Seventeen films in, you’d forgive Marvel for resting on their laurels but there’s no sign of fatigue as Marvel closes out its Thor trilogy with “Thor: Ragnarok”.
Driven by recurring dreams of the destruction of Asgard, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) allows himself to be captured by fire demon Surtur in order to pre-empt and prevent Ragnarok. Returning to Asgard, Thor forces Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to reveal himself and confess to where Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is being held. But Odin’s absence has and Loki’s lack of attention to his duties has allowed the nine realms to fall to chaos and released Hela (Cate Blanchett), Odin’s firstborn, from her prison. When an attempt to return to Asgard fails, Loki and Thor find themselves cast across the galaxy, landing on the planet Sakaar where an old friend is waiting for them.
Marvel has developed something of a counterpunch to the usual curse of trilogies, taking risks and switching things up for the third chapter rather than playing it safe. “Iron Man 3” took risks with existing and new characters while “Captain America: Civil War” ramped up the scale and scope of the adventure to be on a par with the “Avengers” movies. Marvel has also shown a courageous willingness to subvert, co-opt, disregard and overwrite their iconic fan favourite storylines in pursuit of telling the story they want to tell in the movie universe. They do both in “Thor: Ragnarok”, creating a mash-up of a couple of classic Thor tales with one of the most popular Hulk stories and then topping it off with a huge shift in tone and style from the previous Asgardian outings.
“Thor: Ragnarok” is funny. Very funny. Incessantly funny. Almost relentlessly funny. And while the film is an absolute blast, the obdurately jocular tone may not be to everyone’s taste. It’s quite strange to think this is the first time we’ve picked up Thor’s story since the end of 2015’s “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” and while a lot’s happened in the MCU since then, Thor (and The Hulk) have been on the sidelines. Asgard has been under Fauxdin’s rule since halfway back in the MCU in “Thor: The Dark World” so it’s little wonder the first act of “Ragnarok” feels overstuffed and rushed as it scurries around picking up all the loose ends and getting everyone in place to begin the main story. So in quick succession, Loki is unmasked, Odin is found (with a little help from Doctor Strange) and delivers the necessary exposition to allow Hela’s glorious, Kirby-crackle-heralded entrance to the film and the story properly begins.
There’s a very Thor-like swaggering insouciance to the way the MCU now drops its other heroes into other films like it’s no big deal. Cumberbatch and Hemsworth spar delightfully in an expansion of the post-credits stinger attached to “Doctor Strange” and although it cruelly teases the tantalising prospect of a sorcery duel between Loki and Strange, ain’t nobody got time for that and its cut off thanks to Strange’s understandable reluctance to tolerate the good ol’ Odinson boys on Earth for any longer than absolutely necessary.
It’s the first point of tension between the film’s ‘fight or funny’ reflex, but not the last. Not to say it skimps on the action, because “Ragnarok” is easily one of the most action-packed MCU movies yet, whether it’s Hela’s merciless assault on Asgard or the throwdown between Thor and Hulk in the Grandmaster’s arena, there’s a lot going on. It’s just that every so often, as with “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2”, there are moments when you wish director Taika Waititi would let the poignancy or emotional impact of the moment resonate a little longer before jumping to the next belly laugh, the way he did so masterfully with “The Hunt For The Wilderpeople”.
It’s a minor failing of a major triumph as Waititi outguns Gunn to bring the Marvel Cosmic that much closer to the earthbound mainstream of the MCU. In fact, in amongst all the vividly coloured spectacle, zany humour, Marvel Easter Eggs (look out for the MCU canonisation of Beta Ray Bill) and tremendous character moments, it’s easy to overlook the fact that big things are starting to move now. For the past few movies we’ve seen overarching plot points being nudged, like [Infinity] stones starting small rockslides but this film pushes a boulder down that slope, starting the narrative landslide which will engulf the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it in Infinity War.
Before we get there, though, there’s so much to enjoy in “Thor: Ragnarok”. The whimsical action comedy tone would falter from the beginning were it not for the charisma and comic timing of Chris Hemsworth, who proved his comedy chops by being one of the few funny things in “Ghostbusters”. The flippant, slightly goofy characterisation works for Thor as a kind of cinematic interpretation of his cod-Shakespearian, overly ostentatious comic book persona. He’s counterpointed nicely again his big sis Hela as Blanchette brings an imperious and sardonic ‘been there done that’ impatience to the Goddess of Death, who views any obstacle as a transitory inconvenience to her ultimate, inevitable victory. There’s much more of Hulk than before too (although the slight retconning of the end of “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” isn’t quite enough to satisfactorily explain how he ends up on Sakaar) and the increased screen time brings with it the slightly sad side effect that Lou Ferrigno, for the first time, doesn’t provide Hulk’s vocal performance, ceding it to Mark Ruffalo to fully take over the role. Tessa Thompson makes a good impression as Valkyrie, a worthy match for Thor and, of course, Tom Hiddleston oozes villainous charm as Loki. It’s in the ‘special guest’ stars that “Ragnarok” really delights, from Jeff Goldblum’s decidedly Goldblum-esque Grandmaster to Waititi’s CGI breakout star Korg there are too many to single out but perhaps none so surprising or amusing as the early scene where three cameos in quick succession almost overshadow just how much fun Anthony Hopkins has playing Loki playing Odin.
There are important moments for Hulk – and even Loki – in “Thor: Ragnarok” but the main focus here is in deconstructing and tearing down the icons of the franchise and reinventing the character for the adventures to come, and Marvel isn’t shy about making some bold and irreversible changes. Mjolnir gets hammered, the Warriors Three are perfunctorily deep-sixed and even Thor himself emerges as a God of Thunder fundamentally re-forged. Marvel’s master plan is nearing fruition and only a fool would bet on them dropping the ball now.