A new Thor movie is a pleasant event in my life. Sure, that last one — “The Dark World” in 2013 — wasn’t that great and probably ranks near the bottom of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But, a Thor movie is still a Thor movie and will always get my butt in a theater seat, pronto.
Chris Hemsworth plays Thor, the Asgardian God of Thunder, in the MCU franchise; and in some ways, “Thor: Ragnarok” might be the strongest of the series yet. Just not as strong as Thor himself, with those glistening biceps and his shiny hammer. (Clears throat). Still strong, though.
Each of the three films has had a different director — Kenneth Branagh was at the helm in 2011 for “Thor” and Alan Wilson directed “The Dark World” — but Taika Waititi’s “Ragnarok” is so far removed from the other two films, it almost doesn’t actually feel like part of the trilogy.
There’s an exciting prologue that’s worth admission price by itself, but I’ll skip to the main bits. Essentially, we find out that Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) have an older sister named Hela (Cate Blanchett), otherwise known as the Goddess of Death. She’s been imprisoned for many, many years, but something happens that sets her free. She comes to Asgard to defeat the nine realms, starting with Asgard, and sends Thor and Loki off into space to die. She also shatter’s Thor’s beloved hammer, Mjolnir, in the process.
Both Thor and Loki end up on a junk heap of a planet called Sakaar. Thor ends up captured by Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson) and thrown into a gladiator-like contest. They also cut his golden locks, which just feels like adding insult to injury. He ends up pitted against a familiar face, Hulk, who has been MIA after the events of “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
We meet colorful characters along the way like the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who runs the whole shebang. Thor convinces Hulk, Loki and the scrapper, whom we discover is actually an Asgardian named Valkyrie, to help him escape the planet and return to Asgard to defeat Hela.
It’s hard to paint a really clear picture of all that’s going on in the film. Hulk talks now — we hadn’t really gotten more than a couple of words out of him in previous films — and he’s been in Hulk form for two years. We also get some time with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who co-opts Tony Stark’s threads and rocks a Duran Duran shirt.
From the opening scenes to the finish, humor is jampacked into “Ragnarok.” Thor & Co. drop so many one-liners you will lose count. It’s full of physical humor, facial expressions worth a thousand words, and much more. There’s even adolescent humor like naming a portal the “Devil’s Anus,” a name used repeatedly.
Humor is always a factor in Marvel movies, although some rely more heavily on jokes than others, e.g. “Guardians of the Galaxy.” And the “Thor” franchise has always had its fair share, especially with actors like Kat Dennings, although she doesn’t make an appearance in this one.
And that’s the thing, a lot of the folks we’ve gotten to know in the first two films are missing. The God of Thunder and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) have apparently broken up between films, which means the rest of Jane’s crew is nowhere to be seen. For that matter, Lady Sif (Jaime Alexander) is never even mentioned.
Waititi and his crew make some great decisions. “Ragnarok” continues the story of the son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and Thor’s progression does feel a bit circular in that there are ties to the Thor we first met in 2011. The love/hate relationship between Thor and Hulk also gets a lot of time here, and Hulk’s ability to speak in complete thoughts makes it crazy funny.
One of the acting standouts is Hemsworth, who is more than just a pretty face and strong arms and abs of steel. His filmography includes films like “Rush” that prove he has dramatic skills. His turns as Thor show he can handle the action. “Ragnarok” lets him truly let loose with his comedic side like in “Ghostbusters,” and the results are fantastic.
Two strong female characters are also introduced in the forms of Hela and Valkyrie. Both are completely badass; and better yet, they aren’t female characters that are simply around to be a love interest or damsel in distress. We’ve seen Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) passed around as a potential love interest for Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Banner. The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) becomes romantically involved with Vision (Paul Bettany). Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a love interest for Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Even Lady Sif has past connections with Thor. But, with Hela and Valkyrie, it feels like they’re introduced simply to kick butt and lay waste to their enemies.
Idris Elba reprises his role as Heimdall, the keeper of the Bifrost, and he gets to stretch his legs and also his sword as he fights to protect Asgard and its people. The film also has some pretty awesome cameos, including Matt Damon, Sam Neill, Hemsworth’s real-life brother Luke and of course, Stan Lee. Benedict Cumberbatch additionally reprises his role as Dr. Stephen Strange for a couple of scenes, that provide a few laughs as well.
While all of those are good creative decisions, Waititi and his team left me scratching my head at other times. Some pretty major things happen in “Ragnarok” that I really want to share my thoughts on, but I can’t because they would be uber spoilery. While this is also the funniest Thor film to date, it’s also the darkest we’ve seen. Hela’s destruction knows no limits when it comes to the people and world the Thor franchise has created. It’s almost as if Waititi is doing his best to destroy everything that has come before in the franchise. Some things make sense and help the story progress. Others just feel like cheap tricks from a director and creative crew that had pieces on a chess board they didn’t know what to do with, so they simply redefined the game. There are character deaths that are actually pretty major in the Thor mythology that are treated like “blink and you miss them” moments. The characters aren’t even given an afterthought, which feels both insincere and uninspired.
Admittedly, these bad decisions leave me torn about the film overall. “Thor: Ragnarok” has some of the best moments not only in this franchise, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. My ardor is dampened by issues, some rather significant, that could have been smoothed out with less emphasis on humor and spectacle and more focus on character. Take that for what it’s worth.