The continuing adventures of the Marvel’s version of the Norse God of Thunder have been a hot topic for a long time. Easily the MCU’s most under-performing ongoing franchise, the Thor series has struggled to find its footing in the greater world of the MCU. It’s unique in that it takes place both cosmically and locally, and has struggled on both fronts in storytelling. Couple that with the constant shake-ups behind the scenes, and the films all suffered in the long run.
Since the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, in which Thor had strange visions involving Ragnarok and the Infinity Stones, the bigwigs at Marvel have been saying that the next installment of this series was going to be the most important film in terms of the overall narrative of the MCU’s Phase III. When auteur director Taika Waititi was hired to direct a script by comic writers Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost, it was clear Marvel was going in a different direction with the series. Waititi, known for his critically acclaimed indie films What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, vowed that this next Thor entry would be a soft reboot of the series, taking existing elements and turning them on their head. Waititi also planned to inject what he and studio head Kevin Feige thought was a much-needed element of comedy into the series. Add into the mix fan favorite Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk, the return of Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Idris Elba as Heimdall, and the additions of Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie and Cate Blanchett as the villainess Hela, and the stage was set for Ragnarok.
From here on out, there will be spoilers, so read on only if you’ve seen the movie or if you plain don’t care about it being spoiled.
After stopping the demon Surtur from bringing about Ragnarok, the destruction of Asgard, and discovering his brother Loki masquerading as Odin All-Father, Thor makes the God of Mischief help him find their father. However, once they find Odin – with a little help from Dr. Stephen Strange – he dies, freeing Hela, the Goddess of Death and their sister, long exiled for trying to conquer and destroy the Nine Realms and beyond. Thor and Loki try to fight Hela, who destroys Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir. While trying to flee Hela, the pair get exiled to the planet Sakaar where Thor is forced to fight in a gladiatorial match against his fellow Avenger, the Hulk – who’s been on Sakaar from two years as a gladiator loved by the people. It is here Thor discovers Valkyrie, a former warrior woman of Asgard, and enlists her help in the fight against Hela.
The first act does a decent job in setting up the story, but feels very rushed and cramped; this whole sequence is only the first 30-40 minutes of the film. Hela’s backstory is given in a small speech by Odin right before his death and a slightly longer explanation by Hela once she’s taken Asgard. The update on Hulk takes approximately 5 minutes. The whole sequence of Loki being outed and the trip to Earth, which includes the Dr. Strange extended cameo, takes about 15 minutes. Odin’s death, something that should have been important and resonated throughout the whole film, is a hollow moment that is glossed over in order to get some comedic jabs in at the previous film. Surtur, who in the comics is one of the most powerful beings in the universe, is defeated and imprisoned in minutes, and the only reason Thor breaks a sweat is because Surtur is made of fire. It was just sloppily constructed, and could have taken a cue from The Dark World in constructing an opening sequence that gave us a backstory for Hela that matched Cate Blanchett’s great performance. What is most annoying is that the story was there to work with, but they chose to just gloss over everything in order to get in some colorful action and a few laughs. Also, for a movie called Ragnarok, the seeming end of the world is averted within the first 3 minutes of the movie, and almost never addressed again until a contrived plot device in the last act.
Something the movie didn’t handle very well was the inclusion of comedy. Each appearance Thor has had in the MCU thus far has included comedy, but it seemed natural and organic. The entire first half of the original Thor had the character in Asgard and being overly serious, but the comedic aspect of his character still showed through in some scenes. Once Thor hits Earth, the comedy pops up a notch, mostly due to the fish out of water nature of an Asgardian visiting Earth for the first time. In Dark World the humor was almost entirely reliant upon supporting characters like Darcy, Ian, and Selvig, with a few hits from Thor himself. In the Avengers movies, Thor was a mixture of serious and comedic, but again most of his beats came from being an outsider to the world. This movie made him almost on the same level comedically as Tony Stark or Star Lord. The sudden uptick in witty banter was a bit of a shocker. The Thor movies have always had more situational humor over banter, so a lot of it felt forced.
As promised by Kevin Feige, the events of this movie will leave ripples in the MCU. From the deaths of the Warriors Three and Odin, the latter of which resulted in Thor’s ascension to the throne of Asgard, to the actual destruction of Asgard and the displacement of all its citizens, the promises made early on look to be ringing true. The biggest reveal was in the post credits scene: Freshly anointed King of Asgard, Thor is musing with Loki over their decision to return to Earth when Thanos’s ship suddenly appears – presumably to take back the Tesseract, which was implied to have been stolen by Loki in the final moments of the battle against Hela.
It was these last few moments, the “Universe Wide” moments, that made me realize what has been wrong with the Thor movies as whole: The character has been used as more of a waypoint for universe-building events over the years and his own story has always been secondary. Whether the weird forced alliance forged with SHIELD after the Destroyer battle in Thor, the focus on the Aether being an Infinity Stone in The Dark World, or the “Universe shattering events” of Ragnarok, Thor has merely been a plot device in his own stories, instead of being the driving force.
However, despite all this, Ragnarok is still a great film. The entire cast puts in great performances, and the story is a singular and coherent narrative, which is more than can be said for most of the movies being put out by the Distinguished Competition. And even where it seems forced and unnatural, the movie is funny. Most importantly, in this universe especially, Ragnarok left me wanting to know what’s next.
How will Thor and Hulk meet up with the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy for Avengers: Infinity War? What part will Loki have to play in that story? With the arrival of Thanos’s ship, will he destroy or enslave the remaining Asgardians? Or will Thor somehow save the day once more?
For now, the answers will have to wait until Infinity War.