In April this year, as Jimmy Page's distinctive riff and Robert Plant's iconic howls thundered through the trailer for Thor: Ragnarok, we began to gear up for the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest hit.
Ragnarok is every bit as audacious and irreverent as we expected it to be. It's all-out, take-no-prisoners popcorn-guzzling entertainment.
The title is a misnomer. In mythology, Ragnarok (the doom of the gods) is a series of apocalyptic episodes taking place at the end of the Norse mythical cycle. Loki and the colossal wolf Fenrir are unleashed from their shackles. The assault on Asgard commences, with Fenrir swallowing the sun. Along with the other valiant gods, Thor leaps into battle, only to fall to the sea serpent Jormungard. Surt also makes an entrance to wreak fiery chaos. Ragnarok is a prelude to the Norse (re) creation myth; a Noah's Ark-type story, if you will. In short, the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda (a set of medieval Icelandic works) set out some pretty gloomy stuff about Ragnarok.
But Thor: Ragnarok is quite a different kettle of fish, which is not at all meant pejoratively. The hitherto not very well-known Taika Waititi delivers a laugh-a-minute cosmic gladiator / viking comedy. Contrary to its predecessors, this installment of Thor doesn't in the least bit take itself seriously. The abundance of body gags and slapstick jokes are testament to this. And any modicum of drama and tension is lifted in a way that feels strange, yet strangely appropriate.
In an interview, Waititi summed up the mood: “Never forget that we're making a cosmic adventure with a space Viking. That sort of captures it all. We've got the Incredible Hulk, and a giant woman with antlers. We've got aliens and spaceships. It's almost like a bunch of kids were asked what they wanted to put into a movie, and then we just did that.”
There's a ridiculously talented cast in play. Each of Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins and Idris Elba have the ability and presence to helm their own movie. After throwing them all into the mix, we are given a smorgasbord of flair and entertainment. And then, Benedict Cumberbatch's Stephen Strange bring his delicious snarkiness into the mix. We are even given some side-splitting cameos by Liam Hemsworth, Matt Damon and Sam Neill, who respectively play Thor, Loki and Odin in the Asgardian production of Loki's tale. Ragnarok is like an Oscar / Golden Globes party thrown by Waititi, with every guest given full license to, and expressly directed to, simply cut loose and go crazy.
Stan Lee also appears in probably his most ridiculous obligatory cameo. This time, he's a galactic hairdresser. It's not explained why Thor needs to be shorn of his mane before leaping into battle. But then again, who really cares?
And so the now lock-less Chris Hemsworth continues his comedic role as the MCU's resident bloke. He's simple, likeable and loves a pint (or three). In short, Odinson is a top, top mate who you'd love to hang out with at the local. Hemsworth's talent for comedy is fully explored in so many scenes. While the list is a long one, the “sun's getting real low” quips were some of the more memorable punch-lines.
The chemistry between the protagonists is one of the movie's true strengths. Thor's interactions with Loki, Hulk, Banner and Valkyrie are endearing and provide for a bunch of laughs. Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost's script is smart and intuitive. The screenplay is intentionally filled with an abundance of levity, which pays off spectacularly.
Loki is, as always, enigmatic and charming, and the Asgardian siblings continue to share their typical love-hate relationship. Loki seems to finally seek to redeem himself. But, like the scorpion, one can never be certain, given his true nature. The one issue I’ve always had with Loki’s place in the MCU is the heroes’ (and audience’s) constant overly sympathetic approach to the character. As is alluded to in the film, let’s not forget that Loki has basically sought to destroy / enslave Earth, not to mention duped / entrapped his father and consigned him to death. It’s not an issue that can be easily addressed, and we are ultimately left with the cynical conclusion that people just want to see more of Tom Hiddleston.
Tessa Thompson is a nice addition to Team Thor, giving us a strong, independent character that isn’t merely window dressing. However, Korg steals the title of best breakout character. Waititi's cheeky, light-hearted personality seems to be fully manifested in the form of the golem-like alien warrior, who is voiced by the director. Korg's lilting, stream of consciousness-type random musings are absurdly funny.
The villains almost seem to be ad-libbing, which makes for great entertainment. In particular, Goldblum jumps in as the ultra camp, absent-minded, manipulative Grandmaster. His rambling and scheming bring an interesting new element to the table. This certainly isn’t Joaquin Phoenix's Commodus. Goldblum's interactions with the stern, deadpan Rachel House (who has featured in all of Waititi’s movies) also add a fun aspect to the character.
In an interview, Cate Blanchett mentioned that she was interested in taking on the role of the MCU's first female villain. While her lines are pretty much stock villain babble, Blanchett’s sheer charisma and charm are, as always, magnetic. Ditching Galadriel’s ethereal garb for tight black leather and some serious eye shadow, she mischievously glides from scene to scene, dishing out cold punishment in a hail of razor-sharp knives. Hela's reindeer headgear is a memorable visual element, which brings to life Jack Kirby’s amazing design.
Ragnarok reaps the rewards of the MCU franchise. There are numerous references to events in Avengers (Loki getting mercilessly beaten down by Hulk, as well as his villainous shenanigans).
The movie is quite the tribute to the 80's. Grandmaster's palace looks like the Malibu pleasure dome of a Mad Men-era Hollywood fatcat producer. The multi-hued shades of pantone and decor are distinctively retro and sprinkled with nostalgia. Sakaar is a bright, multi-colour dreamscape, and the Contest of Champions' arena is considerably more funplex than Colosseum.
The soundtrack is also an ode to the 80's. Frequent Wes Anderson collaborator Mark Mothersbaugh has been brought in for the soundtrack. It's an unlikely choice, but the payoff is immense. Mothersbaugh’s virtuoso score blasts through and is a key element in the movie's make-up. The booming electronic synthesizers harken to 80's arcade themes and fit in perfectly.
As it turns out, Led Zeppelin's Norse mythology-referencing Immigrant Song is terrifically apt for the movie. As Led Zip lets rip in the two scenes involving Hemsworth bashing through hordes of fiery minions and undead Asgardian warriors, we find ourselves nodding along.
The plot is pretty much evident from the trailer. Odinson gets de-hammered, which is really just a plot device to weaken him for the Sakaar arena. Watching a Mjolnir-less God / Lord of Thunder take on Hulk (in full Planet Hulk get-up) is a treat. It's a titanic throwdown injected with an excess of humour, and the result is perhaps not what one might expect.
There is a minor attempt at character development for our titular hero. As Odin later suggests, Thor's over-reliance on Mjolnir is a crutch. That key epiphany spurs Thor to cut loose on Asgard, as he goes full Super Saiyan / beast mode on the Bifrost in an explosive display of elemental might. Many parts of Ragnarok feel to me like Transformers: The Movie (the 1986 Nelson Shin animated film, not the Bayhem shambles). And in said scene, I almost felt like Stan Bush's You've Got the Touch ought to be unleashed.
If the last two Thor movies were part Banner, part Hulk, then this one is full on Hulk – a cheeky, rampaging, rip-roaring affair. It’s ridiculous and it’s absurd. But, perhaps the point is that it doesn’t purport to be otherwise. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but Thor: Ragnarok seems to magically find the perfect balance. It delivers that classic rib-tickling, feel-good product that the Marvel movies have come to be known for. So the MCU continues to deliver in spades. And in its stable of Champions, Ragnarok is arguably one of the top contenders.