With the exception to The Incredible Hulk (2008) the Thor movies had often been considered to be something of the MCU’s weaker link. Kenneth Branagh’s 2011 opening chapter was relatively serviceable, largely because its Shakespearean flair played into the source material’s more whimsical side. 2013’s Thor: the Dark World, however, fell flat on its backside. When it tried to be funny, it was cringe worthy. When it aimed to be dramatic, it was eye-rolling. With Branagh no longer applying his theatrical allure from behind the camera, successive direct Alan Taylor served up something much more dull and uninspired in comparison.
One year after The Dark World’s release, something became clear over at Marvel Studios; a glimmer of hope for everyone’s favourite god of thunder. Although Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) experienced numerous problems during its 141 minutes of screen time, it did make something abundantly clear; Chris Hemsworth has a comedic side. In actual fact, he’s pretty darn good at being funny. Director Joss Whedon’s use of short, quirky bursts of wit went down a storm with the 34-year-old actor. Not only is his timing pitch perfect, he performed each moment with a charming obliviousness that made it all the more dazzling. Their’s a weirdness and rapidity to his humour that allows it to stand out above all else; an almost natural micro-burst of oddness that’s charming to witness. This was Marvel’s ticket to course correct Asgard’s finest. Screw the fantasy, screw the melodrama; he’s a dashing clown who’s convinced he’s an earnest champion. This was the secret formula they’d been missing out on. Sure, they brushed upon this a bit with the theatrical bravado of part one, but the God of Thunder’s full potential was yet to be wholly utilised.
All that was needed now was a director who could take that potential and whipped it up into something tangible. Thor needed to go from being a histrionic god from a mythical realm, to a barmy space guy born into intergalactic royalty. Inevitably it fell upon New Zealand writer, performer, producer and comedian, Taika Waititi to take on the challenge of reinventing Thor for the big screen. His goal to
Hiring Waititi to pilot Thor Ragnarok (2017) turned out to be one of Kevin Feige’s wisest decisions to date. Waititi had already proven his comedic chops in the thrilling and side-splitting What we do in the Shadows (2014); a mockumentary that not only carried a unique sense of humour, but also managed to distort a series of clichéd tropes surrounding the vampire genre, twisting them into something unexpected. What we do in the Shadows took a dusty old story and added new blood. This is likely the reason behind Feige’s decision to bring Taika aboard; an attempt to reshuffled the sides of Thor’s Rubik’s Cube so it made a little more sense.
Waititi’s talent when it comes to contorting expectation turns out to be Ragnarok’s secret weapon. While the previous two features attempted to use the Asgardian hero’s Shakespearean demeaned for dramatic or stylistic effect, Waititi is aware there’s another way to go about utilising this facet to the character. The trick isn’t to jettison it, but to recenter it as heart to what’s essentially a burlesque comedy. This was used in Thor and Thor: the Dark World, only it wasn’t what fuelled those films in the way it does this time around. That dashing heroic persona Thor possesses is used as a continuous punchline throughout Thor: Ragnarok (2017). Thor thinks he’s a mighty warrior? Oh look, he’s screaming. Thor is an unstoppable force in charge of his own fate? Well he’s just knocked himself out. Thor can tame a beast as overpowering as the hulk? Nah, he’s getting thrown around like a Loki-shaped rag-doll. Thor’s a noble hero? Let’s watch him try to awkwardly butter up Bruce Banner with a carton of fibs. This type of cliche’-shattering humour could have fallen flat in the hands of many directors, yet Waititi manages to hit the note with perfect precision every time; delivering both a film and protagonist who’s as likeable as he is imperfect. The humour takes Thor down a peg, making him ridiculous and flawed. It re-aligns a god so they are more human-shaped; a surefire way to make him more relatable.
Beyond the comedic value packed into this film, another aspect to note is the visual shift present throughout. Marvel Cinematic Universe films have a frustrating habit of feeling as though they are the same movie a majority of the time. With the possible exception of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), most look, sound, feel and structure themselves as though they are a series of interconnected television episodes which fall under the same season as one another. After sixteen of the things, a change of tone is certainly what we need. Fortunately, Thor: Ragnarok is here to grant our wishes.
Instead of throwing out the old and ushering in the new wholeheartedly, Ragnarok opts to jump between both the old and the new styles between scenes. For the moments set on Asgard, we’re very much in old-school Marvel’s territory. That dirty brown/gold filter cakes the lens in every shot, while generic valiant music blares over the soundtrack. During the scenes set on the Planet Sakaar, on the otherhand, Waititi decides to shake up the visual pallet by turning it into a Flash Gordon (1980) reboot. Flamboyant junkyards, spaceships shaped like vacuum cleaners, rainbow coloured sets and towns resembling sets from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1971) dominate the scenery from head to toe during Sakaar’s time onscreen. Even the non-diegetic soundtrack transitions into a super cheesy (yet delightful), hyper 80s, synth orgy. The inclusion of the Grandmaster (Jeff Golblum) for Sakaar’s scenes ramps up the camp-factor to eleven. Golblum’s clearly having the time of his life; becoming one with the scenery and delivering what’s by far his most flamboyant performance to date. His actions personify the vibrant mayhem presented onscreen; taking audiences back to the tongue-in-cheeky days of Brian Blessed swooping in with his feathered-wings to save the day.
