THOR: RAGNAROK (9.5 out of 10) Directed by Taika Waititi; Screenplay by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost; Starring Chris Hemsworth, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson; Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material; In wide US release November 3
This review endeavors to avoid major spoilers, though it might contain mild ones.
The third installment of the Thor trilogy sees Thor fighting to save Asgard from Ragnarok, the prophesied end of Asgard. But part of doing that is tying up threads from previous films, including unmasking Loki as the pretend-Odin in Asgard and tracking down the real Odin. But complications arise, and Odin reveals to his sons a daughter that he had. Hela. The Goddess of Death. And she wants the throne. Along the way to save Asgard, Thor finds himself on Sakaar, teaming up with the Hulk, and pretty much burning everything down.
Even though I quite liked the two previous installments, this, frankly, is the Thor film I've wanted since I was a kid. It blends everything that made the Kirby/Lee/Lieber iterations of Thor with everything that made Walt Simonson's run on the stories great. And every environment looks like it was drawn and colored by either Kirby or Simonson and brought to life under the production design of Dan Hennah and Ra Vincent. But as much as it looks like a comic book, more than any previous Marvel film to date, the structure is that of a classic run of Thor.
I fully expect that someone who has never seen a Marvel movie but knows the characters will have no problem enjoying this with a smile on their face the entire time. It doesn't matter what the larger ramifications for the universe are (and there are large ramifications), this story feels like the beginning of the Simonson run of Thor. And where did Simonson begin? Surtur.
Director Taika Waititi did nothing to shy away from the more epic and mythological elements of the Marvel version of Norse myths. Surtur, a demon of sorts (voiced in the film by Clancy Brown), has always been central to Marvel mythology regarding the destruction of Asgard. It's definitely been tweaked here to fit the structure of this film, all of that is forgivable because it works for the movie. It's a thread of the story that feels like it goes away and comes back five issues later. It's stunning how you can almost break the story of this film into actual beats of a graphic novel and it does it in a way that isn't to the detriment of the film.
His mastery of the visual aspects of the film are impressive as well. As often as the film has a comic book quality, there are times where it has a painterly quality, too. There are more than a few shots that look like they could be framed paintings, sequences that scream "Norse Mythology." These moments arise throughout the film, both in past and present, and are arresting in their quality and allow you to take a moment and revel in their beauty, often in slow motion. But they're never out of place and they never seem egregious. It's almost like they're giving a lesson to other superhero filmmakers in how to use slow motion for maximum effect. And in a movie this short, it's stunning anything could be given room to breathe.
As for Thor, himself, Chris Hemsworth offers his best performance in the role because he's unrestrained and absolutely heroic. He's not the character who's doing the transforming, per se. The other characters around him are those coming to terms with their issues. One, in particular, steals every scene she's in; Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie. But Thor is largely the character who has grown out of every previous outing in the Marvel universe. Yes, he knows his limitations, he knows his strengths, he knows what must be done, he just needs a little bit of a self-confidence boost here and there, especially when dealing with the events of the film.
Fan Favorite Tom Hiddleston returns as Loki, who is as wonderful here as a villain-cum-reluctant-hero. It gives us a different dimension to a character that we'd loved to hate, and now we love to love. The relationship between Loki and Thor might be the character aspect that develops most in the film, and we're rewarded for it.
For her part, Cate Blanchett owns every scene she's in as Hela, though she's given relatively little to do. When she does get something to do, she does it with aplomb, as though she's born to play roles like this. Some might balk at her character being part of a secret history of Asgard, but this is part and parcel with the storytelling done in the comics over so many years. In the comics, Odin gave his eye to erase Thor's memory of his previous lives so that when the story of Siegfried was told and Siegfried was resurrected as Thor, it fit everything that had come after. This is exactly how Odin works in the comics, so complaints about Thor randomly having an older sister that no one has ever heard of aren't founded in a knowledge of the character, comic, or medium.
The film really has two villains, though. Blanchett's Hela is the first, Jeff Goldblum's Grandmaster is the second. Where Hela is terrifying and interested in laying waste to Asgard and bringing an emotional gravitas to the film, the Grandmaster is a stuttering fop that you can't help but want on the screen more. Goldblum channels everything that makes him charming and puts it in the body of an Eternal that just loves to see things hit each other. There couldn't have been a more perfect choice in his casting.
A bold choice was made to pair Thor with Hulk in a way that feels organic and honors many of the comics of the past. Mating Simonson's Surtur Saga with Planet Hulk might not be something that seems to make a logical sense, but it works here. And what better team up can there be than the Asgardian meathead and the smartest scientist in the world in the body of the dumbest hulk in the galaxy? Their comedy builds off of their antagonistic relationship and offers some of the biggest laughs in the movie as well as the biggest fights. This is how you have two superheroes fighting in a film. The title might as well have been Thor v. Hulk and could have been a masterclass for any other filmmakers looking to pit one hero against another.
Hulk and Loki are opposite ends of Thor's allies the same way Grandmaster and Hela are opposite ends of his foes. Hulk/Banner provides the laughs and Loki provides the gravitas and constant suspicion of betrayal.
Other parts of the Marvel Universe make their way into the film as well and are used to perfection. Even the specter of Tony Stark and the shadow of Black Widow. Dr. Strange in particular made me excited to see what his part will be in the upcoming Infinity War. Watching him use his powers is amazing and, though he's in this film for less than a couple of minutes, he earns one of the film's best moments.
The film made very few missteps, and marched along at a steady beat, offering thrills, epic action, and laughs. But the few missteps it did make nagged at me. Karl Urban's Skurge was played for laughs that, perhaps, we didn't need, and the cavalier handling of the Warriors Three was upsetting on one hand. On the other hand, it certainly established how dire the situation was, so I can't fault the film too much for it.
I also felt teased by the inclusion of Beta Rey Bill's head on the Grandmaster's Tower. Just give us Bill. That's all I want.
Waititi should feel proud of the movie he's made. And I know he's talked about not being able to do a Star Wars movie because it would be too weird, but that's exactly why it would be great to see him do a Star Wars movie. Star Wars needs a little bit of weird and Thor: Ragnarok proves he has the chops to do it. And the character he plays, Korg, manages to steal every scene he's in. He somehow managed to get every actor to work hard to steal every scene they're in, and the result is a film that is impressively watchable.
This film is definitely in the running for the best film Marvel has made. Is it better than Civil War or Winter Soldier? I don't know. But it feels pretty damn perfect. And I haven't had that much in a movie theater in a long time. It brought the right amount of laughter and tears and spectacle that made sense, wrapped up in a script that worked. And really, what more can we ask for?