When it comes to Hollywood blockbusters, there’s no doubt that Disney is top of the pack. Whether it be through their mainline brand of releasing, with family movie smashes like “Moana” and “Beauty and the Beast,” it’s Pixar brand with “Cars 3” and “Inside Out,” their Lucasfilm brand with behemoths like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” as well as their upcoming “Indiana Jones” sequel. That being said, while each brand pulls in an insane amount of money per film, it’s their Marvel Studios releases that truly are the crowning glory of Disney at the moment. Seemingly always having some sort of major release on any given horizon, Marvel is a consistent force in putting out frequent, entertaining material of some of the most fun kind. With that, I almost want to hate Marvel. They’re that kid in high school who just does too much well, they’re smart, attractive, kind-hearted, liked by all and without pretense, but you want to find something screwed up about them if only to reveal a flaw in everything. Marvel might not always put out perfect films (see “Spider-Man: Homecoming”), but they always put out consistently good material that lets filmmakers do their thing while also staying on brand, and it’s working.
When it comes to the “Thor” series, things haven’t always been quite as peachy-keen for the Nordic God of Thunder. While both films in its canon, “Thor” and “Thor: The Dark World” were well-received, each one is considered to be some of the lesser films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), with “Thor: The Dark World” typically falling at the bottom of the heap. While I can attest that “Thor: The Dark World” is probably the least enjoyable film in the MCU, Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor” is actually one of my favorites in the MCU, and most definitely my favorite non-Avengers film in Phase One of the MCU. But when considering the future of “Thor,” Marvel had to consider how to make the series a powerhouse and not just filler movies. While the first “Thor” film benefitted greatly from Branagh’s Shakespearean direction, “Thor: The Dark World” wasn’t handled by a director with much of a vision, with Alan Taylor’s handling being quite unmemorable. Going for a quirkier feel, Marvel hired New Zealander Taika Waititi, known primarily for his indie comedies, including “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” to helm the film. While many small-scale directors have gone onto making waves in blockbuster filmmaking (Gareth Edwards, Ryan Coogler, Russo Brothers), others haven’t been so lucky (Colin Trevorrow). One has to stop and think how “Thor: Ragnarok” might fare given its history and its risk.
Well, one could think of it as a major payoff.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard after defeating an enemy of great power to find Loki (Tom Hiddleston), impersonating his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), as king. When seeking out the location of their father, they locate him on Earth, where he warns them of the coming danger of his first-born daughter, Hela (Cate Blanchett), Goddess of Death, out for revenge against Asgard for her exile many years ago. When Thor and Loki are cast out and left powerless by Hela’s might, they might fight their way through the planet of Sakaar, led by the enigmatic, yet tyrannical Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). While traversing Sakaar, they come across old friends in Bruce Banner aka The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and former Asgardian warrior, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). The team must find a way to return to Asgard to save the Asgardian people from Hela’s continued destruction.
When I saw “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” it was already announced that Waititi would be helming the third film in the “Thor” series and my main concern lied in whether or not the filmmaker would be able to transfer his hilariously quirky essence to a major studio blockbuster, to which my doubts were assuaged within the first five minutes of “Thor: Ragnarok.” “Thor: Ragnarok” is quite possibly the funniest film in the MCU, one that balances humor and darkness quite well, as the film really does play on both ends of the spectrum. When the film is funny, it’s hilarious and lighthearted, but when the film is serious, it’s dark and brooding, with incredibly high stakes raised by Hela. This is a film that’s incredibly enjoyable, but changes the fabric of what we know the MCU to be and how it will function in future films. This isn’t some inconsequential filler film, this is the Phase Three film that will affect the MCU the most overall, besting even “Captain America: Civil War” in thematic relevance, which is no small feat.
“Thor: Ragnarok” is the first time where Hemsworth has been truly given a chance to shine as Thor. In the previous “Thor” films, he’s taken a far more serious approach to the role, as the serious God of Thunder that’s smoldering and sexy, without too much hint of a personality. In the “Avengers” films, while attempts are made to humanize Thor, he falls short in comparison to other, more charismatic presences such as Iron Man and Captain America. “Thor: Ragnarok” gives him a chance to shine as a hero with an actual personality, one that doesn’t rely on Hemsworth’s attractiveness or his generally “heroic” qualities, but rather as Thor’s personality as a whole. This is even better than it sounds because “Thor: Ragnarok” has such a firm and wonderful grasp on humor that it really makes Thor a being to be reckoned with on multiple levels for once.
