Spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok and the overall MCU are discussed in this post.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Thor movies have been particularly and fairly maligned. Despite the addition of the MCU’s most (only) fantastic villain in Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, great directors like Kenneth Branagh, and fantastic actresses like Natalie Portman, the Thor series has represented the worst of the Marvel formula. Thor was the perpetual straight man, perpetually stuck in an inexplicable fish-out-of-water story (I know everything about Midgard, except about coffee!). Branagh had tried to make Thor moody and Shakespearean. And nobody really seems to know what happened in The Dark World, it was so generic we immediately forgot what happened. “Was Loki in that one?” It was a shaky (but successful enough) start to Marvel’s Phase II, and probably led Marvel to really put the hammer down (yup, meant to do that) on the direction their movies took. Where Avengers had been a success, The Dark World struggled to define the galactic aspect of the MCU. James Gunn eventually lent his directing talent to Kevin Feige, and Guardians of the Galaxy assured us that Thanos wouldn’t just appear out of nowhere, some sort of galactic plot was in place.
We knew Cris Hemsworth was being undersold as Thor when Avengers rolled out. Thor took on Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans), and when he finally had the opportunity to explain himself to Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), he defended Loki as an Asgardian and his brother who deserved to be treated with respect and brought home to justice. Then something happened, Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) informed him Loki had killed 80 people in two days, and Thor replied without missing a beat, “he’s adopted.” If ever there was a spit-take moment in the MCU, that was it. Writer and director Joss Whedon is known for his snappy dialogue, but this was so expertly and drily delivered, that Marvel fans have been quoting it ever since. Maybe Thor wasn’t just a “Point Break” extra after all.
Later, in the party scene in Age of Ultron, a movie with few stand-out scenes, Hemsworth again puts himself apart while inhabiting Thor’s pure lack of self-awareness. He boasts about how his girlfriend, Jane, is the best girlfriend of any Avenger (awkward Thor, awkward). Later, he allows the Avengers to prove their worth by attempting to pick up Mjolnir (including a moment of self doubt as Cap gets a slight movement out of it).
Thor’s story has mainly been one of redemption, and Hemsworth has been trudging a long path of getting out of the shadow of his own costars, as the villainous Loki dominated his series, and Cap and Iron Man had defined niches as the moral center and conflicted, snarky, tech genius.
Mjolnir and his father keep pushing Thor to be a better leader, a better person, a better hero, when all he loved was battle and conquest. But it was all buried beneath Loki’s character development, and the damp, sloggy, narrative. Thor the character occupied a space that was ill defined until Taika Waititi got hold of him.
Waititi let Thor’s heroism shine through, and not just his arrogant “watch-me-kill-an-ice-giant” usual brand of heroism. Thor was always successful, he’d been handed his position in life, and gifted a weapon and status as a god. Odin (Anthony Hopkins) wanted him to learn to work for his position, and in his hero’s journey, Thor also learned that being a hero requires great sacrifice.
What is impressive about Ragnarok isn’t the over-arching plot, which remains MCU cookie cutter standard, but the way director Waititi allowed his actors to inhabit the characters. Reportedly a great deal of the dialogue was improv, and this let us realize how funny Chris Hemsworth is, almost from the get go. As Thor is making his way back to Asgard and attempting to thwart Ragnarok (remember that weird Thor in-the-magical-bathtub scene that was shoe-horned into Ultron? Thor’s apparently trying to stop Ragnarok and find the infinity stones, whatever, let’s roll with it.). But he’s let himself be captured by Surtur to let him monologue-reveal his weakness, capture the mask, and hopefully avert the destruction of Asgard. Thor has a plan! He executes it by himself without the help and possibility of having a song written about it by his friends Sif (an absent-due-to-scheduling Jaimie Alexander) and the Warriors Three.
Thor returns to Asgard and immediately sees Loki working his magic posing as Odin. Thor, who has gained many IQ points since working with the Avengers, doesn’t seem to be fooled for a second. As Loki watches a dramatic retelling of his “death,” Thor quickly understands what’s going on and threatens Loki in a way we’ve never seen before, holding his brother’s face in front of a returning Mjolnir. Thor has finally lost his sense of familial loyalty for Loki. Also props to Waititi and writers on reminding us about the end of Dark World which happened over two years ago in the MCU and about four years ago in real time. The cameos by the eldest Hemsworth, Matt Damon, and Sam Neill were enough of a misdirection to inform the audience of the events of the finale of Dark World without simply having Thor explain it. Loki and Thor abandon Asgard, where Heimdall is also missing, to find Odin. Who is in charge of Asgard?! Our boys are deeply terrible at governing.
