Review: Hulk Smashes And ‘Thor’ Ragnaroks
Being a bigger fan than most when it comes to the previous Thor films, I felt a high level of confidence in what Thor: Ragnarok would have to offer. This third standalone Thor movie could rely on the previously established Asgardian world and merely deliver another slight round of bickering between Thor and Loki, along with whatever principal threat arrives as a new challenger, to satisfy. However, while the aligning of the nine realms in Thor: The Dark World may not have worked out for Malekith, it did lead to director Taika Waititi (What We Do In The Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) taking the reins. His addition brought a considerable amount of personality to the Son of Odin’s world.
This excellent choice may have been exciting for film geeks, but knowing that so many will see this film and be entertained can hopefully ensure more off-the-wall decisions in the future. As much as the MCU has worked to provide entries that tap into different sub-genres (spy thrillers, space operas, heist films), the general sameness has become a bigger question, as these movies head towards their most expansive event yet, Avengers: Infinity War. With Ragnarok, it seems clear that Waititi may be doing what he needs to keep this film in the same lane as the others, but he has the characters on his party bus, and it is filled with the kind of weird choices that would make Jack Kirby proud.
Storywise, Ragnarok is not all that innovative. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is already an established hero, and this is another adventure that finds him without his hammer and away from Asgard long enough for a threat to present itself. The new wrinkle involves Thor’s time spent on another planet, Sakaar. This leads to his teaming up with the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who has also found himself trapped on this planet, becoming a famed gladiator in the process. Whether or not Thor will be able to get back in time to stop the latest enemy in his life, Hela (Cate Blanchett), there will once again be a challenge of personal growth and understanding, in addition to a test of Thor’s strength.
It would be easy (and lazy) to say this film works for adding comedy, as the previous Thor films relied heavily on comedic characters and moments to progress the plot. What the film really accomplishes is putting on display an array of colorful ideas to ramp up what it is to be the God of Thunder and be able to travel through space and meet odd characters. A lot of humor does stem from Waititi’s directorial sensibilities and a keen use of Hemsworth’s abilities as a comedic talent on his own, but this film also breaks apart a lot of what we’ve established with Thor.
As mentioned, the plot may have the skeleton of a typical Marvel film, but the attitude has shifted and relationships have changed. Instead of adjusting to Earth’s ways, Thor becomes a passive observer on another planet, wisecracking his way through various situations, letting his might do the work when needed. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is up to his familiar tricks but may also need to prove something. The Hulk is a giant rage monster, but even he has some layers to reveal. Significant changes occur by the end of this film and there is an excitement to be had at the potential for what’s next.
A few other returning players pop up in this film, with Anthony Hopkins and Idris Elba, in particular, continuing to bring plenty of gravitas to these movies. Lots of new characters also leave an impression. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie stands out as a hard-drinking mercenary who’s a fun match for Thor. The “always on” Jeff Goldblum is a delight as Grandmaster, the hedonistic manipulator who forces Thor and others to compete in gladiator matches. And then there’s Karl Urban as Skurge, who has just enough to do to help keep Asgard interesting.
Blanchett does what is needed as the villainous Hela, God of Death, but we once again see the limits Marvel has in this department. She’s certainly game to play up the camp qualities of this sort of character, but the film has much more fun with another opponent for Thor. That would be Hulk, who is mean and green for a good chunk of the film, but eventually lets Ruffalo’s human visage take over. Given how these two were the only major heroes to sit out Captain America: Civil War, it’s great to see such a fun buddy comedy emerge, as these two fight and bicker their way through the film.
Also adding plenty of value to the film is the sense of style. Ragnarok feels like a comic book movie that has come to life, and that is thanks to the big colorful world we see in this film. Even if the action eventually feels a bit too drawn out (typical for modern superhero films), the sense of expression is pretty joyous. One can look to how Guardians of the Galaxy may have had a role in this sort of changeup, but that doesn’t take away from the far-out production and costume design. Mark Mothersbaugh’s retro score is another great touch, along with the many other choices that have Ragnarok feeling like an 80s metal album, He-Man and Big Trouble in Little China all rolled into one fun film.
If there are any setbacks, it is the race to finish this story. Given the general tone, the joy of hanging out with Thor and Hulk on Sakaar felt interrupted when having to deal with the Asgard drama. By the time certain choices are made, it may mean Thor’s journey has new meaning, but I was questioning how the film chose to go about getting various characters to specific points. The treatment of one character early on, in particular, left me wondering if much of this plot could have been prevented, despite the lack of a clearer explanation. These are minor issues, but they only occur to me given how serious those situations are in a film that has plenty of fun being as big and weird as it really should be.
The mighty Thor still delivers in what is the best of his series though. Ragnarok kicks off with a grand understanding of how an ideal Thor can continue to work in a cinematic universe already filled with so many eccentric characters and never lets up regarding the sense of fun seen on screen. This is what you want in a superhero film, regardless of how much concern there is in the ongoing continuity of the series. Ragnarok isn’t here to focus on what’s coming up. It is a film that sets its sight on comic book exuberance and delivers big time.