Review: Thor Ragnarok

A hilarious comedy that’s incidentally a superhero movie, Thor Ragnarok offers lots of laughs and a sense of something different, which both the character and the cinematic universe probably needed.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has travelled the universe since Avengers: Age of Ultron, and on returning to Asgard finds all is not well. Coupled with the appearance of the malevolent Hela (Cate Blanchett), Thor finds himself stranded on trash planet Sakaar, under the control of the bizarre Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), and inexplicably alongside the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). With the help of washed up Asgardian Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and shifty brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor aims to get back and prevent the destruction of his planet.

I feel like Marvel probably looked back at the first two Thors, all ham-fisted Shakespearean drama and sporadically interesting characters, and realised something really special was needed to get audiences interested again. Thankfully, probably due to his standout role in Ghostbusters, Chris Hemsworth offered them a new way forward, and the studio made a brave directorial choice in choosing Kiwi director Taika Waititi.

Two of his previous films, What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, were for me absolutely hilarious, featuring a keen balance between humour and drama (the former puncturing the latter regularly for an upbeat feel). What he brings to Thor and Marvel is not only an actual directorial vision, but some proper laugh out loud comedy (I love these films, but many are very similar and of the same style).

While the screenplay is ostensibly by three writers – Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost – it feels like Waititi wrote it, with his expertise in staging comic scenes with perfect timing stamped all over it. The more contained plot is a breath of fresh air for the series, removing us from the wider story at play and dropping us down with Thor as he blunders his way through a Flash Gordon style scenario (in terms of plot, look and zaniness).

On the look, special effects bring the junky, colourful world of Sakaar to vibrant life, while Javier Aguirresarobe’s kaleidoscopic lighting only adds to the alien nature of the rubbish dump planet. Asgard and Earth are rather bland as a consequence, but even then the final act takes place on the former’s rainbow bridge! A funky, 80s inspired soundtrack from Mark Mothersbaugh also helps plant a very specific style, setting it aside from the operatic strains of Asgard and again reinforcing that Flash Gordon feel.

The action is OK, if a little middling, but it’s sufficient and short enough in its appearances that it neither distracts nor detracts from the comedy, while still giving us the superhero fights we expect. Thankfully, the finale once again sidesteps the “alien ships fighting above a city” conclusion that Marvel is guilty of reprising a little too often.

I think once most people saw Chris Hemsworth was capable of being absolutely hilarious, it gave his depiction of Thor so much more. The regal, stuffy egotist of the other movies returns, but with a sense of his own idiocy and a more playful, dim look at the world. The Aussie actor is the best he’s been, and it’s a shame the concluding films of the saga will likely revert Thor to serious mode.

Perhaps the surprising weak link, Cate Blanchett does do her best to make Hela a little more interesting. However, as a villain she has to be “bad”, meaning in Marvel that she doesn’t get as much of a chance to join in with the hilarity. That’s a shame, as funny villains can absolutely make a film (see Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). I did however like her shifting British accents (betraying the real Hela behind her character’s reveal), and her bad buddy cop partnership with Karl Urban’s shifty Skurge, whose story is sadly predictable and who again had more potential if he’d been included in the humour.

Mark Ruffalo does more work as Hulk than Bruce Banner, but is hilarious as both even despite the character’s more serious dilemmas (with an eye to future films). Hulk is more chatty in addition to being dangerously unpredictable, but Banner’s small appearance is almost constantly funny. Ruffalo and Hemsworth make a great double act, and it’s clear why the film partnered their characters.

Anthony Hopkins wields his actorly powers as Odin in an extended cameo, with Idris Elba slightly sidelined unfortunately. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is still one of the series’ more interesting characters, and that carries on here as his actions in the last Thor are brought to light. The actor’s able to be much more loose as a result, his partnership with Hemsworth another great double act with some surprising emotional impact come the conclusion.

On Sakaar, Tessa Thompson’s boozy Valkyrie is interesting and really different for a Marvel superheroine, but again feels underdeveloped, though the actress does make an impression as the Asgardian gone to seed harbouring emotional damage. Jeff Goldblum predictably nearly steals the whole film as the Grandmaster, perfect casting and as a perfect choice for a Waititi movie. He operates at peak, weapons grade Goldblum here, which will likely be music to many ears.

There are also some brilliant cameos, one an A-list star I only recognised halfway through their scene, while another Avenger (well, I’m not sure if they are one yet) appears and provides a little more comedy and cross pollination to the mix. However, Waititi’s CGI appearance as Korg – a softly spoken, Kiwi sounding rock alien Thor befriends – is the standout, source of some of the best jokes and a hilarious meeting of special effects and absurd New Zealand humour.

Even those of you who don’t consider themselves fans of the Marvel juggernaut should see this, one of the funnier films this year. There are some spectacular jokes, and a real sense of fun and insanity that partners both Guardians of the Galaxy and Vol 2 – Thor added to that bunch would be a perfect next step! Waititi’s work here will hopefully get his other films more attention, and I hope Marvel learns from this excellent choice for the films ahead.

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