Thor: Ragnarok left me with the overwhelming urge to re-watch Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. What does James Gunn get about how to make one of these movies that Taika Waititi doesn’t, I wondered.
Because on the surface Ragnarok seems like an overly obvious attempt to course correct the Thor franchise by making it more like Guardians of the Galaxy. Lean into the weirdness. Up the day-glo fluorescents. Get out of Asgard and onto strange, new planets and inside spaceships. Give Thor his own team of misfits, dubbed The Revengers since he makes the name up on the spot. Maybe give him several colorful mo-capped co-stars. Toss in some classic rock, albeit just the same Led Zeppelin song played two different times.
Most importantly, make him funny. Unshackle Chris Hemsworth from any semblance of caring about his character’s Shakespearian family drama and just let him loose to improvise his ass off. As a result, Ragnarok seems determined to have a good laugh every two minutes, usually by making both Thor and Loki the butt of the joke. In fact, I’ve never seen a sequel which works so hard to undercut both its hero and prior villain.
And it actually works.
Ragnarok is hilarious. More than that, pretty much all of the new characters, from Cate Blanchette’s badass Hela to Tessa Thompson’s fierce Valkyrie to Waititi’s lovably genial, mo-capped rock monster named Korg, enhance the franchise and earn their screen time even though it means old supporting characters like Heimdall have less to do. Hela’s backstory [as revealed in the film’s first 20 minutes] of being Thor’s secret older sister who was imprisoned by Odin and erased from Asgardian history contains an undercurrent of toppling the patriarchy that has a likely unintended relevance. The frequent outbursts of splash page visuals are breathtaking to behold, even if most of them have already been teased in the trailers.
But Guardians of the Galaxy this is not, mostly because Taika Waititi isn’t James Gunn. That’s not always a bad thing. Waititi’s comic sensibilities are different and more random than Gunn’s, which gives Ragnarok’s humor a slightly quirkier feel. Korg, for example, matter-of-factly saying something like “I tried to organize a rebellion, but I didn’t have enough pamphlets. So, no one showed up, except for my mom and her boyfriend, who I hate” is a very Waititi-style joke, one which will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with What We Do in the Shadows (2014) or Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016).
However, Gunn has a proficiency for action choreography and discipline for drama Waititi simply doesn’t, at least not at this level of blockbuster filmmaking. So, Ragnarok’s action sequences are rather unexceptional, and the drama feels half-hearted.
To be fair, Gunn had two movies to get it right. With Vol. 2 he had the benefit of following through on storylines and character arcs he set up in Vol. 1. Plus, his movies never actively make fun of themselves. Ragnarok does, relentlessly, possibly as a direct result of Waititi being a hired gun brought in to inject his goofball style into what has been Marvel’s most malleable franchise. Kenneth Branagh was all dutch-angles, shiny visuals, fish-out-of-water comedy, and Shakespeare-in-space in the first movie. Alan Taylor brought a more lived-in, gritty Game of Thrones and doomed romance feel to The Dark World. Now, Waititi gets to blow it all up and do something completely different.
The plot combines the “Ragnarok” and “Planet Hulk” storylines from the comics, the former being the Asgardian apocalypse brought forth by Hela and a CGI fire demon named Surtur and the latter a gladiator-in-space tale set on a Hulk-worshiping planet named Sakaar, which is run by The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). The story takes longer than expected to get to Sakaar, but once it does it feels like the filmmakers and cast never wanted to leave. Everything back on Asgard is there because it has to be; everything on Sakaar is there because that’s what everyone was passionate about.
So, the creativity on Sakaar is flying at you so fast it becomes overwhelming. There is just so much to look at, from the piles of colorful debris (I know that sounds like a contradiction in terms) to giant statues depicting former gladiator champions (look there for Easter eggs, Thor comic book readers) to the orgy of color that is the Grandmaster’s palace and wardrobe.
This results in an odd energy imbalance between the film’s two halves and ultimately wastes a potentially transcendent performance from Blanchette. Personally, I was actually rooting for her at the end even though her grand plan proves to be basic Marvel villain fodder. Like Loki in the first Thor, she’s a villain with a legitimate beef with the heroes.
The script at least does the smart thing in attempting to make the world-ending Ragnarok less about the stakes and more about it what means to Thor personally. Save the world, sure, but to do it you must finally make peace with your brother, come to terms with the truth of who your father was and accept the responsibility of your birthright. Similarly, Loki finally has to pick a side (good or evil), Valkyrie must deal with her demons and Hulk and Bruce are stuck in a struggle for control.
But Ragnarok slightly loses hold of these emotional throughlines. We don’t feel any of them as deeply as we should, possibly because the film devotes so much of its energy to comedy setpieces and clearly improvised dialogue. A mournful Tom Hiddleston facial expression here, a heartfelt Chris Hemsworth line carry the emotions. It’s enough to get you through the movie and out the theater having had a fun time. But, as Thor tells Loki at one point, it could have been something more.
James Gunn cares enough about his characters to lend some actual heft to their emotional arcs. Waititi, on the other hand, just wants to entertain us. There are worse impulses to follow, and when the jokes are this good who am I to complain?
THE BOTTOM LINE
Thor: Ragnarok plays like a series of highly improvised comedy bits tied together by Jack Kirby-inspired slow-mo action scenes. This peculiar combination makes for one of the most purely entertaining efforts in Marvel Studios history, even if it does lack some of the depth from the Guardians of the Galaxy movies it seems to be imitating.
ARE THE POST-CREDITS SCENES WORTH WAITING FOR?
First one? Yes. Second one? Meh.
Now it’s your turn. Take to the comments below to let me know how wrong or right I am.