Well everyone, it’s time to talk about the Marvel Cinematic Universe again. What appears the be the most popular movie series in the world sure has had a banner year, giving us two of their all-time greatest films this year with Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming. But there was a third film scheduled from the MCU to close out the year, and it was probably the biggest question mark. I feel like it’s not overly uncommon to feel like the Thor films have been the weakest link of the MCU. The first film is still pretty fun, evenly balancing the Shakespearean family drama of the gods and the wacky fish-out-of-water aspect of Thor being on Earth, but it’s also bogged down with a lot of terrible comedy and exposition. And I really don’t know what was going on with Thor: The Dark World. I know I’ve heard that it went through a lot of script issues, and was plagued with production problems, but the film really comes off as a muddled mess that was trying to do far too much while accomplishing far too little. It was clear that the best version of Thor was when he appeared in the ensemble films, letting him just be this goofy anachronism to the rest of the team.
So, it didn’t seem like there was going to be a lot of promise with a third Thor movie. Which was a shame, because as a person who really loves the Walt Simonson era of the Thor comics, there was a lot of potential for a truly epic story, but it just seemed like no one had a good idea of what to do with Thor. But then Marvel Studios threw us a curve ball. They hired New Zealand director Taika Waititi to tackle Thor, while also stitching together an adaptation of the delightful Planet Hulk storyline, since releasing solo Hulk movies is king of up in the air in a legal sense. It was a shocking announcement, even though I really have loved every film from Waititi’s I’ve seen. But it was still kind of an odd idea. And then the announcements started coming out. Every bit of casting, every image, and every trailer made me more and more excited. This seemed like an absolutely insane movie, and I couldn’t wait to check it out. And, while it may not have been the deepest Marvel movie I’ve ever seen, it was a fucking blast.
Thor: Ragnarok opens up two years after the events of Age of Ultron, the last time we saw Thor. He’s been travelling the cosmos, hunting down the truth about Infinity Stones and dealing with visions he’s having of Ragnarok. And these visions have brought him to the laid of Surtur the demon, who is planning on destroying Asgard. However, Thor quickly defeats him and heads home, curious about a statement Surtur made about Odin being missing. And, sure enough, when Thor gets to Asgard he finds Loki still impersonating their father. Thor forces Loki to bring him to Odin’s location, only to find that he’s missing on Earth. The brothers meet up with Doctor Strange, who points them in the direction of Norway, where Odin has been enjoying a sort of retirement. However, when they get there they’re shocked to hear that Odin is dying. His lifeforce is fading, and he has some bad news. Him being alive is the only thing keeping his darkest secret away. Thor and Loki have an older sister, Hela the goddess of Death. She’s more powerful that either Thor or Loki, and when Odin passes away she’s granted entrance back into reality. And, immediately, she gets to work. She shatters Thor’s hammer, sends Thor and Loki careening off into the cosmos, kills the Warrior’s Three and dozens of Asgardian soldiers, and begins taking over Asgard. She takes a lonely and conniving Asgardian known as Skurge and makes him her second in command, and begins systematically wiping out all resistance to her new rule, while trying to find Heimdall so she can access the Bifrost and take over all of the universe.
But where’s Thor? Well, it turns out that there’s a planet in the galaxy known as Sakar, where all lost souls end up, through a system of wormholes, and both Thor and Loki end up there. Loki is able to ingratiate himself with the ruler of the planet, a hedonistic immortal known as the Grandmaster. Thor however ends up kidnapped by a mysterious woman, and forced into a gladiatorial combat that the planet loves. Thor tries to explain that he’s a prince of Asgard, and needs to save his people, but no one cares, and he’s eventually sent out to fight the Grandmaster’s champion. Which turns out to be the Hulk. Apparently since Age of Ultron the Hulk has been in complete control, and he’s managed to find his way to Sakar to become their greatest warrior. Thor tries to convince Hulk to help him, but the Hulk loves this life of violence and acceptance. So, Thor needs a different plan. He finds the ship that the Hulk traveled to Sakar on, and plans to flee to Asgard, and in the process accidentally brings Banner back. Luckily Banner is much more amenable to Thor’s plan, and the two end up convincing both Loki and the woman who captured Thor, who turns out by be an Asgardian Valkyrie. The crew manages to stage a revolution on Sakar, and in the process sneak out and return to Asgard. Where things are bleak. Hela has killed scores of Asgardians and is about to capture Heimdall and his resistance. Until our heroes show up. Thor attacks Hela, Valkyrie attacks Hela’s army of undead soldiers, Loki and the Sakarian refugees save the Asgardians, and Hulk tackles Hela’s monstrous wolf Fenris. But, after several battles and a face-turn from Skurge, they realize something horrible. They can’t stop Hela. She’s too powerful, and she draws her strength from Asgard itself. So, Thor decides to do something a little extreme. He completes a ritual that summons Surtur, and to full power. Surtur then fulfills his destiny, and destroys Asgard, with Hela seemingly along with it. Thor then becomes the king of the remaining Asgardians, and they take to the stars, looking for a new world.
