Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
After sitting through the gamut of disappointing-to-desultory experiences that had been 2017’s superhero movie roster, I was strongly tempted to boycott Hollywood’s current superhero cash cows for good. But Thor: Ragnarok still managed to tempt me back into the movie theatre for a handful of reasons. I feel more loyalty for this wing of the franchise for the unique blend of high fantasy and space opera imagery Kenneth Branagh offered in his 2011 original than I do for the more prosaic tracts, I enjoy Chris Hemsworth’s deft performance as the eponymous hero, and the pre-release hype raised some genuine hope in me that new helmsman Taika Waititi would bring something new to the house style. And, frankly, I urgently needed a good time at the movies. I didn’t really connect with Waititi’s lauded What We Do In The Shadows (2014), but I did get aboard with The Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), a fleet and garrulous adventure movie that blended the modest stakes and strong interpersonal tragicomedy of classic New Zealand cinema with a mocking survey of imported popular culture with its catchy, grandiose stature – the sort of fare that battled for supremacy on Kiwi movie marquees in the 1980s now meeting and finding common ground in one smart, hip filmmaker’s lexicon. Thor: Ragnarok takes the same idea but, inevitably, inverts their proportions. The special effects-laden spectacle is paramount, shot through with hues of cheeky character comedy and a lightly lampooning take on this fare.
Waititi had some work to do to make up for Alan Taylor’s spasmodic and clunky Thor: The Dark World, too. His gambit is to play the seemingly momentous final revelation that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) had replaced Odin (Anthony Hopkins) without anyone realising it as the stuff of farce. Thor is first glimpsed as a prisoner of the demon Surtur (Clancy Brown), for, after suffering from dread nightmares concerning the destruction of Asgard in the prophesised apocalypse of Ragnarok, Thor decided to track down the creature who will supposedly make it happen. Thor escapes his bonds, pulverises Surtur and his army of imps, and takes his skull back to Asgard, only to realise quickly the deception Loki has been sustaining when he gets a glimpse of his flattering tastes in court theatre. Thor forces Loki to take him to where he stashed their real father away, which proves to have been a retirement home in New York, but Odin has since escaped that place and now lives waiting for death in Norway.
Before dissolving in a mist of golden particles, Odin gives benedictions to the brothers but also warns them his passing will free a great enemy: Thor’s older sister Hella (Cate Blanchett), who’s been living in exile for millennia and will return to claim the throne once Odin cannot keep her in check. Hella promptly appears, and destroys Mjolnir when Thor throws it at her. Fighting the immensely powerful rival when flying through space on the beam of the Bifrost, both Thor and Loki are forced out of the beam and land upon Sakaar, a planet on the far side of the universe, a world used as a galactic garbage dump and ruled by a vain and pompous bread-and-circuses dispenser, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Hella arrives on Asgard and gains a shame-faced helpmate in the form of Skurge (Karl Urban), who was Loki’s appointed successor to Heimdall (Idris Elba) in running the Bifrost after Heimdall went into exile for bucking Loki’s regime, Hella slaughters the resistance she meets from the realm’s warriors, including Thor’s former comrades-in-arm Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano). Heimdall begins shepherding Asgardians to a safe stronghold.
Waititi’s overt pitch with Ragnarok is to offer a Thor movie in the mould of an ‘80s pop adventure movie. That’s not really such an original tilt these days, what with J.J. Abrams and his ilk doing the same all over the big screen and television. Even in this franchise, Waititi follows the Guardians of the Galaxy movies in lampooning the superhero film a little through a prism of beloved genre films from a generation ago. But Waititi manages the trick far better than James Gunn has thus far. His comedy is funnier, his talents for selling quick, broad characterisation far more confident, his feel for the necessary moments of melodramatic pleasure both more affecting and far less self-consciously faux-earnest. Waititi’s harvesting of ‘80s film encompasses some delightfully deep cuts, as he mixes in scissored tropes ranging from relatively beloved cult fare of the likes of Flash Gordon (1980) and The Transformers: The Movie (1986) to forgotten VHS heroism like Prisoners of the Lost Universe (1983). It also helps that Waititi knows that when properly deployed his type of puckish humour intensifies rather deflates the heightened drama that’s so essential to this mode. The early sequence of Thor watching his and Loki’s relationship being mythologised and distorted by the play Odin/Loki has staged (complete with Sam Neill, Matt Damon, and Luke Hemsworth making priceless cameos) sets in motion a witty and consequential theme not only about diverse viewpoints on the same events, but also deploys a rollicking commentary on historical revisionism, one Hella represents the crueller edge of, as she strips away the real Odin’s celebratory frescoes in his palace to reveal the hidden images of her own time as his heir and strong right hand.
