‘Thor: Ragnarok’ is self-aware space romp

A comedic take on the Marvel Cinematic Universe

ae-ThorRagnarok-CourtesyMarvelStudios

"Thor: Ragnarok" is a lighthearted wink from a talented director and a familiar cast.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

Mere seconds into “Thor: Ragnarok,” Chris Hemsworth, as the titular hero, informs the audience that while he left Earth intending to find some Cinematic-Universe-connecting infinity stones, he failed in his task. Like that, an extended franchise-sized weight lifts from the shoulders of the viewer. 

“Ragnarok” is a standalone movie in a bloated franchise of 17 films over nearly 10 years — a fact which gives it the creative license to parody the meticulously crafted universe that made it possible. 

Marvel Studios’ financial success has given them the luxury of taking creative risks by hiring directors with unique vision. The first indications of this new strategy, helmed by Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, came in 2014, which saw the release of “Captain America: Winter Soldier” in April and “Guardians of the Galaxy” in August. Both films made over $250 million and $300 million, respectively, at the domestic box office. Additionally, both were directed by people with relatively few credits to their names — the Russo brothers, who had worked mostly in television comedy with “Arrested Development” and “Community,” and James Gunn, who had only two low-budget films under his belt. 

Joining this lineage is Taika Waititi, New Zealand filmmaker of the charming boyhood adventure “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and the comical vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows.” Given a $180 million budget and free reign over one of the most recognizable characters in one of the most popular film franchises in the world, “Ragnarok” provides a fresh take on the Marvel universe with Waititi’s artistic vision delivering on nearly every count. 

“Ragnarok” is funny. It rarely summons the comic book movie fatigue which some of its predecessors — including recent edition “Dr. Strange” — conjure. The film identifies the opportunity for cheeseball humor and leans into established tropes, only to undermine them. This is not an edgy, pretentious subversion — it’s a lighthearted wink from a talented director and a familiar cast. 

Hemsworth’s comedic chops are centerstage in “Ragnarok,” a film propelled by ad-lib scenes between him and an ensemble cast. Mark Ruffalo returns to the MCU as Bruce Banner — also known as the Hulk — and Tom Hiddleston reprises his role as Thor’s brother, the greasy trickster Loki. Joining the existing cast are a new set of oddball side characters, who, on the whole, work to give the film a unique zest. 

Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster, a being who presides over the artificial planet Sakaar, is allowed to do his Jeff Goldblum thing — he gives an eccentric, effervescent performance with the irregular cadence of a man who has essentially played himself since “Jurassic Park.” This is in no way a critique of his work — his character has some of the biggest laughs in the movie and is exactly the kind of outlandish, comic book figure that the MCU needs to acknowledge and use. 

Similarly, the Waititi-voiced Korg, a member of the Kronan race — essentially a big guy made of rocks — is a comedic highlight and one of the most refreshing characters in the movie. The soft-spoken revolutionary who doubles as a menacing gladiator in the Grandmaster’s Contest of Champions has just the right balance of enthusiasm and deadpan observation. 

“Ragnarok” is not without faults, however. While the majority of the comedy has a fresh edge, the occasional callback to more tired tropes falls a little flat. Around the midpoint of the film, the leftovers of some used Tony Stark quips almost drag it back into familiar territory, only to be pulled up by relatively quick pacing. 

Not every side character has equal charm — Karl Urban’s Skurge plods through a familiar, unfulfilling arc with little humor — and Cate Blanchett, who portrays the villainous goddess of death Hela, does not hit the right beats for the role she was in. Part of this may be due to her limited screen time or the forced exposition which makes up the majority of her lines, but Blanchett’s presence seemed on the cusp of fully committing to the campiness of it all. 

The quality of action pieces in the movie varies, from Hela’s early battle against the forces of Asgard as she seizes power — which was unfortunately reminiscent of the scene in “The Matrix Reloaded” when Neo fights an army of Agent Smiths in exceptionally poor CGI — to an exciting and clever gladiatorial contest between Thor and the Hulk, one of the highlights of the movie. 

“Thor: Ragnarok” appears to represent a new trend for Marvel Studios as an attempt at self-awareness and an effort towards giving relatively inexperienced — in blockbuster terms, at least — directors the chance to experiment with the plethora of characters and stories in the vast Marvel universe. By virtue of their deep pockets and wide appeal, Marvel Studios will continue making movies. Hopefully, the practice of delegation to talented creators will likewise pump more variety into the established MCU. 

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