(2016) or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017): an unbridled, cartoonish sense of fun is always much more appealing than a general heaviness that’s sometimes interrupted by screwball comedy. At least that’s how I see it, though I can’t imagine I’m the only one who prefers seeing their superheroes having a good time to discovering what makes them tick. Why sit through cinematic stone-facedness when you have the option to plug yourself into Zack Snyder-directed D.C. drivel?
It’s always lightheartedness that wins in the long run. And doesn’t Thor: Ragnarok (2017), arguably Marvel’s inaugural fully-fledged comedy, know it. It’s at once the best movie in the Thor series and the first movie within its superheroic universe that doesn’t seem all that concerned with outdoing its counterparts. Written and directed by Taika Waititi, a true original best known for television’s Flight of the Conchords (2007-09) and the amiable comedy films What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), Ragnarok is an anomaly in the Marvel canon because it is so much a product of its maker.
As great as canon-definers James Gunn and (the gross) Joss Whedon are, their comedy styles are easy to meld in the grand scheme of superhero-led action. By contrast, Waititi’s sensibilities are so idiosyncratic – vaguely screw-headed, even – that Ragnarok sometimes feels like a Conchords episode just with a bigger budget, bigger stars, and bigger visual ambitions. In this case, that’s a good thing: the Thor movies thus far have been enjoyable placeholders, and the Marvel universe as a whole is in great need of ego deflation.
So Ragnarok, with his dotty humor and overall joviality, is so welcome because it is so facile and so odd. Because all superhero movies follow the same formula no matter their attempts to subvert genre tropes, we take to the way the movie spices up that formula with a kind of absurdist humor not yet seen in the canon. We ultimately already know what’s going to happen, so why not make the ride up more interesting?
If anything, Ragnarok plays like a cult classic in the making, a cinematic comic book chapter that only the most devoted of fans know about. In it, our mighty Thor (Chris Hemsworth) must battle his estranged sister, Goddess of Death Hela (Cate Blanchett, a raven-wigged knockout), after she is freed from imprisonment and decides to take over Asgard.
The feature is, of course, more complicated than that: much of it is actually spent watching Thor and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) trying to get back to Asgard. (After Hela appears and lets her intentions be known, Loki mucks things up and somehow gets them stuck on an alien planet.) Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) eventually hops aboard the ensemble, too, as does grizzled Asgardian warrior Valkyrie (an excellent Tessa Thompson) and quasi-villain Grandmaster (a hilarious Jeff Goldblum, who’s essentially playing himself), who taunts our heroes for much of the middle act.
Since Ragnarok is so silly, and so apparently aware of itself, we’re almost tempted to call it throwaway. But then we think about the last Marvel movie we saw wherein the comedy was at the forefront and the action set pieces were merely decorations. And then we come up with nothing. Turns out one of the main reasons Ragnarok is so attractive is because it is so goofy and seemingly unsubstantial. It’s one of the few Marvel movies as of late that seems to understand that superhero movies don’t have to be, and for the most part shouldn’t be, more than their sensorial pleasures. It’s certainly much more primed for repeated viewings than many of its peers.
Most significantly, though, it makes Thor, a character always more investing when fighting alongside other supers than when in the confines of his own franchise, exciting. The 2010 kickoff was entertaining but thin, and didn’t seem to exactly know what it was going for courtesy of its director, Kenneth Branagh. Similarly, the 2013 sequel was amusing, but did not appear as much more than a snack meant to prepare us for other Marvel movies.
So Ragnarok exceeds expectations. It not only showcases Hemsworth’s comedic timing in ways the saga hasn’t before – it also uses Waititi’s style of humor, as well as the abilities of its exceptional supporting cast, to make us crave more of whatever kind of superhero movie this is. B+
2 Hrs., 10 Mins.
Thor: Ragnarok November 17, 2017
guess at this point the Marvel universe has expanded so much that execs no longer feel the need to go with the bigger-is-always-better sequel mentality. Their audiences are so used to being hand-fed multimillion-dollar spectacles, being floored by a particularly gutsy action sequence or visual snack is so yesterday. It’s the self-referential, winkingly goofy ilk that’s in nowadays.
This review also appeared in The Daily.