Thor: Ragnarok (United States, 2017)

November 01, 2017
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Thor: Ragnarok Poster

It appears that Marvel has given up trying to broaden the tent. Although Thor: Ragnarok, the third film to focus on the exploits of the titular Norse God, boasts a lighter tone, when the flippancy is stripped away, it’s the same-ole-same-ole. Narratively, Thor: Ragnarok regurgitates the basic story of every other superhero team-up. The surprises are reserved for cameos and the ending is so predictable that it likely wouldn’t be considered a spoiler to reveal it (don’t worry – I won’t).  This movie indicates how lifeless comic book movies can become when they don’t take chances and don’t challenge the status quo. It’s no coincidence that the best superhero movies of the last decade (The Dark Knight, Deadpool, Logan) have vision and ambition. Everything else falls onto a continuum of bland action-oriented entertainment with diminishing results. What was fun at the start of the MCU has become tired. To an extent, that’s the inevitable fate of all long-running franchises and, although Thor: Ragnarok tries to change things up by shifting to a more openly jokey tone, it serves to remind us that, before the Universal Classic monsters died, they first met up with Abbott and Costello.

Since standalone superhero movies are now rarer than Bigfoot sightings, Thor: Ragnarok feels the need to give the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth) a few pals to help him on his merry way. This time, the buddy movie formula pairs the newly short-haired Thor with the Not-So-Jolly Green Giant, Mr. Hulk (Mark Ruffalo via motion capture). Two other MCU characters appear, although only ever-so-briefly. Benedict Cumberbatch has a superfluous scene or two to remind us that Dr. Strange is still around. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow makes a blink-and-you’ll miss it appearance. That’s better than Natalie Portman’s Jane. She’s not even mentioned. That’s what happens when an actress defects from the MCU. Before the movie is over, Thor is already making goo-goo eyes at another woman. (This one at least is Asgardian, so there’s no risk of DNA incompatibility.)

The movie begins with Thor finding out that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in fact didn’t die. Of course he didn’t. This is the MCU where death is only a temporary inconvenience. (Not that the DCEU is any different.) After taking Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to a retirement home in New York, Loki has been impersonating him and enjoying the fruits of ruling. (Cue Mel Brooks: “It’s good be the king!”) The reunited brothers go to Earth to retrieve Dad and, with a little help from Dr. Strange, they locate him. The doddering old god, who’s about as coherent as Patrick Stewart’s Professor X in Logan, informs Thor and Loki that they have a sister and she’s about to be released from her prison. Then, faster than you can say “Cate Blanchett”, Hela the Goddess of Death is back to break Thor’s hammer, send the brothers spinning off to distant worlds, and bring Ragnarok to Asgard.

Stuck on a junk world, Thor is captured by an ex-Valkyrie turned mercenary (Tessa Thompson) who sells him to the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), a pompous ass who likes melting people with his special staff. He runs a gladiator contest and has decided that Thor will make an excellent challenger for The Champion. As luck would have it, Thor knows The Champion. Unfortunately, The Champion isn’t in a nostalgic mood. Instead, he’s just interested in one thing: “Hulk smash.” Thor has his work cut out for him: avoid getting pulverized by his fellow Avenger, find a way off this planet, and convince the Valkyrie to return to Asgard with him to stop Ragnarok. Oh, and Loki’s still around making mischief and changing sides.

As a rule, Marvel movies have lighter tones than their current DC counterparts. Even the darkest Marvel movie hasn’t come close to the bleak wallowing of Zack Snyder’s recent contributions. For Thor: Ragnarok, director Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) enhances the comedic aspects, bringing this closer to Deadpool than any previous “serious” major superhero movie has come. The change-of-pace is welcome and even more appreciated is that some of the comedy is genuinely amusing. Certain characters, like Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster, exist primarily for their ability to generate chuckles and laughs. Even the normally stoic God of Thunder gets into the mood (Chris Hemsworth has already shown a deft hand for comedy).

Unfortunately, no superhero movie can succeed on comedy alone and, when it comes to the action sequences – the bread and butter of any comic book film – Thor: Ragnarok disappoints. From a technical standpoint, they’re fine and one or two of them (especially the opening battle and the gladiatorial bout pitting Thor against Hulk) arrest the attention but, for the most part, they’re predictable opportunities for the special effects experts to flex their muscles. It’s action-by-the-numbers and it’s rarely exciting. The participants are no longer individuals; they’re avatars. It’s not far from the robot carnage in the Transformers movies. Superhero fans deserve better than this. Battles should have heart, danger, and consequences. The conflicts in Thor: Ragnarok are lacking in all three.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the film is the buddy movie element starring the odd couple of Thor and Hulk/Bruce (eventually Mark Ruffalo gets to appear as himself). Throw Tessa Thompson into the mix and we have the making of a nice trio (at one point, they dub themselves “The Revengers”). The chemistry within this group is strong. Loki has been reduced – for a guy who was the Big Baddie in The Avengers, now he’s little more than a side character whose powers are limited and whose ultimate function is to trigger the obligatory deus ex machina that resolves everything. Cate Blanchett is suitably nasty and surprisingly restrained (no scenery chewing for her). Thor: Ragnarok has no shortage of top acting talent – in addition to Blanchett and Ruffalo, there are small parts for Benedict Cumberbatch, Anthony Hopkins, and Idris Elba.

Those waiting for linkage to the next Avengers movie don’t get it until the mid-credits scene, which one assumes is intended to start the Infinity War cycle. Thor: Ragnarok is more of a placeholder than an integral part of the MCU – it keeps people primed for the climax of the story that has been building for arguably too long. As a stand-alone movie, this is pretty much like every other recent MCU entry: fitfully entertaining, too long, and mostly forgettable. Comic book fans (especially those who live and die with Marvel and have removed the letters “D” and “C” from their alphabet) will probably adore what Thor: Ragnarok has to offer. Others may see this as a passable diversion while uttering things like “meh” on the way out.

Thor: Ragnarok (United States, 2017)

Run Time: 2:13
U.S. Release Date: 2017-11-03
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Cartoon Violence, Profanity)
Genre: Action/Adventure
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1