one more actual scene of Natalie Portman as the character, to give her a proper send-off.

Will this be the final solo film for any of the original Avengers characters?  It certainly looks that way.  If so, bravo to Kevin Feige and Taika Waititi for bringing both the Thor series, and all of these original Avengers solo films, to such a wonderful end.  I am incredibly impressed with how Mr. Waititi and his talented team of collaborators were able to reinvent the Thor series to bring such a fun, new energy.  I can’t believe the hit-streak that Marvel Studios is on.  These films just get better and better and better.  I truly cannot think of any film franchise that can compare.  I cannot wait for Black Panther, coming up next, and after that, the long-awaited Infinity War!