Bathed in a retro, neon aesthetic, “Thor: Ragnarok” looks unlike any MCU film to date. While it’s not a direct homage to the ’80s in the way that “It” was, it has that quirky, neon feel that the ’80s exuded in many of its pop aesthetics. “Thor: Ragnarok” is a acid-laced, retro fever dream of sights and sounds that really sets it apart from being just another MCU film, but a truly unique film at the hand of a truly unique filmmaker. Waititi knows exactly what he wants this film to be and goes after it with blinders. Even with this aesthetic, “Thor: Ragnarok” is beautiful, never gaudy or tacky. It’s out-there and in-your-face, but it only seeks to further the story more so than the sake of being it for the sake of being quirky and unique. Waititi and screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost know how to balance these two elements in being something actually substantial, rather than something colorful.
Performances beyond Hemsworth are also quite well-done. Ruffalo is also given a chance to shine as The Incredible Hulk in a way that we haven’t been able to see yet in an MCU film. We get a real sense of The Hulk’s personality outside of just his rage, but also his emotional sensitivity when transformed. Thompson establishes herself as a potential MCU powerhouse as Valkyrie. While I love Natalie Portman, she was never given anything to do in the “Thor” films other than to look scared and stand by Thor’s side, while Valkyrie really establishes herself as almost an equal to the heroes in the film beside her. Blanchett, however, establishes herself as quite possibly the best villain the MCU has ever seen. While Michael Keaton had a good row as the Vulture in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” Blanchett’s Hela is memorable, over-the-top, but never campy or gaudy by any means. Blanchett is having ten tons of fun in her role and it shows, as Hela, however menacing, dangerous and dark she may be, has her fun side to her as well. My only complaint with the entire film is that I wish we could’ve seen her even more. So much of the film is spent on Sakaar, and while Goldblum is also a wonderfully fun villain, you just can’t top Blanchett in anything, ever.
The film is also complemented by a wonderfully composed and mixed score from Mark Mothersbaugh. Combining both traditional orchestral might with that of electronic synth rock, the film really does nail its retro feel in both sight and sound, but balances the two wonderfully without becoming overzealous in either aspect.
Just when I thought I was slowly, but surely beginning to get over 3D once and for all, Marvel pulls me back in with an absolutely astonishing 3D experience for “Thor: Ragnarok.” The film features so much incredible depth that it rivals that of “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” in its wondrously crafted stereoscopic vision of a visually amazing otherworld. It almost makes your eyes cross at first it’s so good. Unlike “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” this film is actually being awarded a full IMAX 3D release, and with it opening its theatrically showcased 2.40:1 aspect ratio to a full-screen 1.90:1 aspect ratio for IMAX, I can’t imagine a better format to see it in than full IMAX 3D.
“Thor: Ragnarok” is one of the best films in the MCU so far. While it isn’t near-perfect like “Captain America: The Winter Solider” or “Captain America: Civil War,” I could go so far to say it’s on par with the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” film on all counts. This is a raucously hilarious, decidedly dark, beautifully retro and wonderfully modern all at the same time. Waititi nails this balancing act with a wonderful accord that not many directors could do in this many aspects without becoming over-the-top in any regard. It’s almost astonishing how the film nails being a hybrid in nearly every sense of the word, from its look, its music, its tone, its performances, its characters and everything in-between. Sure, I might’ve wished for a little more Blanchett in this whole occasion, but when is there a film with Blanchett where I don’t want more of her in it? “Thor: Ragnarok” is just one more example of how Marvel is killing the game when it comes to blockbusters, and however tired you might feel yourself getting of superhero and comic-book films, you’re still going to see them when they’re this good.
Directed by: Taika Waititi
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, with Mark Ruffalo, and Anthony Hopkins.
Runtime: 130 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and for brief suggestive material.
Also available in Dolby Cinema, RealD 3D and IMAX 3D.
Marvel Studios presents, “Thor: Ragnarok”