Thor’s cinematic exploits, both in his solo outings and among The Avengers, have enjoyed a certain degree of consistency which was gleefully shattered by the reveal of the first trailer for his third solo film Thor: Ragnarok. As one might expect from the title, the trailer hinted at both a thematic and stylistic rebirth; a top down stripping away of everything we think we know about what a Thor film can be.
This bold move is both the film’s greatest asset and greatest weakness.
As much as we at Nerdifi HQ enjoyed Thor: The Dark World, it’s slightly unenthusiastic reception was bound to herald some changes in the Odinson’s adventures. The trailer hinted at taking the ‘fish out of water’ dynamic from Kenneth Brannagh’s original film and applying it to a galactic canvas.
Thor: Ragnarok wears its influences very clearly on its sleeve, embracing the cosmic weirdness of Walt Simonson’s legendary run on the character as well as incorporating a few superficial elements of “Planet Hulk”. The whole notion of establishing the Norse gods as extraterrestrial beings whom the primitive vikings worshiped as deities is one of the most appealing aspects of the mythos and it’s great to see Thor and Asgard viewed through the lens of the wider cosmic side of the MCU as seen in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. Indeed, it’s edifying to see how well Thor and the Guardians could co-exist with obvious positive implications for the upcoming Infinity War.
This mosaic of the mythological and the cosmic makes for some truly astonishing production design and visual effects. To say that a big budget superhero film has great visual effects is almost a moot point in the current climate. That said, the digital artistry that goes into rendering the environments and characters is truly breathtaking.
Asgard is more magnificently rendered than ever and while it’s a genuine delight to return to The Realm Eternal most of the action takes place around the inventively (and psychedelically) designed world of Sakaar.
The worlds of the film are as sumptuous and vivid as anything seen in the Guardians films. Hell, even the (brief) time spent on Earth yields some impressive and inventive visuals. This is not the most visually astonishing film in the MCU (that accolade goes to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) but it’s a close second.
Hulk Smash… Your Preconceptions
When it comes to the Green Skinned Goliath, the MCU has made some prudent choices when dealing with the character’s limitations. The notion of the Hulk as a sentient bomb that could go off at any time was great for building tension in The Incredible Hulk but there are only so many times you get to play that card.
Instead, the film presents us with a Hulk that has been free of Bruce Banner’s influence for two years. This Hulk has grown in his self-awareness (and vocabulary) and feels both refreshingly different yet reassuringly familiar.
There’s some clear Peter David influence at work here and in allowing Hulk to develop in intellect and personality we can but wonder where this may lead the character in future films. Dare we dream of a ‘Professor’ Hulk or a ‘Joe Fixit’ Hulk in the MCU? Only time will tell!
While the elements borrowed from “Planet Hulk” are actually the least interesting aspects of the character, the film at least does them visual justice.
Since The Incredible Hulk and throughout the Avengers series, the MCU Hulk has represented an evolution in the synergy between actor and visual effect. Huge leaps forward in performance capture technology have allowed Mark Ruffalo to imbue the Hulk with more personality and nuance with every cinematic iteration. It’s great to see Ruffalo breaking new ground with both Bruce Banner and Hulk and I’m excited to see where else the MCU will take the character.
Of course a Thor film is only ever as strong as its depiction of the Thor / Loki dynamic. Suffice it to say that the chemistry between Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston is as strong as ever with the actors giving these characters a real sense of history.
It’s been 4 years since we last saw Loki on screen and I honestly forgot how much I’d missed him. Of course, Hiddleston looks like he’s having the time of his life in every frame he occupies. While the cycle of betrayal, apparent redemption and more betrayal on the part of Loki previously seemed like it could go on forever, the film brings this dynamic to a satisfying and logical conclusion.
Between Daniel Bruhl’s restrained and nuanced Zemo, and the earthy charm of Michael Keaton’s Vulture the MCU “villain problem” I discussed here and here seems far less of an issue in Phase 3. Cate Blanchett’s Hela picks up the baton and propels it into the stratosphere with her gleefully malicious performance.
While she doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, and an argument could be made that her character is neither nuanced nor relatable the performance and characterisation are everything the film needs them to be.
She has a plausible motivation, a consistent modus operandi and a great look. What more could you want from an MCU villain?
Rise of the Valkyrie
In a busy landscape of both new and familiar characters it takes something really special to stand out but Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie is a revelation. The conception of the character, Thompson’s performance and the design aesthetic bring us one of the MCU’s most memorable and multi-layered female characters. Hopefully she’ll be in Avengers: Infinity War. Hell, hopefully she’ll be in everything. She should be in Justice League, and Modern Family… and toast. Everything!
God of Thunder Lord of LOLs
In closing we get to my least laudatory thoughts on the film. Thor: Ragnarok was marketed as a funnier film than it’s predecessors. And that’s fair enough. I’ve never had a problem with Marvel’s use of humour except when it comes at the expense of the moment. In this film a lot of the humour comes at the expense of the dramatic weight of the given moment. A lot! It’s not even as if the jokes are bad. In isolation they’re funny. Taika Waititi directed What We Do In The Shadows for God’s sake.
While the jokes may be funny enough in isolation, a great deal of them are poorly placed. Worse still, a lot of the jokes require well established characters to change for the jokes to land. This is a personal gripe and while other reviews indicate that it’s not bothered many people it really did bug me. Moments which were meant to be tender or dramatically weighty are willfully steamrolled over to set up jokes. The film then seems to sneer at us and say “Ha ha, made you feel!”.
This is a shame because Waititi’s Hunt For The Wilderpeople showed that he can bring the feels as well as the laughter. Moreover Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 showed us that you can bring pants-wetting hilarity while still bringing emotional weight.
Thor: Ragnarok is both the end of all things and a few beginning for the Thor franchise.. But there’s a whole lot of baby thrown out with the bathwater! In leaning too hard towards the Guardians mould Marvel create an extremely entertaining film… But one that robs Thor of the mythic quality that made him so appealing to me.