Thor: Ragnarok is without a doubt my favorite Thor film. It’s not the deepest Marvel film, but it’s certainly one of the most fun. By jettisoning most of Thor’s established character, completely changing the tone of the film, and by killing off most of the supporting characters Taika Waititi and crew managed to boil off all of the excess fat of the Thor franchise, and gave us something very different. This is without a doubt the funniest Marvel movie, basically becoming a straight-up comedy for most of it’s run-time. Chris Hemsworth is able to flex all of his comedic muscles, and gives a tremendous performance as a joyously goofy and ambitious Thor. Mark Ruffalo is having a lot of fun as Bruce Banner, even though the comedy of the film does kind of downplay the emotional arc that this film should take his character on. I’ve loved Tessa Thompson in everything I’ve seen her in, and her portrayal of Valkyrie was a whole lot of fun, and I hope she’s going to be back in future installments. Tom Hiddleston is always great as Loki, and he’s pretty terrific in this film, really leaning into the silly brother dynamics with Hemsworth. Our two villains are also spectacular in this film. Jeff Goldblum is a treasure as the mincing and gleeful prince of debauchery that is the Grandmaster, and Cate Blanchett is campy as all hell as Hela, and I really hope that the MCU uses her as the personification of Death in the future, particularly alongside Thanos.
It can be a bit of a shame though that this film chose to be so funny. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed this film, and it was fun to see a straight-up comedy in the Marvel Universe, but there’s still a part of me that feels kind of bad that they decided to adapt some of these stories, and put them in such a goofy film. Hela conquering Asgard, Skurge having a stand at Gjallerbru, the Surtur saga, even the Planet Hulk storyline. All of these stories were treated with a far more serious tone in the comics, and there could have been a lot of potential to have an epic and serious sci-fi conclusion to the Thor franchise. I’m just not sure if they could have gotten it to work right. They tried fantastical grandeur in the previous Thor film, and whiffed hard. So it may have been the right call to take several serious elements and adapt them in a winkingly goofy manner.
However, despite being so silly, this film does have something on its mind. It maybe doesn’t get it across as well as some of the other films in the MCU, primarily because it’s more focused on telling a fun story than any sort of allegory, but it’s still there, running beneath the surface. Hela is portrayed as a psychotic murderer, a being who is only interested in the subjugation and murder of those who won’t follow her. But, she does have some points about Odin. When she takes over Asgard she explains that in the past Odin used her as a weapon to defeat the other Realms, letting the Asgardians take over. Odin and the other gods like to think of themselves as mighty and perfect beings, wise and above everyone else. But, lurking under their pretense is a bed of lies. Their civilization is founded on murder and lies, and they try to sweep Hela under the rug. And it comes back to bite them in the ass. Which certainly is something that feels true to an American citizen in 2017. This nation is built on the backs of slavery and genocide, and it’s something that we take great pains to ignore. We tried to never deal with it, never heal correctly, and those wounds continue to creep up and cause problems in the present. Asgard too was built on lies and deceit, and by the end of this film we see Thor and his new Asgardians confront these original sins, and prepare to start a new and potentially more healthy society. Which is something we all could stand to think about.
Thor: Ragnarok was written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost, directed by Taika Waititi, and released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2017.
Categories: Reel Talk
It’s certainly valid to point to American history here, but don’t forget that the director is of Maori descent, the indigenous people of New Zealand, and they suffered in a similar way to the native Americans.
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Very true. I think Waititi kind of purposefully built the film as a Rorschach test, so that whatever nation you come from you could identify with whatever horrible thing your nation did at some point. But, especially considering the Maori focus in some of his earlier films, I think that he’s certainly putting a lot of the colonialism metaphors from his own experience.