THOR: RAGNAROK Stands Tall Among Marvel's Best Films

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THOR RAGNAROK opens Nov. 2, 2017.

Before I tell you about Marvel’s latest superhero epic, Thor: Ragnarok, let us all get on the same four-color page. There are four parties most interested in this epic culmination of what is at least a trilogy at this point for the God of Thunder:       

  • Comic readers are mad as hatters about minute details. There have been message boards dedicated to how a given mutant’s powers would work in the “real” world. I agree--it is sad sometimes.  They are often the harshest on things a film gets “wrong.”I’m sure they’ll find plenty to nitpick about.
  • General moviegoers have short attention spans and are suffering from superhero fatigue as Marvel and their “Discombobulated Competition” pepper cinéphiles with 5-7 films annually. They don’t care what the comic fans think the film gets wrong or right, because they don’t have any other point of reference for the story and are happy as long as they are entertained.
  • Film critics fall somewhere in between those camps, depending on their predisposition to comic books. They may or may not understand that the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Marvel Comics Universe are different by design and necessity. They may be prone to over-analyzing a performance or a director’s decision, and they often have an unrealistic expectation that every new film they see should somehow reinvent the medium. For example, some critics believe Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2  was too much like the original despite it being the same cast and creative team showing a story that takes place almost directly after the first installment. I know, I don’t get it either. Nobody wants Rocket and Groot in Schindler’s List in Space.
  • Disney doesn’t care because once again a Marvel property is going to turn in revenue more easily quantifiable as “Gross Domestic Product” than simply “dollars.” And aye, verily, as the kids might say, Thor: Ragnarok doth make it rain.

Thor: Ragnarok is easily the best of the Thor trilogy, in large thanks to the exclusion of the mind-numbingly stupid Midgard supporting cast of the previous films. In fact, directo Taika Waititi wastes no time jettisoning more excess baggage, as Sif isn’t present at all (which is actually a shame if you ask me) and the Warriors Three—Zachary “Fandral” Levi, Ray “Volstagg” Stephenson and  Tadanobu “Hogun” Asano,--aren’t in it for more than a scene (which is probably for the better). The big winner for better screen time is Idris Elba’s Heimdall, who was no doubt hungry for something better after his tepid turn in The Dark Tower. Joining him is Tessa Thompson as the long-missing Valkyrie, (Judge) Dredd and Star Trek’s Bones McCoy himself Karl Urban as Skurge the Executioner, and Cate Blanchett as one of Marvel’s best villains yet in the role of Hela, Queen of the Dead. Mark Ruffalo is a welcome addition to the ranks as Bruce Banner/Hulk. As you might expect with the Norse word “Ragnarok” in the title, Odin is not long for the franchise, but is still capably portrayed by the impeccable Sir Anthony Hopkins. Oh, I nearly forgot—Benedict Cumberbatch reprises his spot on Doctor Strange in a scene that expands the credits scene from his own film last year.   

Perhaps for the first time in a Thor movie, the biggest star was…finally…Thor himself. Chris Hemsworth is by now a world-renowned action star with the face and body to make many on Midgard swoon. Yet he often seemed to play second fiddle behind Tom Hiddleston, who’s ridiculously perfect turn as Loki is at least as fantastic as Robert Downy Jr.’s run as Tony “Iron Man” Stark, and steals practically every scene he’s in. In Thor: Ragnarok, Hemsworth gets to really act for a change, pitting Thor’s strength against the Hulk and his wits against a rather frazzled Bruce Banner/uncooperative Hulk, while carefully staying one step ahead of his crafty brother and persuading a down and out Asgardian to join the fight against Hela, which this motley crew can’t even do if they can’t escape the cosmic clutches of the enigmatic Grandmaster, played by the always enigmatic Jeff Goldblum. That’s a lot of sometimes subtle psyche changes, and yet it works because Hemsworth just might be better than anyone gives him credit for. It also works because Taiki Waititi allowed a pretty fair amount of improve from his cast. Marvel took a huge risk with a director who is big in New Zealand but completely unknown in Hollywood. He, in turn, took an even bigger chance by sending the Marvel brass some concept footage which could have easily cost him the job. Instead, he scored a tremendous vote of confidence.

An interesting departure from the first two Thor movies was the method for delivering humor. The original film wasn’t terribly silly, but Thor: the Dark World unfortunately relied on poorly conceived scenes of human scientists and nerds running all over the place in a film that by and large wasn’t funny at all. Josh Dallas was a passable Fandral (of the Warriors Three) in Thor but as much as I love Zachary Levi—Chuck is quite possibly my favorite show of all time—he was just never really a good fit and often felt like a silly sidebar. In either case the inclusion of Thor’s boon companions with absolutely nothing to add to the plot just simply never worked. Giving Thor himself more wit and scaling back his supporting cast served to make him a far more interesting character. Likewise Mark Ruffalo plays Hulk and Banner with a freaked out, almost childlike air about him (them?) that played well against Hemsworth. Some critics will complain about this being too big of a departure from what’s been established in the other films, but I call shenanigans. The first two films in the Thor subset simply weren’t as fun to watch as Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, or even Ant-Man. This one stands up there with Guardians of the Galaxy in terms of humor, action and Easter eggs galore.

More importantly, even if you think “By One-Eyed Odin, why would they make Norse gods funny?”, Thor: Ragnarok is still more fun than its predecessors because Waititi found the perfect balance between Thor and Loki. Both do what they are destined to do, but there is some character development here that moves the worst step-brothers in Norse mythology in surprising new directions, leading to some really intriguing possibilities for The Avengers: Infinity War grand finale that over a decade of Marvel movies have been leading up to. Yes, there are post credit scenes. No, I won’t tell you about them. Yes, 3D still sucks. Non-spoiler but incredibly perfect: the biggest scenes in the film are set to Led Zeppelin (I’ll let you guess which song) and it’s fantastic. There’s even a scene where they invoke the Boat Ride scene from the classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” I can’t say enough good things about Taika Waititi’s refreshing take on the Thor. He pays homage to the best of the comic stories by including Skurge, who doesn’t quite stand alone at Gjallerbru but fans of Walt Simonson’s legendary run will love the nod. He deftly escapes some of the dead end plot lines Alan Taylor left behind in The Dark World. He gives Thor a much needed character boost, humanizes the Hulk, creates a cool new version of the Valkyrie while still subtly acknowledging the blond Brunnhilde from the comics, and doesn’t miss a beat with his use of Doctor Strange. Heck, I’m ready to give him an Oscar nomination for Best Director because Waititi has done the impossible: he created a movie that Marvel Comics fanboys, casual movie buffs, jaded critics and Disney accountants should all find lots to love in Thor: Ragnarok.

5.0 / 5.0