The Odinson boys are also terrible at finding their father. Loki left Odin in a nursing home, Shady Acres (an Ace Ventura reference? Really?), in New York City, on Earth. But Shady Acres is being demolished, so where is Odin now? Before they can decide on a plan of action, Loki disappears through a portal, leaving behind a card with the address “177A Bleeker Street” written on it. This leads to a deeply fun sequence as Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) tosses Loki into a void, and sweeps Thor around his mansion to create a spell to find Odin as long as Thor promises to leave with his adopted brother as soon as possible. Doctor Strange keeps a list of beings who aren’t allowed back on earth, and Loki is probably in the top 10 of that list. The list and Strange’s short interaction with Thor will likely lead to his involvement in Infinity War. Thor promises to leave promptly with Loki after they find Odin, and summons Mjolnir to the dismay of Doctor Strange’s belongings. Loki re-emerges from the void, “I WAS FALLING FOR HALF AN HOUR!” and we move on to Norway. I would have loved for this scene to be considerably longer. Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch as dueling sorcerers would have entertained me for hours. Make it happen, Feige.
Odin is looking into the distance in Norway over the fjords and informs his sons that he’s dying. Which means, “she’s coming.” Oh come on, this is no time to be secretive, old man! WHO?! The audience knows he means Hela, because we have seen the trailers. It just seems like Odin will always hold his full knowledge close to the chest. Why are you dying? What’s happening? His sons ask but aren’t given a satisfying answer as Odin dies and turns to dust…and Hela (a gloriously goth Cate Blanchett) emerges from her prison. Thor, ever the warrior, immediately engages, but she easily destroys Mjolnir. Loki sees this and immediately calls for the Bifrost, because his instinct is flight not fight what can overpower his brother. Thor realizes this is a mistake almost immediately, but there’s no turning back. Hela overpowers them both as they travel and tosses them off to Sakaar, and makes her way to Asgard where she quickly dispatches two of the Warriors Three (um, bye guys? Maybe it’s good Sif wasn’t in this movie), recruits a reluctant Skurge (Karl Urban), and moves on to conquer her home.
This is my least favorite part of the movie despite many fun things that happened. The amount of time it took me to write that recap is longer than those scenes lasted. Setting up this film happens so quickly they don’t even have time to *walk* around Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum, Strange and Thor just apparate from room to room. And there’s a lot of potential in there, from the reason Thor and Loki are in street clothes and Mjolnir is disguised as an umbrella, to exploring the dynamic between Strange, Thor, and Loki which was delightful and much too short. Odin and Two of the Warriors Three were dispatched with a flick of the wrist and almost no time was left to mourn them. I feel this was Waititi’s way of getting the connective tissue to the MCU out of the way, he had to work in that post-credits Doctor Strange scene, and wanted to get to the meat of his story as soon as possible. Luckily, the rest of the film is such fun that I forgot how annoying that was until I sat down to write about it.
Hela is the MCU’s first female villain and Cate Blanchett LOVES it. Hela may belong in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor rather than Waititi’s Ragnarok, but that doesn’t mean Blanchett isn’t going to enjoy the heck out of this role. Hela is clever, aggressive, and prone to throwing knives at Asgardians who stand against her. She seems more like Loki in her mischievous, balletic romp of destruction. Hela also has an impressive and somewhat empathetic backstory. Odin’s firstborn, she helped her father conquer the Nine Realms. When her vicious streak began to frighten even her father, he imprisoned her and ret-conned Asgard’s history to write her out. Many women can understand the kind of deep pain being seen as “too aggressive” can bring in a man’s world. Of course, most women aren’t actually trying to violently overthrow realms. Hela is a dark reflection of women in 2017 who have decided that enough is enough, said “Fuck being sweet, it gets me nowhere.” Seeing her tear down the myth of how Odin founded Asgard was satisfying, and her path through Odin’s vault (crying, “FAKE” as she shoves over the Infinity Gauntlet housed there to end that little niggling detail from Thor was meta-level giggle-worthy) to find her faithful companion Fenrir, gave Blanchett the opportunity to camp up her performance while giving the audience some exposition. I’d also contend she didn’t really need that phalanx of dead warriors, she seems capable of wiping out armies all on her own.
