Thor: Ragnarok Is a Colorful Sundae of a Superhero Flick (Review)
Ever since Taika Waititi was announced as the director of Thor: Ragnarok, we've wondered how, exactly, the guy whose specialty is low-key, awkwardly deadpan comedy would pull off an epic space opera with a Thor versus Hulk battle as its centerpiece. Sci-fi comedy is a tricky balance often better handled in animation: Rick and Morty and Futurama are beloved, but The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie and Morons From Outer Space rarely get their due. Fortunately, there's precedent on Waititi's side, as James Gunn has already established the outer space side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a pretty funny place, even if Asgard just happens to be the one part of it full of ultra-stern would-be Shakespeareans.
Sakaar, the planet of discarded things on which much of the action takes place, would not feel out of place in any of the aforementioned humorous properties, but it's also not as amiss in the Marvel storyline as one might think. Production designers Dan Hennah (The Hobbit) and Ra Vincent (The Lord of the Rings), go all-in on the Jack Kirby aesthetic, with bold colors, big blocky shapes, and the most ostentatiously comic booky costumes of any Marvel movie so far. They've even brought along their own Balrog, though here he's called Surtur (Clancy Brown) and is a demon destined to plunge Asgard into a fiery doom. So of course Thor kicks off the movie by ripping his face off and beheading his pet dragon. The thunder god is not messing around or pulling his punches any more.
Waititi's healthy sense of the absurd makes nearly the entire movie a tangent. Thor's long-lost sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) also happens to be the goddess of death, and thanks to Loki screwing around, she's back and looking to conquer the entire universe. Stopping her is the goal, but rather than dwell on that, the story takes us on a side quest, as Thor gets caught up in the machinations of the Grandmaster. Played by Jeff Goldblum as a kind of outer space Vince McMahon, he's a horny CEO of a junk world whose version of WWE-to-the-death is capitalizing on the original, literal Hulk-a-mania.
And while Goldblum-as-lothario is wearing thin as a Hollywood running joke, particularly in light of our supposed new sensitivity to sexual harassment, Sakaar is a way more fun planet than Asgard, which is literally AND figuratively flat. Every time we're forced to check back in on what Hela is doing, and the evolution of Heimdall (Idris Elba) into Viking Robin Hood, it's a real drag; yes, they're the two best actors in the movie, but it feels like eating raw spinach after having been dragged away from a big bowl of ice cream with sprinkles.
(Earth also figures, briefly, in an expansion of the Doctor Strange post-credits tease that proves Benedict Cumberbatch is worth whatever Disney needs to keep paying him.)
The best Marvel movies are the ones that most closely reflect the styles of their directors, and in this case we have a director less interested in underlying themes and greater points than he is in engaging in the most classically Greek definition of comedy. The gods are made mortal by the smallest of human frailties and concerns, and we laugh as the powerful come down to our level of drunkenness, egomania, gullibility, flattery, and the rest of it. At the same time, Ragnarok never loses sight of the fact that this is literally a visual comic that got you to buy it by promising a Thor-Hulk fight -- it's actually better than most such paper comics in that it delivers a definite winner (We ain't sayin' who, but we do promise Hulk's mother isn't named Frigga too).
Waititi's handling of action is just fine, perhaps better than that of the Russo brothers, who fatally succumbed to the temptations of stutter-vision. If you liked the Spock-Khan fight on platforming, moving spaceships from Star Trek Into Darkness, well, now you get to see a version of that again but in a movie you'll like better.
Hulk, as performed by Mark Ruffalo with a great vocal Lou Ferrigno impersonation, is the most comic-book Hulk of any Marvel movie to date -- as with Superman, a character who's that impossibly strong works best on an over-the-top cosmic scale. His sparring partner, Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie, is likely to become every teenage fanboy's fantasy, a tough-as-Wolverine's-nails drinker and fighter who nonetheless looks just as pretty as Thor while doing it. (Also, her spaceship would make a really cool toy. Please get on that, Hasbro.)
Best of all, unlike The Dark World, which played walk-backsies from what appeared to be bold story choices -- dead Loki, handless Thor -- Ragnarok imposes lasting changes on Thor and his story. Blame it on the need to create a new low point before he can face Thanos, perhaps, but for once the stakes feel meaningful, and the climax feels like it takes a significant toll. And with that kind of underpinning, Waititi can afford to play a rock-person named Korg for laughs, complaining about an insufficient amount of leaflets to start a revolution.
Despite this, Ragnarok isn't one of the more meaningful Marvel movies -- it's just an old-fashioned superhero smackdown. And sometimes that's exactly what you want in a comic book.