OnScreen Review: 'Thor: Ragnarok'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

In Norse mythology, Ragnarok is an apocalyptic end of the world. There is no sign of a Ragnarok occurrence for superhero movies at the box office anytime soon. Quite to the contrary, the superhero genre is expanding rapidly both in movies and television. There are multiple Marvel and DC movies titles getting released every year now, and several TV series on network TV and on various streaming services. For Marvel’s part, everything is tied together in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and they have rolled out the MCU in phases. Phases 1 and Phase 2 both spanned six films; Phase 3 will feature no less than 10 films based on nine franchises, including a two Avengers films that will rope in everyone from every film franchise they’ve got going. It’s a massive balancing act, incredibly bold and ambitious, and if any piece went wrong it could be a colossal failure.

With so many spinning plates, it’s amazing that Marvel has brought in a diverse range of creative directors and allowed them to put their own creative spin on the various projects. James Gunn has excelled with the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. Scott Derrickson put his own touch on Doctor Strange, and Ryan Coogler looks to have made something unique and exciting with the upcoming Black Panther. None of these brought the degree of anticipation with them that I have had for Thor: Ragnarok being directed by New Zealand director Taika Waititi. Waititi is a creative, funny director who has made a lot of enjoyable, very funny indie comedies, including What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople in the past few years. Everything that makes those films distinctly Taika Waititi films is brought into Thor: Ragnarok, which is a Taika Waititi film in the Marvel universe.

Marvel movies have always had a degree of comedy in them, even the Guardians of the Galaxy movies are more overtly comedic action movies than the others. Spider-Man: Homecoming also had plenty of comedy. Thor: Ragnarok has it in spades. All of the trailers indicated as much, of course, but the fear is that sometimes the trailers show all of the best and funniest parts. That’s not the case here. There is so much more in the film that the trailers don’t reveal. It’s impossible not to be entertained by and laugh at this movie. The only minor complaint I have with the film is regarding some of the continuity to the previous two Thor movies. Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster (mentioned only briefly in a throwaway line by an extra) is non-existent, as is Jaimie Alexander’s Sif. And there is the quick dismissal of several supporting players from the first two films.

Back in the role of Thor, Chris Hemsworth has shown his comedic talent in other pictures recently, most notably in Ghostbusters, and even displayed that previously as the son of Odin over four previous movies, but he takes it to another level paired with Waititi in the director’s chair this time around. Hemsworth has proven to be perfectly suited for the role, an actor able to pull of the physical demands and look of the character, but also give him some depth and humor as well.

Not everything is fun and games in Thor: Regnarok, though. A constant through line in the story arc of Thor has been a dysfunctional family dynamic, something that started out with a Shakespearean flare to it in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor. Thor’s complicated relationship with his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), has been the emotional backbone to his story as well as their relationship to their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Ragnarok introduces a new element into the family dynamic in the form of Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death and eldest offspring of Odin, who Odin had banished when she became too powerful and dangerous. An actress mostly known for her dramatic roles, Blanchett is someone who rarely gets to let her hair down on screen. She is clearly having a lot of fun in this role and reveling in the opportunity to let loose in this role and chew the scenery. Every word out of her mouth and movement she makes on screen is delightful.

Her return results in Thor and Loki being flung to a far corner of the galaxy on a dump planet known as Sakaar, where much of the film takes place. It is here that we are introduced to the rest of the relevant character in the story, including another delightful performance in the form of The Grandmaster, portrayed by Jeff Goldblum. Anyone who is a fan of Goldblum as an eccentric actor will get a kick out of The Grandmaster, as we are treated to the full Jeff Goldblum experience here. While Loki manages to weasel his way into The Grandmaster’s good graces, Thor finds himself captured by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and given to The Grandmaster as a fighter in Contest of Champions. It turns out that The Grandmaster’s prized champion is none other than the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).

It’s great to see Ruffalo’s Hulk get an extensive supporting role in this film as Hulk is a character that has not gotten his own standalone film since 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, which was a mixed bag at best. The story here incorporates elements of the Planet Hulk comic book storyline. Thompson is an actress who has started to put together a nice body of work with Dear White People, Selma, Creed, and the first season of Westworld before this. She gets a great introduction and brings a bit of swagger and physicality to the role. She also plays well off of Hemsworth and Ruffalo. Waititi himself even voices a character on this planet named Korg, a soft-spoken rock creature that is pure comedic relief. Waititi brings the comedy, but he also manages to craft really good action for Thor, Loki, Hela, Hulk, Valkyrie, and others, all of whom fit in nicely, including Idris Elba, reprising Heimdall, and Karl Urban as Hela’s executioner.

Kenneth Branagh’s Thor was Marvel’s first experiment to see if it could blend fantasy elements into their superhero world. At the time, it ended up being better than it had any business being was the general impression the movie left with me. Thor: The Dark World stumbled a bit. Taika Waititi has come in with Thor: Ragnarok and put his stamp on the character, making not just the best Thor movie, but one of the best superhero movies period. It’s full of great laughs, great action, and even great visuals. Marvel has provided a space for their directors to come in and make films that are a bit more diverse in their substance, like Ant-Man being a heist film or Spider-Man being a John Hughes high school dramedy. Thor: Ragnarok is pure entertainment and pure Taika Waititi.

Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars