Spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Thor: The Dark World and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
“a few jokes wouldn’t have gone amiss”
“A cataclysm-caravan of speeches, doomed and desolate landscapes”
That’s just a few of the quotes for the burgeoning DC Cinematic Universe. And to be fair, they’re not wrong. Until the release of Wonder Women this year, their choice to aim for a dark and serious tone in the majority of their movies was rather puzzling.
Because of this Marvel’s choice to go for “bubbly and fun” is generally seen as the correct path. But in the same way that Warner Brothers doubled down on the darkness, it’s difficult not to see the last few Marvel movies as having gone equally hard in the opposite direction.
Some of you may scoff at the idea of something being “too comedic.” After all, is it even possible to laugh too much? But the problem arises when comedy starts to undercut dramatic tension. Case in point: this spring’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The reveal that Ego is the one that killed Star-Lord’s mother should be the absolute emotional climax of the movie. The moment when audiences are stunned in their seats as they watch the initiation of battle between father and son.
And yet that tension is thrown away for a shitty David Hasselhoff cameo. Imagine, just for comparison, that after Darth Vader reveals his true identity, Luke Skywalker then slips off his perch in a comedic prat fall. How much dramatic tension would have been lost?
That’s why the hiring of (admittedly amazing) director Taika Waititi to helm Thor: Ragnarok didn’t exactly fill me with confidence. While an excellent comedic director and performer, does Waititi have what it takes to balance the drama and the comedy?
Picking up two years after the events of Age of Ultron, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns home after traversing the nine realms. But he soon discovers his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been misleading the people of Asgard. After revealing said duplicity, they both journey to find their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins).
Alas, unforeseen circumstances results in the release of Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett), from her centuries long imprisonment. Powerful beyond imagination, Hela easily disposes of Thor, forcing his crash landing on Sakaar, a garage planet run by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldbulm).
With numerous obstacles to overcome, Thor must find a way back to Asgard in order to stop Hela bringing Ragnarok and the end of all things.
Like Captain America: Civil War before it, Thor: Ragnarok truly brings to life the idea of a connected cinematic universe. While most previous movies would focus on the title lead and their relevant supporting characters; Thor’s newest outing is happy to grab various main characters from other parts of the Marvel universe for even the smallest scene.
As such we get quick visits from Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and others; as well as longer visits from figures such as the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Indeed Ragnarok might be the best outing for the incredible green giant. With far more screen time (for both Hulk and his human alter ego: Bruce Banner), there’s now a chance to truly portray the differences between both characters. While previously such differences could essentially be boiled down to anger and strength; Ragnarok spends some time showing us the intellect of the Hulk, even if his speech patterns aren’t that much better than a four year old!
At the other end of the speech spectrum is the verbose villainess of Hela. There’s no doubt that Blanchett had a ball of a time playing the first female villain of the Marvel universe. With the body count for notable characters being extraordinarily high (Seriously, it was like reading Deathly Hallows all over again!), it was hard not to be reminded of the T-1000 from Terminator 2. She’s so unbelievably powerful that you spend much of the film wondering how on earth she’ll be defeated.
But while she is an engaging and astonishingly deadly character, her goals aren’t actually any different from the parade of Marvel villains we’ve had for the past decade. Like Ego from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 or the dark elf Malekith from Thor: The Dark World; Hela’s desires never rise above the simplistic universe-dominating cliche.
Fortunately cliche is not a word that could be used to describe the overall tone of the piece. Just like James Gunn and Joss Whedon were allowed to imbue their own personalities into their films, Ragnarok very much has a Taika Waititi sense of humour. That Kiwi style of comedy where simple actions have the uttermost comedy rung out of them is all present and correct; and does lead to dozens of hilarious scenes, one-liners and conflicts.
But as mentioned in the introduction, those conflicts resort to comedy far often than they should. As such while the action and desperation might be on a massive scale, the actual stakes feel rather low and meaningless. Considering that the film is about the end of the world (hell, it’s in the title!); it may have been wise to hold back on the laughs in order to establish the momentous impact the upcoming apocalypse should have.
While Thor: Ragnarok doesn’t quite hold a candle to the emotional highs of Captain America: Civil War; it’s nonetheless an entertaining and well-paced journey through the Marvel cosmos. It will never be remembered as Marvel’s best movie, but with it’s many bold and interesting choices Ragnarok can confidently hold the title of best Thor movie.