(2017—Director: Taika Waititi)
(out of 5 stars)
“Asgard is not a place, it’s a people. And its people need your help.” — Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to Thor (Chris Hemsworth)
“I have been FALLING for thirty minutes!” — Loki (Tom Hiddleston), after emerging from a realm of free fall
Potential spoilers below
If one were to make a list of prominent New Zealand filmmakers that does not include the name “Peter Jackson”, writer-director Taika Waititi would soon come to mind. In anticipation of this seventeenth entry into the ever-popular Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the third installment centering on the Asgardian god of thunder, I chose to visit Waititi’s two previous films. 2014’s vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (which Waititi and comedian Jemaine Clement both wrote, directed, and starred in) had me rolling on the floor in laughter. Afterwards, Waititi’s 2016 adventure dramedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople impressed me with its effortless handling of understated comedy with lighthearted melancholia. Waititi’s absence in the writing team for Thor: Ragnarök suggests a smaller directorial influence than that of Jon Watts and Spider-Man: Homecoming from this past summer. Nevertheless, Waititi and his cast and crew overcome an imperfect script and escape from the other end through the sheer force of improvisational energy.
Ever since the Battle of Sakovia in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, Asgardian god of thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been scouring the galaxy for Infinity Stones. Upon his return home, he is startled to find Loki (Tom Hiddleston), his presumed-dead adopted brother and god of mischief. Loki has been ruling Asgard under the guise of their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), whose whereabouts are unknown. Thor and Loki find their dying father in Norway. Odin’s death triggers the release of Hela (Cate Blanchett), their long-imprisoned sister and goddess of death. Hela destroys Thor’s hammer and strands him and Loki on the garbage planet Sakaar. A bounty hunter and former Asgardian Valkyrie guard (Tessa Thompson, Creed) sells Thor as a gladiator fighter to the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), the planet’s giddy ruler. Thor has no choice but to fight in the Grandmaster’s Contest of Champions for his freedom.
What to do, then, when the reigning champion is the Hulk, his former ally and fellow Avenger?
The Thor trilogy pales in comparison to the Iron Man and Captain America trilogies and is only at its best when focusing on Thor and Loki’s torn brotherhood. Ragnarök does bring Thor, Loki, their fellow Asgardians, and others to the start of next May’s Avengers: Infinity War and the character handling is stronger. Still, if I had to point to Ragnarök’s biggest weaknesses, I would first point to Cate Blanchett’s Hela. Blanchett does sample the improvisational spirit pervading the film, but her Hela remains another bland world-conqueror and it does not help that the story sidelines her for much of the film’s middle act. The opening scene and its murky and disgusting CGI reminiscent of Thor: The Dark World (perhaps the MCU’s weakest installment to date) gives the film a rather rocky start, not to mention a long-winded way to provide for the final battle’s decisive move. Finally, the story handles several characters from past Thor films in unceremonial fashions. Anthony Hopkins has fun pretending to act as Tom Hiddleston pretending to act as Anthony Hopkins in an early scene, before exiting the film in a way that is equal parts dignified and hasty. Even worse are the exits of the Warriors Three. Upon her arrival on Asgard, Hela dispatches Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) and Fandral (Zachary Levi) without so much as permitting even a line from either of them, whereas Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) at least goes down fighting in a later scene. Moreover, the writing team forgot to insert an explanation for the absence of Sif (Jaimie Alexander, whose schedule for NBC’s Blindspot prevented her appearance).
Beyond these flaws, Ragnarök is a surprising delight and becomes the best Thor film by default. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 from earlier this year stumbled to balance its attractive visuals and soundtrack with the father-son reunion at its heart. With Ragnarök, the raw fun derived from the improvised atmosphere on set serves as a formidable combatant against the ever-familiar “universe is at stake” conflict. Chris Hemsworth’s comedic chops underwent trial runs in 2015’s Vacation and 2016’s Ghostbusters (both horrendous Hollywood ventures), and they simply blossom here in Ragnarök. Playing along as Hemsworth’s equal is Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, whose reaction at the arrival of Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is the unexpected highlight of the gladiator scene. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie makes for a sizable Sif substitute, even though the report that her character was bisexual set a needless expectation on the film that Ragnarök barely meets (similar Disney’s Beauty & the Beast remake). Jeff Goldblum remains one of pop culture’s national treasures and playing the Grandmaster as an alien version of himself counters well against Cate Blanchett’s generic villainess.
The breakout supporting character for many is the rock-composed alien gladiator Korg, voiced and performed in a motion-capture suit by director Taika Waititi himself. Waititi intended Korg’s soft-spokenness to emulate the bouncers and toughies of his native New Zealand. That, as well as including other New Zealander actors like Karl Urban (the Star Trek trilogy), Rachel House (Moana, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), and Sam Neill (Jurassic Park), show the director’s deep love and respect for his homeland.
Despite an imperfect script with a less-than-stellar opening, a stock main villainess, and a hasty final battle, Thor: Ragnarök’s thrilling middle parts allow the film to bounce with glee. Moreover, its climax does end up committing to consequences that are both lasting and irreparable—both undervalued traits in any cinematic universe. Director Taika Waititi stayed true to his filmmaking roots while helming this latest MCU installment. Disney and Marvel would do best to hire more improvisation-friendly directors like Waititi and to give them enough creative space to keep their prized cinematic universe fresh, exciting, and worthwhile.
(Parental Note: Thor: Ragnarök has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA “for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material.” It has also been rated 12A by the BBFC for “moderate fantasy violence” and rated A-III (Adults and adolescents) by the Catholic News Service for containing “constant stylized violence with little gore, brief partial nudity, a couple of mild oaths and crude terms, occasional crass language, at least one sexual reference, and mature wordplay.”)
(P.S. Keep an eye out for cameos in The Tragedy of Loki, the obligatory Stan Lee cameo, a mid-credits scene, and a post-credits scene.)