However, Hela remains a fairly standard MCU villain in that she is completely disposable. Her goal in the cinematic Ragnarok is dominion and destruction. She spends most of the movie on her own, so any cuts to her from the action on Sakaar feel abrupt and too brief. There were some theories that Hela might become the MCU’s version of Death, who is the occasional consort of Thanos in the comics. Too bad Feige and Co. didn’t see fit to keep her around, she could have shaken up the Universe.
The other notable addition to the MCU is Tessa Thompson’s amazing Valkyrie. Valkyrie has been drinking her feelings away since the destruction of her cadre of Sisters in the fight against Hela. She was the lone survivor, and as Odin rewrote history he also conveniently papered over the most horrible thing that had ever happened to her, the loss of her companions and her lover (who looked suspiciously like the comic version of the Valkyrie character). Valkyrie is funding her descent into darkness by scrounging for fighters on Sakaar and delivering them to the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum being ultimate Jeff Goldblum) and his
Roman Sakaarian fighting pits.
Valkyrie swaggers in to rescue Thor, stumbling drunk she still overpowers a horde of Sakaarians intent on capturing Thor for their own purposes. She radiates strength from her clear physical prowess (girl has guns for days!), to her inner self. She easily strides next to her buddy, the Hulk, and playfully shoves him around. She dominates Loki in a knife fight (also, the one really interesting fight scene in the entire film). Thor follows her cue into the battle to leave Sakaar as she leaps from racing spaceships to yank gun turrets around and take out her foes. I’m terribly disappointed they took out any overt references to her sexuality, bummer of a move Marvel. But they always play it safe. Tessa Thompson brings Valkyrie to brilliant, confident life, I hope she remains an important addition to the MCU.
I would be remiss to leave out Waititi’s Korg, who proved to be a fan favorite with his dry wit. The leader of the underground resistance in the Grandmaster’s fighting pits, he seems a natural fit in an Asgardian world. Introducing himself with a “rock-paper-scissors” joke, he eventually leads the fighters off Sakaar, inadvertently freeing an imprisoned Loki as they made their way off the planet.
Loki can’t help himself. He’s always the God of Mischief, it’s in his DNA. Thor consistently shows he’s done with Loki by listlessly throwing things at his projected holograms. Tom Hiddleston briefly lets Loki’s love and despair show through as Thor tells him he thought they would fight side-by-side forever but now realizes they are simply too different to be companions. Of course, Thor undercuts this by throwing Loki at a bunch of guards. Ah, brotherly love.
Thor also showed off his increased “brain muscles” by proving he has learned his lesson from Loki as well, because when Loki once again tries to double-cross him, Thor imprisons him with a Control Disk from the arena. Loki later accompanies Korg and the escaping fighters to Asgard to join the fight for his homeworld. He notably stops as he makes a dash for Satur’s mask to eyeball his old flame, the Tessaract, which houses the Space infinity stone. We know that Loki will be handing that stone over to Thanos in the future, so he certainly pocketed his old friend.
Hulk and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) team up with Valkyrie and Thor to help him stop Hela and save Asgard. Banner has been Hulk for two years on Sakaar, and is pretty out of the loop. Considering that the Grandmaster’s fighting pits are to the death, it would be interesting to explore how many deaths Hulk has on his hands now, and perhaps the way Banner processes his culpability in that. Hulk has learned to express himself through speech, and has made a friend in Valkyrie. Banner’s alter-ego has enjoyed being the dominant personality, and probably won’t appreciate being stuffed back in the trunk.
The fight scenes in Ragnarok follow the same formula the MCU has sadly employed in its last few movies. Large, loud, dominated by CGI, with little lasting physical or emotional impact. Waititi managed to integrate some very iconic imagery into those scenes such as Hela catching a sword, Loki mid-battle, Hulk meeting Fenrir, and the Hulk and Thor meeting in the center of the arena on Sakaar. But the arena is so large and the film is so enraptured with it’s own scope and size that the long shots of the fight lack any impact. Much like the Hulk-Hulkbuster fights of Age of Ultron, it’s lot of noise and pixels and signifies nothing. Even the best fight between Loki and Valkyrie loses it’s effect with the old cut-before-impact technique.
But the most beautiful battle scene, that between the Valkyrie and Hela before Hela was banished, was apparently built around a new technology. The flashback battle scene is shot in slow-motion, encircled by flash bulbs (giving it that time-lapse look), it evoked a broken memory of a tragic event perfectly. More of that please!
Thematically incoherent, and with a standard MCU narrative, Waititi succeeds with this Thor film with his dry wit and overall character development.