Let’s be honest here. The first two “Thor” movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) were, at best, mediocre.
“Thor,” released in 2011 as part of Marvel’s initial wave of superhero films set in a larger universe, and although it was a box office success, it received mixed reviews. Director of the movie, Kenneth Branagh, is known for his tremendous adaptations of Shakespeare plays and considered the best fit for the Shakespearian drama of this new family of Norse gods. Unfortunately, the God of Thunder’s introduction begins strong but languishes on the powerless hero stuck on Earth for much of the film’s duration. Quite frankly, for a character with such a rich history in both comics and real life, he was boring.
After “The Avengers” united the MCU’s protagonists for the first time, the second phase of the superhero initiative brought into existence “Thor: The Dark World.” The sequel suffers from the same issues as its predecessor. Long sequences on Earth drag down the film before ramping up for a discombobulated CGI battle at the end. Attempts to portray Thor as a relatable human were conflated with removing him from his home-world of Asgard. The film concludes with the death of Loki, Thor’s villainous adopted brother, before ultimately revealing that the trickster god was still alive and masquerading as Odin, the king of Asgard.
Despite less than stellar reviews, neither of these films were enough to tank Thor’s future prospects. Mixed reactions from critics didn’t have a leg to stand on in the face of a major box office success. Shout out to capitalism!
Somehow, “Thor: Ragnarok” manages to dodge the weight Earth attached to its plot by almost ditching Midgard completely.
Directed by Taika Waititi, the newest installment in Thor’s godly adventures marks the long-awaited return of the hero, played by Chris Hemsworth. The character was conspicuously absent from the mini-Avengers meet-up in “Captain America: Civil War,” presumably dealing with the events of “Ragnarok” at the same time. Joining Thor is Mark Ruffalo’s the Incredible Hulk, who disappeared at the end of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” in a stolen quinjet, leaving his Bruce Banner alter ego in the dust.
The film begins with Thor chained up in fire demon Surtur’s lair, waylaid from his search for the Infinity Stones. In a brief and surprisingly hilarious encounter, Thor frees himself and defeats Surtur, stealing the demon’s crown to prevent the advent of Ragnarok, an apocalypse prophesied to destroy Asgard.
Upon his return to the palace, Thor reveals Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) deception and the two take a brief trip to Earth to find the banished Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins). Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), acting as mystic protector of the planet, makes a brief and unnecessary appearance to help the brothers locate their father so he can get them out of his hair as quickly as possible—while Thor is beloved, Loki’s unfortunate history of attempted world-domination has (understandably) not been forgiven just yet.
Retrieving Odin proves to be difficult because the aging king dies before they can leave Earth. But before fading into glimmering dust, Odin divulges that Ragnarok has already begun. Hela, played by Cate Blanchett, is the goddess of death and Odin’s first born, and will be released from her imprisonment immediately upon her father’s death. Thor’s first encounter with the powerful Hela results in the destruction of Mjolnir, the god’s iconic hammer.
Hela wins the first battle and sends Thor and Loki spiraling into space after kicking them out of the Bifrost. Thor ends up on Sakaar, a garbage planet surrounded by wormholes. Sakaar is ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, who does an amazing job playing himself), a self-centered tyrant running a gladiator tournament. While trapped on Sakaar, Thor races against the clock to find a way back to Asgard and defeat Hela before she destroys the universe.
Joining the God of Thunder on his quest are the Hulk, who has found his niche as a gladiator champion, and a disillusioned, mildly alcoholic Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). Loki pops in and out of the story as he pleases, a great threat diminished to the role of annoying brother.
The strength of “Ragnarok” lies in Waititi’s penchant for humor and visual gags. The first act of the film is considerably long, but thanks to Waititi’s playful tweaking of traditional superhero gimmicks, the audience remains completely engaged with the barely-there plot. Waititi plays a motion-captured rock warrior named Kurg, who delivers hilarious lines in a New Zealand Maori accent. The film’s best moments take advantage of the extreme contrast between characters to exploit the true ridiculousness inherent in a bunch of aliens fighting each other. The CGI is incredibly well done—the Hulk feels just as real as the apes in “War for the Planet of the Apes,” though it seems that great CGI doesn’t mean Chris Hemsworth’s Thor wig will be anymore realistic. Luckily, a shape-up at the hands of Stan Lee fixes that relatively early in the film.
That’s not to say the movie is a cinematic masterpiece, or anything. Quite frankly, “Ragnarok” plays out as a few unfinished Thor movies with bits and pieces of a Hulk movie thrown in for spice. The film draws heavily from the “Planet Hulk” storyline but removes some of the most compelling parts in the interest of one of Thor’s many half-realized plot threads. Waititi’s directorial flare saves the film from the bureaucracy of maintaining the MCU’s expansive and limiting continuity.
“Planet Hulk” follows Bruce Banner’s banishment. Earth’s mightiest superheroes have exiled the Green Avenger because they’ve deemed him too dangerous. After his space pod is knocked off-course, Hulk becomes an unwilling participant in Sakaar’s gladiator tournaments.
The most interesting aspect of the “Planet Hulk” storyline is the emergence of Green Scar Hulk, a clever and intelligent being who eventually overthrows a tyrant, becomes the leader and even falls in love once only to lose it all in the end. Much of this depth is lost in favor of reminding the audience that Thor, the actual protagonist of the movie, exists. In fact, the only character to experience a complete arc in “Ragnarok” is Skurge (Karl Urban), Hela’s wishy-washy sidekick whose presence is ultimately pointless. Sorry, Skurge.
The film’s final battle calls into play the dreaded Ragnarok. Thor’s vengeful sister, Hela, siphons her power from Asgard itself; the longer she’s there, the more unstoppable she becomes. The key to defeating her requires actually inciting the apocalypse and abandoning Asgard altogether. The team manages to neatly evacuate the entire population of the realm on a spaceship, but not before Thor loses an eye in a truly heavy-handed moment of calling back to his father, Odin, who tells him that “Asgard is not a place, it is a people.” However, Thor’s revelation results in a truly fearsome warrior who finally (and satisfyingly) wields the power the audience has only seen in glimpses since Mjolnir’s destruction. After defeating Hela and destroying Asgard, the people of the demolished realm decide to make the journey to Earth. I’m sure that won’t cause an issue for anyone.
The cut scene following the film’s credits sets up the arrival of Thanos, the big bad of the upcoming “Avengers: Infinity War,” an encounter that the MCU has been building up to for years. The ship containing Asgard comes across the massive war vessel of Thanos, right after Thor and Loki wonder if anything else could possibly go wrong.
“Thor: Ragnarok” has experienced immense box office and critical success, revitalizing the God of Thunder’s presence in the MCU. It seems unlikely, however, that another Thor movie will be made after the “Infinity War” arc is completed. Thor losing an eye and introducing Valkyrie has the potential to set up a future utilizing female Thor; plus, Chris Hemsworth has to be tired of the crazy diets necessary to main the god’s impressive physique.
Despite everything, “Thor: Ragnarok” was a fun and welcome addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Personally, I’m interested to see how this new, funny Thor is going to play with the rest of the Avengers back on Earth. I get the feeling there will be a lot of pirate jokes.