Of all the major characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor has gotten the short end of the superhero stick. While audience members adore Iron Man’s charisma and Captain America’s bravery, some have yet to connect with the God of Thunder. It’s not difficult to see why: Both of Thor’s previous cinematic outings have been lackluster. “Thor” (2011) was a fun but forgettable introduction to the character, and “Thor: The Dark World” (2013) was one of the worst films in the Marvel continuity. With “Thor: Ragnarok,” director Taika Waititi (“What We Do in the Shadows”) sheds new light on the character. While hilarious and packed with action, “Ragnarok” struggles to be more than just fun, and, ultimately, doesn’t stack up to Marvel’s best.
The film chronicles the adventures of Thor Odinson (Chris Hemsworth) when the villainous Hela (Cate Blanchett) rises up and takes over his home of Asgard. Thor and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) find themselves transported across the universe to Sakaar, a strange planet ruled by the extravagant and murderous Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). When the Grandmaster pits Thor in a fight to the death against the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the God of Thunder must find a way to survive the battle, escape Sakaar and return home to stop Hela from causing Ragnarok, the foretold destruction of Asgard.
While the film’s title refers to “Ragnarok,” the majority of the film takes place on Sakaar. On Sakaar, the audience is introduced to an array of new, eccentric characters. Of all of them, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) shines the brightest. Playing an ex-Asgardian warrior, Thompson proves she is an up-and-coming Hollywood star. Thompson not only creates convincing chemistry with Hemsworth, but also refreshingly paints Valkyrie as a world-weary, alcohol-chugging badass who holds Thor in check.
As the diabolical Grandmaster, Goldblum oozes his trademark confidence and charm. While he doesn’t have much range as a character, it’s nice to see the beloved Goldblum back in action, and he is directly responsible for many of the film’s laughs. The alien Korg (a blue rock alien reminiscent of the Fantastic Four’s The Thing) also provides many giggles. Korg, Thor’s fellow gladiator on Sakaar, is voiced by Waititi, whose distinct New Zealand accent along with Korg’s ironically soft-spoken personality and innocence make him a screen stealer.
Shoehorning the Hulk into a Thor film may seem like a gimmick to draw viewers, but, thankfully, “Ragnarok” gives the Hulk a significant story arc. Thus far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Hulk has only played a side role in Avengers films, but Waititi finally gives Ruffalo’s Hulk his deserved time in the spotlight. Viewers get a satisfying balance of the Hulk and his alter ego — a sufficient amount of both “Hulk smash”-ing and nerdy Bruce Banner.
Unfortunately, the new characters back on Asgard are not quite as engaging. Marvel’s struggle to create memorable villains continues through Hela. Blanchett, an excellent actress, makes Hela malicious and deplorable, but, frankly, Hela isn’t a particularly special or scary villain. She bears an uncanny resemblance to Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent, and her plot to conquer Asgard and the Nine Realms is unoriginal. It seems as though more and more films nowaday feature villains like Hela who aspire to conquer the world (i.e. “X-Men: Apocalypse,” “Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2”). Likewise, her evil crony Skurge (an almost unrecognizable Karl Urban) doesn’t stand out as anything more than Hela’s thug, and has a predictable arc.
“Ragnarok” is chock full of humor, and almost all the jokes land. But the jokes often serve to the detriment of the film. A recent trend in Marvel films, such as “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” is self-referential behavior, with characters acting as if they know how ridiculous their film is. Unfortunately, “Ragnarok” does this excessively, minimizing the film’s impact. Jokes are effective in superhero movies when used sparsely, but Waititi goes overboard. While the humor may leave the audience smiling, it takes away the heart and power that makes some Marvel films great.
Another bothersome quality of the film is that Thor, who in past films has been a no-nonsense character, suddenly starts making wisecracks. In the opening scene, Thor tosses quips at the fiery CGI villain Surtur (voiced by Clancy Brown), comparing his headdress to a giant eyebrow. While funny, this feels unfaithful to the character who we, the audience, have gotten to know. Without support for this change in character, it seems like an abrupt shift from Thor’s previous outing in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” where he left Earth on a determined mission to figure out the mystery of the Infinity Stones. While it is true that audiences disliked the previous Thor films, Waititi could have remedied that without transforming the character’s personality.
Nonetheless, “Ragnarok” is a satisfying cinematic experience. It is visually stunning and one of the most colorful Marvel films to date. Its CGI is stellar, as per usual, and Waititi crafts some stunning action sequences. The much-publicized arena brawl between Thor and Hulk is particularly impressive. Not only does it look remarkable, but it also includes amusing dialogue and character moments. On a whole, the film is significantly better than its two predecessors, and it ends on an unexpected note that leaves audience members wondering what will come next for Asgard.
“Thor: Ragnarok” completely transforms the Thor series from drama to comedy to mixed results. It is nearly brought down by its excess of humor and its lackluster villain, but audiences will likely love its new characters, beauty and wit. In a world where superhero movies aren’t a dime a dozen, “Ragnarok” would likely be a phenomenon, but considering the high standard of recent comic book flicks, it stands merely as a solid Marvel installment. Still, “Thor: Ragnarok” is first-rate entertainment, and it shows that, sometimes, the third time’s the charm.