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 familial 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.

Well, almost.

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 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.

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I mean, come on, that’s just gorgeous.

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” 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.

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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 overruled 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 Ragnarok 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.

Jeff Goldblum is exactly as Jeff Goldblum-y as you want him to be

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.

ROTTENTOMATOES CONSENSUS

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As of this writing, Thor: Ragnarok is RT’s highest-ranked comic book movie of all time.

THE TRAILER

Now it’s your turn. Take to the comments below to let me know how wrong or right I am.

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Posted by Kelly Konda

Grew up obsessing over movies and TV shows. Worked in a video store. Minored in film at college because my college didn't offer a film major. Worked in academia for a while. Have been freelance writing and running this blog since 2013.

2 Comments

  1. I didn’t wait for the second post credit.

    “Gunn has a proficiency for action choreography and discipline for drama Waititi simply doesn’t…” — This. Still, it’s nice that Waititi brings a different kind of funny—different enough to distinguish itself from GotG, I guess (I enjoyed it and not for minute did I think that “oh, they’re trying to be like James Gunn”. Also, the scriptwriters should thank Whedon for some of the jokes. The centerpiece fight between Thor and Hulk is well-done, not hard to follow. And I’m glad it’s the only match in the movie and I was not bombarded with fight scenes every 15 minutes. The two sequence featuring Led Zep is OK, but that’s mainly because of the song. Its most emotional scene involves the minor character Skurge.

    Reply

    1. The second post-credit scene [SPOILER] is just a little bit with Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster trying to quell the planet’s rebellion in the most Jeff Goldblum-y way possible. It’s not as funny as it could have been and is over before you know it. I was actually hoping for something more with Hela since we don’t definitively see her die, and there’s been all this talk for an all-female team-up movie (Tessa Thompson and others apparently corned Kevin Feige on set and pitched him this idea). If that ever becomes a reality Hela would be a logical villain or ally or whatever they wanted to do with it.

      As for Ragnarok and Guardians — Like you, I never actively thought they were trying to be like James Gunn. This is as much a Taika Waitit movie as possible while still conforming to certain Marvel Studios conventions. It’s more it feels like the success of James Gunn’s films gave them the courage to try this out, and some of the directions they went bare enough of a cosmetic similarity to Guardians of the Galaxy that a comparison seemed inescapable to me. Waititi has mentioned Deadpool was an influence as well. Not just Guardians. Anything that told him it was okay to make this a comedy.

      “Its most emotional scene involves the minor character Skurge.”

      Good observation. What I’ve noticed from the various interviews I’ve read/seen/heard is James Gunn has fun with his world but ultimately takes his characters and their journey seriously. Waititi doesn’t take anything about Thor seriously, even admitting he felt embarrassed asking Cate Blanchette to act out some of her scenes because the setups sounded so outlandish and absurd to him. The result is Guardians films are fun, but manage to hit you emotionally when Groot dies or Peter sees the cosmic visage of his dead mother while holding the stone at the end of the first movie whereas Ragnarok actively mocks such emotion with its opening parody of Loki’s death scene from The Dark World.

      As such, on the rare occasion Ragnarok does take itself seriously, such as during Skurge’s death, I didn’t quite know how to feel. Like, I’m suddenly supposed to care?

      Just to be clear, I liked this movie. A B+ grade sounds about right. The critical response seems divided between “It’s so much fun!” and “Yeah, but is it maybe a little too much fun?”, and I clearly fall into the latter.

      Reply

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