WASHINGTON, December 24, 2017: In our previous article, we discussed the problems inherent in the character of Thor as he appeared in his previous cinematic outings, Thor and Thor: Dark World. But we also discovered that Taika Waititi, the director of Thor: Ragnarok – the latest Thor film– has happily breathed new life into this character by embracing the grandiose style of a classic superhero epic.
Essentially, Waititi’s vision for Thor is less like “Lord of the Rings” in this film as opposed to the others. It’s more in tune with a 1970s-style heavy metal style and a cosmic Led Zeppelin bent. Instead of taking visual and narrative cues from fantasy films of the past, Waititi instead focused on the evolving psychedelic imagery that was inspired by those earlier films.
Embracing a tradition that continually evolves in a stream of time led to Thor: Ragnarok, which is much larger in scope than either of its predecessors.
A lot of what drives Thor: Ragnarok is an overwhelming feeling of epic largeness. Everything Waititi attempts feels huge. In some places, that largeness almost threatens to capsize the film. But not quite.
The biggest stumbling block for Thor: Ragnarok is that in many respects it constitutes a reboot of the character. The challenge: To build a film encompassing the monumental scope of the universe of Marvel gods while largely avoiding reference to the previous films.
Both the Iron Man and Captain American sub-franchises have benefited by drawing on character portrayals and plot continuities in previous franchise films. Thor: Ragnarok, however, doesn’t have the same luxury. (For example, Natalie Portman doesn’t return as Thor’s love interest Jane Foster.) Frankly, there wasn’t much reason to continue any continuity from the previous Thor films with one exception as noted below.
Thor: Ragnarok is distinctive in its sprawling narrative structure, which commences as Thor is conversing with a skeleton, relating what he’s been up to since sitting out the Avengers’ Civil War.
Thor engages with Surtur (voiced by Clancy Brown) – the bringer of Ragnarök and its epic events in Norse folklore – and defeats him before returning to Asgard. Here, the lone plot point from Dark World is wrapped up, in that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) was posing as Odin (Anthony Hopkins). That plot is wrapped with mercenary precision, so Thor and Loki can find their father Odin.
Odin dies, which releases the main villain of the film, Hela (Cate Blanchett). After losing a fight with Hela, Thor and Loki are dispatched to the planet Sakaar.
This all takes place in about the first 20 minutes of the film, and it contains enough narrative information to require a film of its own. But Thor: Ragnarok has a lot of ground to cover, giving us the sense that this movie wants to be a complete ancient epic. But at the same time, it’s just the way Waititi normally paces his films.
Waititi comes with a strong improv background, and this comes across in Ragnarok. Given the sci-fi bent of this film, once Thor gets to Sakaar, the movie unfolds almost as if Douglas Adams penned it as an unfinished spinoff of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
Once the action moves to Sakaar, Ragnarok deconstructs into a series of short, loosely connected cinematic sorties tarring Thor, Loki, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), and Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). Everything the audience needs to know is set-up at the opening of each individual scene with the pay-off happening prior to the next. Whether it’s introducing Valkyrie equally as a badass and a drunk.
What keeps the central plot going during all the mayhem is the occasional glimpse we get of Hela controlling Asgard. Yet the rapid pace of the ongoing cinematic vignettes allows Thor: Ragnarok to unfold in a breezy and even fun way that even Iron Man and the original Guardians of the Galaxy couldn’t quite achieve.
This type of pacing easily works in television. But on the silver screen, it’s more fraught with pitfalls, especially in the narrative-heavy genre of superhero films. But Waititi never loses the primary tone and forward motion in Thor: Ragnarok.
True, the overriding threat of Hela is either ignored or hand-waved in much of this film until the characters are literally forced to deal with it. There’s also the revolution against the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) that’s never properly explained. There’s also that matter that Hulk’s and Valkyrie’s roles and feelings are quickly discarded.
But despite these bumps in the narrative road, the film still works, largely thanks to the focus on its main characters.
One other anomaly: In the time between Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok, everyone seems to have rediscovered Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is actually a lovable goofball. Prior to this film, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki stole nearly every scene he was in. But in Ragnarok, Hemsworth’s Thor matched Loki in in all his scene-chewing glory. Ragnarok – finally – delivered the goods on that strange Thor/Loki relationship.
The addition of character quirks and humor to this film carry additional dividends. Examples include Valkyrie and Hulk trading punches and creating laughs along the way; Jeff Goldblum’s eccentric and esoteric Grandmaster; and Hela’s mystifying, terrifying, and gorgeous character. These are fully developed characters that could find themselves headlining their own enjoyable films. Ragnarok makes these characters shine in ways that wouldn’t normally work in a film where the narrative holes seem prominent. Plus, they’re just plain fun.
Functionally, Thor: Ragnarok is an exercise in table-clearing. Thor’s final decision to burn everything away works, putting Thor, Hulk, and Loki where they need to be for the next installment of the grand Marvel story. That decision also allows for future Thor movies – if there are to be any – to unfold with a clean slate.
But Waititi and his genuinely inspired cast make Thor: Ragnarok so much fun that such mundane concerns become entirely irrelevant. This is truly a film that’s enjoyable for its own pure enjoyable irreverence.