Meanwhile Thor and Loki contend with life on the Grandmaster’s planet, with the two brothers having wildly different experiences. Although ejected from the Bifrost moments apart, this has meant Loki has been on the planet much longer than Thor, giving him time to ingratiate himself into the Grandmaster’s circle. Thor meanwhile is imprisoned, given a cruel haircut, and is forced to participate in a gladiatorial match-up against the Grandmaster’s champion, who turns out to be someone very familiar: the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who, after getting himself sucked into a time-space portal following his flight to parts unknown at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), is now seemingly perpetually stuck in green rage monster mode and has become feted for his prowess. During their ridiculously gargantuan bout, Thor finds himself wielding a powerful energy he’s never known before as he begins to properly channel his gift for commanding lightning. He almost defeats the colossus, but the distressed Grandmaster pulls the plug on the duel. The two fighters make an uneasy alliance and eventually Bruce Banner returns when Thor and the Hulk try to steal the jet the Hulk arrived in, setting off a pacifying video recorded by Bruce’s lady love Natasha (Scarlett Johansson). Foiled in this escape attempt, the duo are forced to turn to Loki and ornery slaver Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), a drunken, dissolute Asgardian exile who fled for a life of ignominy after all her fellows were killed attempting to destroy Hella for Odin.
Waititi’s funky touch is evinced by a moment in which the Grandmaster, played with ineffable cool by the ever-entertaining Goldblum, starts dabbing away on a synthesiser keyboard whilst giving his explanatory spiel to Thor. The whole film works in a similar key, as what seems to be off-handed wryness is delivered with sly, careful choreography. It could be said that Waititi never quite lets this streak off the leash as he could and should, however. The heavy hand of Marvel’s brand stifles any chance of an action scene shot and cut in an unusual fashion that might take Waititi’s urges towards the musical into proper delirium. The franchise service moments are less tedious here, perhaps purely because the goodwill the rest of the movie enforces serves to make them more bearable. Although Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is roped in for a cameo early in the film that serves absolutely no purpose other than to force the audience to remember his utterly unmemorable film, Waititi at least stages it for more absurd humour, and as another chance to put Loki through the wringer on his way to earning back something like antihero status. That said, I don’t know why the filmmakers felt a great need to thrust Thor into the company of Hulk, when perhaps it might have been better to send him into exile with Heimdall or his familiar companions (like the missing-in-action Lady Sif), so their plight would carry more weight. It’s also a little irksome that a film that borrows so heavily from the space opera lexicon, down to the arena battle, has been so wholeheartedly embraced when a greater iteration of the same, Andrew Stanton’s John Carter (2012), was so ignominiously dismissed.
Waititi’s parochial mockery of the grandiloquence of the genre is however riotous, particularly when he introduces himself as an alien rock monster named Korg, who speaks with a broad, snippy Kiwi accent and coaches Thor through the surreal twists of his new life with casual bonhomie and existential acquiescence. Another elevating aspect of Ragnarok is Waititi’s strong eye, which wrenches some real sense of spectacle from sights like Hella’s sprouting, antler-like war helm, and an epic flashback to the Valkyries’ ill-fated attack on her. This vision splits the difference between Flash Gordon’s attack of the Hawkmen and a Frank Frazetta illustration of an authentic Norse saga, all the picturesque grief of Thompson’s Valkyrie losing a lover-comrade in a shower of swords. Unlike Gunn’s tediously weightless video game-via-op art visuals, Waititi understands his pictures must illustrate something (complaints, for instance, that Valkyrie’s canonical queerness isn’t acknowledged in the film reveals that no-one knows how to actually watch a film today, as Waititi notes it clearly in the flashback). That said, Waititi falters in quite sealing together his widescreen spectacle flourishes and his humour, and the film for the most part ambles along amidst candy-hued settings with little real invention to its storyline or action, the truly arresting, eye-catching moments and good laughs fleeting and fragmentary. Other films have certainly managed to keep such disparate impulses in balance – after all, forebears like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Richard Lester's Musketeer films proved it's eminently possible to make films that are both comedic in their approach to swashbuckling action and yet also sustained and supremely elegant cinematic constructions.
The final battle sequence won’t necessarily win over any haters of CGI spectacle, but Waititi keeps focus on his characters and their engagement in action and maintains a clear-eyed sense of melodramatic function: it’s all last-minute rides to the rescue and changes of heart, appropriate match-ups of skills to predicament (a la Hulk being set on Hella's giant wolf monster), totally corny and fun and staged with gusto. Also, it would be amiss not to give praise to Waititi's gleefully apt deployment of Led Zeppelin's rock-out anthem "Immigrant Song" to propel his opening and closing action sequences. Although Blanchett is given painfully little to do and Goldblum’s actual part never matches the outsized presence and entertainment value he brings to it, the supporting cast acquits itself beautifully. Thompson’s Valkyrie manages in a few minutes what Wonder Woman (2017) laboured at for hours in creating a genuinely stirring, statuesque, spryly charismatic female hero, and Hiddleston remains a gas as the perpetually shifty, but ultimately redeemable trickster. It would be wrong to suggest Waititi has made any kind of pop masterpiece here, because Ragnarok is just as much a missed opportunity as it is a rollicking good time. And yet by hitting his target for the most part, Waititi restored my faith in this type of moviemaking, or at least taught me to tolerate it again.