Thor: Ragnarok is proof that Marvel has finally allotted space for a new cinematic voice to take total control over one of its franchises in desperate need of change.
Ragnarok is a doodle notebook full of teenage daydreams, a neon-infused fantasy of what superhero films could look like. There are gigantic monsters and beautiful women; zombie armies and a big spooky dog; an evil witch and Jeff Goldblum, but this isn’t just a wacky movie made for the sake of wackiness. Ragnarok is the child of confident filmmaking and understanding of what the Thor franchise could have always been.
It takes a character that could have always been more and makes good on that promise through competent storytelling and unbridled enthusiasm for the world. This is exactly how fans should be rewarded for their fandom. There has never been a clearer example of throwing the entire kitchen sink at a single title and having every single washer and lug-nut of that porcelain mechanism land in perfect order than Ragnarok.
The recent high-profile Star Wars firings and even the Edgar Wright boot from Ant-Man have made it seem like corporate overture is in danger of overriding any new or interesting voices in Disney properties. Thor: Ragnarok is a raised middle-finger to cynics in a time when the Marvel empire truly needs a gigantic, public win.
2011’s Thor was an otherworldly Shakespearean tragedy most famous for introducing Loki as a primary antagonist to the franchise and explaining who, exactly, Thor is. Thor: The Dark World allowed us to witness the absolutely criminal misuse of Christopher Eccleston as the villainous Malekith. Where Thor has always shone brightest is within his more restrained roles in The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Chris Hemsworth could throw out ten fantastic, funny one-liners and still come out the winner. Hemsworth has always been the selling point behind the Thor franchise, not so much the world he exists in.
For Ragnarok, director Taika Waititi — best known for his work on the vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows — was able to make the film that he saw in his kaleidoscope-encrusted heart. There's been a trend lately of grabbing indie film directors with a notable film under their belts and throwing them behind gigantic projects, watching their sudden shifts from the minors to the majors crush directors’ otherwise promising careers. Waititi, however, managed to bring the exact nuances of comedy, relationship and loss of an indie film to one of the biggest blockbuster action films of 2017 without missing a beat.
The opening sequence of Ragnarok manages to do in a cold-open what some Marvel entries cannot establish in an entire feature. A clear tone is set from the opening shot, featuring a hilariously over-stylized voiceover from Thor, just before he engages in barbed banter with a horrifying antagonist. As the two argue, the dangling Thor keeps spinning just out of frame and having to circle back in to continue the conversation.
When the joke is stretched just beyond its breaking point, the God of Thunder engages in an action sequence that rivals the biggest video game set-piece you've ever seen, doling out combo-moves and hidden powers in a way that guarantees every single attack is a new and riveting choice. Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” blasts through the screen just as Thor blasts through an army of monsters, and we are quickly brought right back in this universe — but through a lens that is simultaneously more focused than any previous outing, yet more willing to let Thor breathe and dabble in the gray areas of humanity.
From here the various plot arcs extend in patterns so complicated that it puts both Guardians of the Galaxy entries to shame. We meet characters that are given a depth of story and background so easily conveyed via a few comedic lines that the extraneous exposition of entries like Civil War seem positively novice by comparison. There is not one character in Ragnarok that you don’t immediately understand, that you don’t immediately grieve for on some level and that you don’t immediately wish you could see Waititi expand into their own spin-off.
Even with that, this is the most likable and interesting Thor has ever been. Hemsworth is given the chance to do what Hemsworth should have always been given the chance to do: be funny. But the script also makes sure that even the funniest one-liners Thor uses against Hulk or Loki are based on a development of their relationships that is often borderline painful when you realize what's actually being said.
It’s the filling out of a bonkers cinematic world in record breaking ease that establishes Ragnarok as the bright shining star in the Marvel gauntlet. Cate Blanchett’s villain, Hela, has the most bloodthirsty introduction of any antagonist in the series, Hiddleston’s Loki has an emotional journey that fits excellently within the bigger story, and Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie manages to steal the film in the process.
Not to mention that Hulk can talk now. Hulk and Thor have a “Withnail & I in space” vibe where they cannot seem to escape from their vacation together. It ties back to the ending of Ultron and while those plot points seem so long ago, there's a cruelty in their delivery that does more with Whedon's story than Whedon was capable of. That’s only a fraction of this movie and I’m still putting together the pieces of how a franchise film can do a weird aside this well. From a storytelling standpoint, Waititi has given Raganarok seven complete acts, which are all successful.
In a year where Blade Runner 2049 keeps getting hailed as two-and-a-half hours of Stanley Kubrick-esque stills, Ragnarok is two hours of heavy metal album art on display. But behind that pretty package there’s that feeling that only great films can instill in you — where the moment you come out you know you need to walk right back in. MCU stand-alones can be such a slog, so to ride an actual ride where you can feel the wind in your face the entire runtime; it feels like we've started anew.
There are bad-ass women, monsters, hilarious jokes and an appreciated space-punk soundtrack by Mark Mothersbaugh. Not to mention that Doctor Strange is better here than in his own origin adventure movie. Ragnarok sets the new standard by which the entire MCU will have to adhere to, including the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War. Rangarok is an intense space opera that genuinely cares about every character having a journey and doesn’t waste a second of screen time on anything artificial.
Is there anything to criticize? Of course. There's some sleight drags in the pacing that are entirely excusable based on the service they give to the characters. There's some problems with Hela, which here manage to include Karl Urban for some reason. Urban plays a conflicted warrior with no real allegiance who is repeatedly tested by his new master in a series of trials that don't matter because no one cares about the stakes of a character that clearly cannot survive the film.
There's some world-building lore and backstory that fails to answer the complicated questions that the film asks, probably because it just wasn't nearly as much fun as everything else happening on screen. But to say that there's ten minutes that could've been cut, that's a pretty mild criticism.
Thor: Ragnarok is a big bet for Marvel. It deviates from everything it’s structured the franchise to be, but it’s also a perfect example of taking big risks for even bigger wins. Thor: Ragnarok is winning like no Marvel movie has won before.