Review: MFR Says THOR: RAGNAROK Is A Smartly-Crafted Dumb Movie (w/Video)
Some of us have developed a real love/hate relationship with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. On the one hand, we give them credit for taking the genre to new heights and for creating a landscape that’s a virtual dream-come-true for people who grew up on comic books and superhero cartoons. On the other hand, their films can be so frustratingly average and reliant on pandering and people-pleasing that they’re almost entirely disposable and interchangeable.
It is with this internal conflict that I sat down to watch Thor: Ragnarok last week, with a split sense of expectations within me. Just based off of Marvel’s two other 2017 releases, I was curious as to whether Ragnarok would be another Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2 or another Spider-Man: Homecoming. For context, I’ll just say that GoTG 2 left me feeling ripped off because it had so many thoughtfully emotional ideas woven into it’s story…yet it pulled the rug out from under itself time and time again by playing all the deepest bits for laughs. And Homecoming, I thought, actually nailed the balance. It had tons of humor and self-aware moments, yet it also had heart and emotional beats in spades.
So which one of Marvel’s other two 2017 releases is Thor: Ragnarok most like? Neither one, it turns out.
Taika Waititi’s film is really it’s own thing. It has all of the jokes you’d expect from its comedy-heavy trailers, it has all the action-packed thrills and eye candy you’d expect from a film of this type, and yet it never even tries to be anything more than fun. It knows what it wants to be- a thrill ride- and so there’s not a hint of pretense to any of it. Waititi has crafted a film that’s just a joy from start to finish, where you’ll smile, laugh, and jump out of your seat at times as the action explodes off of the screen.
You’ll never get emotional, or have one of those mind-melting experiences where the genre reveals itself as a poetic allegory for something much deeper going on in real life. There’s not a ton to relate to on a personal level, since Thor really isn’t the kind of character you can identify with which this film- thankfully- is the first of his solo series to understand. You’ll just strap in for a ride and enjoy it while it lasts.
That’s not to say that every joke sticks the landing. Indeed, there are several times when a punchline plops down with a thud. Thankfully, the movie moves at such a brisk pace, and there’s so much going on that you hardly have a chance to linger on what a misfire certain attempts at humor are.
When a film makes its intentions this clear, and is this breathlessly entertaining, it’s hard to fault it for being pure bubblegum. It’s movies that aspire to be something more; that pretend to have something bigger to say; and then fail to deliver on them- like GoTG 2– that we can take to task for being too gutless to commit to their own themes. A film like Ragnarok, on other hand, can afford to be lightweight because that’s all it aims to be.
The only outright negative to state here is that, once again, Marvel Studios has delivered an underwhelming villain. It stands out more this time, though, because there’s boundless potential in Cate Blanchett’s Hela. Her motivations are provocative and interesting. Her dynamic with Thor and Loki provides fertile ground for tension, intrigue, and a real sense of danger for what she represents. And yet all she’s really asked to do is chew up the scenery, look badass, and advance the plot without ever really feeling like a danger to our heroes. Blanchett is great in the role, but she’s just given frustratingly little to do.
It should be said that everyone is great in their roles in Thor: Ragnarok. Chris Hemsworth has never been more likable and charismatic. Tom Hiddleston gets some fun new corners to explore for Loki. Idris Elba’s Heimdall is given much more to do than ever before, giving the actor something to actually work with for a change. And Jeff Goldblum lives up to everything you’d expect as The Grandmaster.
Where things get tricky, performance-wise, is when it comes to Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, and it’s not because Ruffalo is bad here. It’s because he’s just…different. The writing in Ragnarok, when it comes to Banner, which informs how the actor is intended to play him, almost feels like a reboot of the character. Where as in the two Avengers films so far, Banner is an emotionally-complex, psychologically-tormented character with a tragic heroic arc, Banner here is more a manic everyman. Ruffalo plays Banner as a far more neurotic, goofy person than he’s been seen as otherwise in the MCU. While there’s a storyline explanation for why he seems out of sorts, which I won’t spoil for you, it still just gives the viewer pause. Is this going to be the new way Banner is depicted moving forward? We’ll have to wait and see. But for the time being, it seems like a total clash from what’s come before.
A special note should be given here regarding one under-sung performance in the film, and that is Karl Urban as Skurge. Urban, whom I’ve often referred to as a “character actor trapped in an action hero’s body,” does surprisingly great work here given the relatively-little screen time he’s given. He’s someone whose subplot and meaning to the overall story I’ll go into greater detail on in the coming weeks when I get into a spoiler discussion about the film on the El Fanboy Podcast. But for the sake of this review, just know he deserves a shoutout and to be singled out as doing a lot with a little.
On the subject of deeper meanings, it should be noted that the Thor: Ragnarok does have something to say, it just never lingers on it for a second and it’s up to- the viewer- to decide if you want to explore its ideas on your own time. If you’d like to do more of a deep-dive on some of the script’s deeper elements, you can check out the video version of this review here:
Oh, and for all the chatter given to the idea of Ragnarok acting as if it’s really “the first Thor movie,” there actually are some great payoffs built into the movie that tie the whole Asgardian Trilogy together. The film respects what’s come before it, and actually closes off the narrative arc that began with Kenneth Branagh’s Thor back in 2011. It’s in these “payoff” moments that I’m so grateful Waititi played things straight. As they happened in the film, I was worried he’d take the piss out of them the way Scott Derrickson did to Doctor Strange or James Gunn did in GoTG 2, but Waititi actually seems to respect what certain developments mean to Thor and Loki, which I greatly appreciated.
Thor: Ragnarok is a fun, exhilarating thrill ride and a welcome bit of escapism. It’s been designed for maximum enjoyment, it makes no attempts to be anything other than a good time, and that’s a great thing. While some of the jokes will fall flat, and you’ll yearn for a villain who can send a chill down your spine, you’re sure to have a great two hours at the cinema so I can mightily recommend it.