Director: Taika Waititi
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett
Depending on how you land on Thor: Ragnarok, this is either where the lumbering Marvel Cinematic Universe really starts to unshackle itself from so much box-ticking, or the installment at which the franchise tips and, if not exactly jumps the shark, at least gets ready for the run-up. Like most swords in this splinter of the MCU, its double-edged. Drafting in Taika Waititi (What We Do In The Shadows, Hunt For The Wilderpeople) was a smart move, especially as Alan Taylor’s workmanlike The Dark World has come to be thought of as the runt of the litter. The result is a far more readily enjoyable movie, one which embraces the nuttiness of the concept with the kind of zeal James Gunn brought to Guardians Of The Galaxy.
It’s a very choppy and uneven film, one that stutters out of the gate playing audience catch-up, given that its been four years since Marvel shined a light on everything Asgardian. Quick and thudding exposition advises that Natalie Portman’s Jane is no longer in the picture, and the problem of Loki (Tom Hiddleston) ruling while disguised as Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is briskly if awkwardly undone, suggesting a few severe narrative rethinks in the intervening years. Probably worst of all is a needless stop-off to allow Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) an overlong cameo, one which suggests that, even in a comedy (which Ragnarok most certainly is), he’s still a colossal twat.
Still, things gear up nicely as this year’s antagonist enters the mix. Casting coup Cate Blanchett swoops in as Hela, first-born daughter of Odin, returned from banishment to take back Asgard and conquer all realms, let alone just nine of them. Blanchett crackles with sass and gravitas, and for a little while one hopes that Ragnarok will follow in the footsteps of Spider-Man: Homecoming and really start serving its villains. Besides, a little more badass femininity is long overdue in this franchise. Badass femininity we get, but it is more thoroughly sourced elsewhere as Ragnarok detours for a lengthy second act on a bizarre garbage planet ruled by Jeff Goldblum’s campy Grandmaster. Here we meet Asgardian expat Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), the first of a handful of new characters who could conceivably helm a vehicle all of their own.
Trapped, hobbled and defenseless before the Grandmaster (in a loony sequence that references, of all things, Soylent Green), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is compelled to fight this world’s beloved but monstrous champion in gladiatorial combat; a sequence with a superb punchline that would’ve been so much more effective if it hadn’t been the crux of the movie’s advertising campaign. Nevertheless, this entire hour-long section of the movie is its giddiest, offering Waititi the opportunity to revel in bonkers set and character designs, including his own appearance as Korg (a new fan favourite in the making). In fact, as much as Hemsworth and Hiddleston are comfortably within their stride playing off of one another, it’s the secondary characters that really enrich Ragnarok; a welcome development for Marvel as there’s no stopping this train and new heroes will eventually be required to take the spotlight of old ones.
As advised, this is where Ragnarok becomes an unbridled romp, with Goldblum gliding about like a living meme in a technicoloured dreamcoat. Even the score gets in on the action. Waititi takes the established sound of the Thor films and dapples it with bubbling electronics, keying into the ever-popular hunger for 80’s nostalgia. It creates a busy soup of a sound that compliments the tone of what’s happening. We are miles from the po-faced moralising of Captain America. Ragnarok divorces from reality so completely as to become the kind of lunatic fantasy piece that these movies only previously tilted toward. On paper that’s great news, and Waititi nails the execution… but it seems to forget that there’s quite a different movie happening either side of it.
Hela and her dominance of Asgard are marginalised by the madness happening elsewhere. Sadly this means that Blanchett – after being given a fantastic entrance – is left with very little to do and her character dynamic within the family is left underdeveloped. She becomes, sigh, just another MCU villain whose reach doesn’t quite match her grasp. While everyone else gets to play around on the trash planet, she’s left drumming her fingers on the Asgard throne waiting for act three. There are subplots here, but they’re little more than the usual seasoning. Act three comes, and Ragnarok regresses to the standard Marvel template. Stuff happens. CG spectacle. You know the drill.
The film is a little schizophrenic then. On the one hand you have Hela’s coup in Asgard, which attempts to make some comments about Imperialism and the bloodied hands of royal legacies, but this is more or less drowned out by the more erratic but entertaining Sunday morning cartoon episode happening elsewhere. It’s hugely enjoyable, but by splitting the family dynamic in this way, Ragnarok misses out on having more dramatic meat to it, and therefore the finale lacks weight. Is it amusing? Heck, yes. Does it cohere? Not particularly. And there are plot holes for the pedants to get lost in.
Given the success of the Guardians Of The Galaxy movies, and the palpable enthusiasm for this one, one senses that this is where Marvel will be heading now; more pointedly into the goofball. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But if it isn’t checked, things could quickly spiral into the inane and the very, very silly. Reason to care about any of this could simply become moot. In terms of fun, this one’s up there with the best the studio have produced, but it also feels a little overstuffed, definitely too long, and symptomatic of the problem that’s been underlining a lot of these movies lately; too many characters to service, even if the new additions are very, very welcome. Maybe it’s time to start thinning the herd?*
*Start with Doctor Strange, please.