“Are you Thor, god of hammers?”
This question seems to be at the center of Thor: Ragnarok, a film tasked with not only serving as the capper to the last of the original MCU trilogies, but also with once and for all finding some way, any way, for Thor to rise to the heights of the rest of the MCU. Because the dirty secret among Marvel fans is that the Thor films have been pretty consistently among the weakest of their respective phases of the MCU. Not anymore. With director Taika Waititi leading the way, Thor: Ragnarok finally provides everyone’s favorite thunder god with a film worthy of his mighty station and deserving of recognition amongst the mighty pantheon of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This film, which posits that we can only hope to rise to embrace our destiny, represents some of the very best Marvel has to offer.
You see, for most of the film our main character is, quite literally, lost. After losing his mighty hammer near the end of the first act (something I’m sure you are tired of seeing in trailers at this point), Thor doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. Having tied so much of his identity into the hammer for so long, Thor doesn’t really know how to be much of anything without it. In many ways Ragnarok is about finding the power inside ourselves. The power to face our fears, the power to stop running, and the power to take a chance to make the world better. It’s the kind of thematic arc that the Thor movies have been lacking up until now and watching it play out was powerful.
Now if you’ve read this far you are probably thinking that this sounds like a super serious, very dramatic film. Well, you would be wrong. Ragnarok is hilarious, and that is owed almost entirely to the mad genius behind the camera, Taika Waititi. For those of you who don’t know him, Waititi has quietly (and not so quietly) been assembling one of the sharpest and most brilliantly comedic filmographies in the industry over the last decade or so. His two most recent films, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do In the Shadows, are two of the greatest comedies of the last 5 years and feature their fair share of well-crafted drama. Waititi brought his madcap sensibilities to bear on this film and for anyone even remotely familiar with his work, his touch on this film is unmistakable. It’s a masterclass of weaving between absurdism and drama as every character seems constantly aware of either how cool or absurd any given moment is. Most impressive is Waititi’s ability to allow the dramatic beats to land and linger unhindered before diving into his next pratfall or non-sequitur. This is a film that recognizes that its central premise is rather absurd, and instead of running from that, embraces it.
Speaking of the central premise, it is a doozy. After years of being locked away, Hela (Cate Blanchett hamming it up), the goddess of death has broken free from her prison and deigns to rule Asgard. To achieve her goals she casts Thor and Loki out, with both landing on the planet Sakaar where most of our second act takes place. Upon his arrival on Sakaar, Thor is captured and conscripted and sold by a former Valkyrie (played magnificently by Tessa Thompson) into the gladiatorial games of the eccentrically evil Grandmaster (played by the man himself, Jeff Goldblum). There he runs into the Grandmaster’s champion, none other than his good pal the Incredible Hulk. From there kicks off a mad adventure as our heroes try and find a way back home so they can save Asgard. If you’re worried this will spoil the movie, don’t be, I’ve intentionally left all the best stuff out. There’s a lot of things to love and be surprised by in this one, but the basic plot structure isn’t one of them. It’s a good structure, but it isn’t what the movie is all about.
Perhaps the most surprising part of Ragnarok is how well Waititi handles the action. Make no mistake, this is a shockingly violent entry in the MCU. In fact, I would argue it’s easily the most violent one to date. Still, plenty of films feature a ton of violence and action. What matters is the execution, and Waititi nailed it. Gloriously shot and stunningly choreographed, this is some of the best blockbuster action that you will see all year. The film goes out of its way to set up moments where these characters can truly cut loose and it is astounding to watch when they do. The principal players are veritable wrecking balls and watching them go HAM on each other is a delight. The climax in particular features some of the very best action that the MCU has ever seen. For a director who has never done big budget action before, Waititi certainly has a gift.
It’s also worth noting the performances in this one because there are many worth commenting on. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie is a fantastic performance from an actress who is becoming more bankable by the day. All rage, fear, and self-loathing it’s the kind of performance that demands a lot from the performer and she nails it every step of the way. Chris Hemsworth has never been better as Thor, as he finally receives a film that allows him to show off his full range of dramatic and comedic abilities. Tom Hiddleston returns for another wonderfully slimy performance as Loki. Karl Urban plays his character Skurge the Executioner with a mix of bravado and patheticness that is hard to nail. Goldblum and Blanchett provide master classes in scene chewing, and Waititi himself steals the show on multiple occasions as the rock creature Korg. This film features so many actors at the top of their game that I could go on forever, but suffice it to say that this is definitely one of the more well-acted films in the Marvel canon.
Thor: Ragnarok is Marvel once again showing us that nearly ten years in, they still have tricks up their sleeves. It’s absolutely remarkable to think that not only has Marvel strung success after success together over a ten year period, but they’ve somehow managed to improve as they go. But improve they have. By reaching out to new and exciting directors, Marvel seems to have cracked the case on exactly how to hold a vastly interconnected franchise together while still providing quality and variety to the viewer. It feels insane to say it, but 2017 might just have been their best year yet. I can’t say for certain if the MCU has ever been better, but I can guarantee you Thor hasn’t. Thor: Ragnarok is in theaters now. Go see it, you’ll have a blast.