Marvel Studios had a Thor problem. Most people (again, not us) seemed to not enjoy the solo Thor films, at least not as much as they did Chris Hemsworth’s swashbuckling, somewhat dunderheaded but good hearted badass thunder god in the Avengers films. Similarly, Marvel Studios had a Hulk problem. Depending upon who you ask, Marvel either lacks confidence in Mark Ruffalo’s green goliath to carry his own standalone project or doesn’t want to have to cut Universal (who still owns part of the film rights to the character) in on the potential profits.
The third part of the equation that brings us here today is of course, Guardians of the Galaxy, that most unlikely yet beloved of all the individual Marvel Studios franchises. A lot of the brightly colored space opera hilarity that made the first GotG an instant classic was liberally borrowed from the original Stan Lee penned and Jack Kirby illustrated comic adventures of, you guessed it, Thor. Add in Taika Waititi, the genius comedy director behind What We Do In The Shadows, and you have what might be the funniest MCU movie yet, yes, even more so than either GotG, in a sci fi romp that many will call either nostalgia baiting, or a Guardians rip off, but is just 100% Kirby. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Thor: Ragnarok.
When the fall of Odin (Anthony Hopkins, picking up the paycheck one last time), for real this time, he’s not just hibernating or whatever, brings about the return of Hela (Cate Blanchett, fucking awesome), back to claim her birthright of ruling Asgard by any means necessary. Odin’s secret firstborn daughter, Hela was also his executioner during his ravenous world conquering, pre-touchy feely nice old man period, and also happens to be the goddess of death. Thor’s initial encounter with her finds Mjolnir destroyed and the god of thunder flung to the far off planet of Sakaar, a dangerous, desolate hellscape where he’ll have to form uneasy alliances both old and new to return to Asgard in the hopes of saving what’s left of it.
And yes, of those aforementioned uneasy alliances, Hulk is chief amongst them, though watching the film you’ll almost wish the marketing materials hadn’t spoiled that reveal because the lead up to it is handled absolutely beautifully, with no hints whatsoever as to what’s coming. Hulk’s presence here is probably the most fun, both from an acting and production standpoint, that anyone’s ever had onscreen with the character, though that could be said for Ragnarok as a whole, where the filmmakers continuously go right to the edge of what would be unacceptably ridiculous within the parameters of the established MCU (the “yeah, that’s me, you’re probably wondering how I got here” opening immediately comes to mind) but reign things in just enough to where it’s irreverently funny without stopping to Deadpool-esque fourth wall break-ery.
Jeff Goldblum’s esoteric, psychotic (hey, he’s Jeff Goldblum) “Grand Master” does a lot to sell both the danger and inherent ridiculousness of the gladiatorial battles he presides over on what otherwise appears to be a giant junkyard, especially for characters and powerful as Thor, Hulk and yes, Loki (Tom Hiddleston, of course, still the goddamned best) who arrives on Sakaar in a less embarrassing fashion than his golden haired brother and actually manages to befriend Goldblum. Here we also meet Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, self exiled from Asgard since Hela’s initial reign of terror and in no rush to return. Thompson’s casting was initially troubling to me given her lifeless performance in Creed, but here she’s one of the most pleasant surprises in the film, with a believable redemptive arc, and some of the funniest lines in the movie. Between Hela and Valkyrie, there’s definitely a lot of kick ass feminism on display here, and not just a bunch of shitty one note Howling Commando rip offs telling the female characters how attractive they are ad nauseam. Now maybe DC apologists can stop pretending that Wonder Woman was a good movie.
Blanchett’s Hela is a sinister revelation, dripping animal sexuality and gothic cool, but also bringing a gravitas to these otherwise lighthearted proceedings befitting such an experienced and well respected thespian. Marvel is also smart to (mild spoilers), let Hela survive here, adding fuel to the rumors that she’ll eventually ally with Thanos in Infinity War or its still unnamed sequel. Karl Urban’s Skurge is less impressive, though he does very much look the part and has a mini redemptive arc of his own. Idris Elba’s excellent Heimdall returns and figures heavily into the plot, and Ruffalo’s time as the de-hulked Banner is a delight, especially in his awkwardly sweet interactions with Thompson.
Of course the film looks great, popping from the screen in IMAX 3D in a colorful explosion that the uninitiated are calling soulless 80’s appropriation but is just the counter culture inspired (and inspiring) prowess of Jack Kirby’s cosmic Marvel writ large. Of particular note are the battles with the titanic fire demon Surtur, the production design of Thor’s fellow gladiators on Sakaar (the Planet Hulk cast’s plight is reduced to comic relief here, but it’s still nice to see them fully realized onscreen), the catacombs and outskirts of Asgard where Heimdall hides the survivors from Hela, and her resurrected undead minions, including the giant Fenris Wolf.. This is definitely one to catch on the biggest screen possible.
Aside from one brief stop in Wakanda this February all signs point to Thanos and Infinity War in May. Thor: Ragnarok not only accomplishes being easily the best Thor film, but one of the best films the MCU has produced, period, and leaves the gods of thunder, mischief and death, as well as the jade giant, in excellent shape for the battle against (and alongside?) the mad god of Titan.