By Andrew Haas
When it comes to the standalone films within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Thor movies tend to be low on people’s rankings. This isn’t to say that these movies about the god of thunder are terrible. Thor (2011) is a decent fish-out-of-water story that features an epic mythology, but while Thor: The Dark World (2013) has its moments, many people thought it was dull. There wasn’t a lot of hype for the third outing, Thor: Ragnarok, until the trailers promised a comedy epic along the lines of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Thankfully, the new film manages to deliver with flying colors.
In Ragnarok, Thor returns to Asgard as it faces domination from the goddess of death, Hela. After failing to stop her, Thor finds himself imprisoned on a strange world where he is forced to fight in gladiator battles. Now he must form a team with fellow Avenger Bruce Banner/Hulk, his brother Loki, and former warrior Valkyrie to escape and save Asgard from the destruction known as Ragnarok.
From the opening sequence, in which Thor makes witty small talk while chained up in a hell-like environment, I could tell this was not going to be a typical outing for the character, and I couldn’t have been happier about it. The last two films tried to take a semi-Shakespearean approach, which had mixed results. But director Taika Waititi has decided to embrace the character’s more bizarre, over-the-top comic side this time around. While it does share similarities to the Guardians of the Galaxy films in its otherworldly silliness, Ragnarok still manages to feel like its own thing. I found myself smiling throughout the picture, as each scene provides something either visually engaging or laugh-out-loud hilarious. While the majority of the film takes on the tone of a buddy comedy, there are still dramatic moments to keep the stakes high and to build upon the lore of Thor’s world.
The biggest strength of the film and the source of all the humor is its characters. Waititi says that about 80% of the dialogue was improvised, and it is a testament to the actors that they get into their roles and work off each other with little scripting. Chris Hemsworth is better than ever as the titular god. He embraces the goofy side of Thor, while still having a commanding presence. He manages to form great chemistry with the each character, whether it be his sibling relationship with Loki or his camaraderie with the Hulk.
Tom Hiddleston also shines once again as Loki, who is more of a wild card at this point: he is a helpful asset to the team, but still mischievous and untrustworthy. This is also easily the best appearance of Mark Ruffalo as the shy-scientist-turned-big-green-monster. The best scenes of the movie revolve around Hulk and Thor, from their awesome gladiator battle to moments of just them talking. The new characters also manage to be a ton of fun. Tessa Thompson makes for a great Valkyrie, the former Asgardian warrior who now resorts to alcoholism and capturing potential fighters. Waititi himself plays Korg, a big rock creature who speaks in a soft, friendly tone even when beating up bad guys.
Speaking of which, I’ve noticed this year that Marvel has been getting better at providing decent villains. Cate Blanchett as Hela reminded me a lot of Maleficent from the original Sleeping Beauty in the best way. She’s as elegant as she is intimidating, and she relishes every minute of it. There’s also a side villain in the form of the Grand Master, portrayed by Jeff Goldblum, who clearly plays to his strengths. While these two aren’t quite on par with Loki in The Avengers or Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming, they’re still entertaining villains who make the best of each scene they’re in.
On a technical level, this is the best-looking Marvel film to date. Not only do the sets and costumes perfectly capture the retro comic aesthetic, but the cinematography is especially gorgeous. There’s a standout scene where Valkyrie has a brief flashback to when she first fought against Hela. The way each shot is composed makes it feel like an epic painting. Even though the actions scenes clearly have a lot of CGI, they are full of purely fun spectacle. There’s the aforementioned Hulk vs. Thor scene, but then there’s the prologue fight with a fire demon and the grand finale of taking back Asgard. Each of these scenes filled me with excitement. They’re also accompanied by a great score by Mark Mothersbaugh, who creates a unique blend of ‘80s synth and orchestral sound.
Most of the negatives I have with this film are minor. The plot can be rather predictable at times, but it’s the presentation that makes the journey special. I’ll also say that those who are sick of Marvel playing up the jokes more than the drama might not enjoy this as much.
Thor: Ragnarok is not only the best Thor movie by a long shot, but it easily ranks within the top five MCU films to date. I walked out of the film with a big smile on my face thanks to the great blend of comedy and action provided by lovable characters. It’s a visual spectacle full of thrills and laughs and further cements Marvel Studios as the king of modern comic book movies.