Movie Review - Thor: Ragnarok
By Matthew Huntley
November 14, 2017

The hills are alive with the sound of music...

The release of a Marvel Comics Universe movie has become so routine that we can pretty much expect one every quarter of the fiscal year. 2017 alone gave us Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 back in May and Spider-Man: Homecoming in July, while February 2018 already promises Black Panther. In the meantime, we get Thor: Ragnarok, and even though the release of this movie underlines just how predictable Marvel Studios has gotten with regards to the timing and frequency of its superhero movies (Dr. Strange came out this very weekend last year), at least their content continues to stay mostly fresh, which is actually something to marvel (pun intended) at given the ubiquity of this world and its colorful characters.

As a Marvel Comics Universe movie, and as a second sequel, Thor: Ragnarok is surprisingly punchy and vivacious. It's a welcome aberration from the standard MCU entry simply for the fact it's unabashedly silly and lighthearted. It's not “serious” like so many of its brethren, and yet we take it seriously as a fun, amusing and diverting experience. Many critics and viewers may watch it and brush it off as frivolous yet entertaining, but good frivolity isn't necessarily easy to pull off and I've never understood why it's assumed that it takes less skill to make a silly, laid back movie than a dramatic one. In any case, director Taika Waititi shows he's got the skills not only to make a sound superhero movie, but also one that's edgier.

The plot finds Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the muscle-bound, overconfident God of Thunder with locks of golden hair, on a mission to thwart his evil sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), from destroying his beloved realm of Asgard. Thor and his sometimes good/sometimes evil stepbrother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), are actually just learning they have an older sister, who is also the Goddess of Death. Their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), explains he imprisoned Hela, who's actually his first-born child, for craving too much power as his dynasty established control over the Nine Realms of the universe. But now that Odin foresees his own death, he warns his two sons that Hela will be released and that her ambitions could wipe out all the people living on Asgard, including Thor's trusted sentry friend, Heimdall (Idris Elba).

All this comes amidst Thor believing he's just saved Asgard from total annihilation in the form of Ragnarok, a prophesied series of destructive events brought upon by the demon Surtur, who holds Thor captive in the droll opening scene. It's foretold that Surtur will engulf Asgard in flames and then submerge it underwater, which Thor thinks he's prevented by taking Surtur's crown.

But Thor quickly learns a hero's job is never done, because once Hela arrives, her powers overcome him and she destroys his beloved hammer, Mjolnir, which Thor believes to be his source of power. When the siblings battle it out for the first time, Hela wins and Thor and Loki wind up on the funky garbage planet Sakaar, which is ruled by an egomaniac known as the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). He's captured and handed over by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), a former Asgardian warrior-turned-bounty-hunter and forced to compete as one of the Grandmaster's gladiators, pitting him against his old Avenger pal, The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who has resided on Sakaar for the past two years, ever since the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron. During this time, Hulk has not turned back into his human alter-ego, Bruce Banner, and Banner is afraid the next time this happens, his transformation into the Hulk will be permanent.

There is a mild significance to the plot, I suppose, as it once again pushes the Marvel Universe forward toward the next chapter, but it's not as important, per se, as the more momentous Captain America: Civil War, which had farther-reaching story and character consequences. This aspect of Thor: Ragnarok, which feels more like a self-contained superhero adventure, allows it the freedom to do its own thing, and Waititi and his crew seize that opportunity by making the movie particularly jolly and irreverent. They utilize the cast's talents as comedians rather than as dramatic actors, allowing them to let loose. It proves these ceaseless MCU movies can, in fact, evolve, change course from time to time, and take a different approach to otherwise standard material without sacrificing quality.

The movie's overall vibe is one of high spirits and rhythmic energy, accentuated by several punchy and well-timed slapstick moments, as well as Mark Mothersbaugh's offbeat yet completely fitting synthesizer musical score, which further reflects the filmmakers' desire to be innovative and perhaps exude an attitude that makes it seem like they're getting away with something. This brings a freshness and vitality to a genre that's not always known for reinventing itself.

I wouldn't go so far as to say the makers of Thor: Ragnarok push the boundaries too far beyond what they know fans will find acceptable and comfortable (it's still a blockbuster superhero movie in every sense of the phrase, especially the mostly perfunctory ending), but they lend it a different kind of style and sense of humor that keeps it moving, funny and exciting. Thor: Ragnarok may not be the first Marvel movie fans think of when they want to catch up on major plot events or are seeking a heavy, dramatic experience, but it will be near the top of the list when they're simply looking for a mellow and playful one.