Shifting gradually between the old and new makes sense from an aesthetic point-of-view. It’s easy to mistake Ragnarok as a reboot of the Thor series. Instead, it might be wiser to look upon this as a transitional movie, gradually morphing the old into the new. It’s a bridge from Thor-as-mythical to gods-are-zany-space-people. Throughout the film, the materialistic world of Asgard is shown to be falling apart. The legacy and history of this world is revealed to be built upon corruption and lies. By the end of the film, its revealed that it isn’t the physical landscape of Asgard that makes this realm what it is, but the people. In many ways, Thor Ragnarok is a meta-commentary on the characters occupying Thor and the wider structure of the films they exist within. Despite the problems with the previous films, Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) turned out to be huge hits for the wider MCU franchise. People loved them, despite the waning opinions toward their standalone flicks. The movies (e.g. culture) wasn’t what made Thor great, it was main cast (people). By the end of the movie, Asgard the planet is destroyed, taking the stuffy old aesthetics of the preceding two movies with it. Thor, Loki and the other members of their species are left sailing through space in an idiosyncratic spacecraft pinched from the wacky world of Sakaar. Jumping between the old and the new represents the two stylistic landscapes competing for the film’s space. Eventually, the bygone terrain is annihilated, leaving the contemporary vista to flourish in its wake.
The decision to transition Thor into a cosmic fantasy allows the mythical and science fiction elements of this wider fictional universe co-exist in more harmony than it did beforehand. The MCU is a fictional universe where multi-millionaire narcissists can build superhuman suits, genetic mutations can give a teenager spider-like abilities and government experiments can turn weedy WWII soldiers into Chris Evans. It’s also a universe where Norse gods exist and magic stones can make monsters from Titan ridiculously powerful. These are often fictional styles that belong to separate genres or sub-genres. If the climax of Alien (1979) ended with a space-wizard flying in to save the day, the audience’s suspension of disbelief would certainly falter. Likewise, is UFOs appeared in a Lord of the Rings (2002) spin off, chances are not many people would be too pleased. The MCU did a great job of merging various genres together in the run up to Ragnarok’s release, and although the previous two attempts certainly didn’t alienate views in the way the two above examples would, minor friction did exist slightly between the science fiction and fantasy elements occupying this interconnected universe. Contextualising all of this as a screwball space comedy – a sub-genre that’s essentially good at doing the whole ‘dungeons & dragons in space’ malarkey – harmonises the science fiction and the fantasy to great effect.
Jumping from MCUsual to zany 80s homage makes the entire film feel like a delicate transitional process. It also feels like a bridge between another sub-segment to Disney’s comic book universe that has yet to tether itself up to the franchise’s primary superhero hub. Guardians of the Galaxy may have introduced cosmic madness to this universe several years back, however this is in many ways the first time this sort of style has been applied to a Marvel character already established in the franchise’s primary Avengers phase. In many respects, Guardians of the Galaxy represented a bold new era for the MCU, whereas all the other films belonged to the 2008-2013 status-quo. Seeing as both the old and new will be colliding during the events of Avengers: Infinity Wars (2018), it seems fitting to have one of the traditional heroes enter into the cosmic realms beforehand. Thor: Ragnarok served as the perfect opportunity to do this; introducing both Thor and Bruce Banner/Hulk to the intergalactic lunacy that exists beyond the MCU’s younger years. It opts to ease audiences into the “new” world by serving up celestial lunacy in smallish doses.
Whereas these shifts from old to new works for the most part, the colliding styles can at times give off the impression that Thor: Ragnarok is two films trapped in one. The Asgard sequences feel like the dull leftovers from an abandoned Thor III script, while the sequences set on Sakaar belong to a superior film deserving of much more screen time. It’s like been trapped between attempting to trim the ‘best’ bits off of a stale loaf of bread, while been served up tastes from the dazzling buffet being prepared on the neighbouring table. Everything to do with Hela (Cate Blanchett), Heimdall (Idris Elba) and the rise of Surtur (Clancy Brown) is largely disposable. These are the film’s weakest moments, and suppress a lot of the parts that are practically screaming for more screen time. By the time Thor, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) make it to Asgard, it feels like all the chaotic sensations presented to us in the form of Sakaar and the Grandmaster have been ditched for something slightly less thrilling.
All the same, Thor: Ragnarok serves up a delicious 130 minutes of visual joy, camp fun, side-splitting humour and cosmic glee. The conflation of the MCU’s formulaic style with that of the space opera spectacle of the 80s comes together in a manner that’s both fittingly appropriate and surprisingly refreshing. Although the film spends less time on Sakaar – and by proxy in “80s mode” – than it deserved to, the film successfully introduces two original Avengers to this universe’s future. It really is a dazzling romp of a movie, one that’s certainly amongst the finest currently belonging within the MCU’s cannon. It’s an absolute blast, and if this is a taster of what’s to come, then sign me up for the next 50 phases.