Midlife Crisis Crossover calls Thor: Ragnarok The Greatest Thor Movie in World History!
Granted, it’s for lack of competition, but still. Director Kenneth Branagh’s opening kickoff set the tone for the shiny city and cast of Asgard and gave the Marvel Cinematic Universe one of its core creations in the form of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, saddled with a big stupid brother that his dad made him bring along. The neglected middle child Thor: The Dark World was a forgettable playground romp that remains my least favorite MCU entry to date and left me with virtually no impression except tremendous pity for former Doctor Christopher Eccleston. I had to go reread my own take on it to recall that I liked all the Loki parts, and my wife had to remind me whatever happened to Rene Russo because I totally forgot. Sorry, I mean “forget”. I still can’t remember her final scenes. At all.
The trilogy now concludes with Ragnarok under the direction of Taika Waititi, one of the few survivors of Ryan Reynolds’ Green Lantern, who went on to a second life as an indie director (my son tells me What We Do in the Shadows is “amazing”). Someone apparently handed the keys to the series to Waititi, told him “go nuts”, walked out of the Marvel Studios mansion leaving him unchaperoned, and asked themselves, “What’s the worst that could happen?” And for the first time in world history, the answer was the complete opposite of an immediate disaster.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Previously on “Thor”: our hero took a weird, producer-mandated detour that escorted him abruptly out of Avengers: Age of Ultron and sent him away on an irrelevant vision quest. Thor’s now back on the scene, but at the worst possible time: dear old dad Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins recovering dignity he lost in Transformers: The Last Knight) is now out of the picture, leaving fabled Asgard an open target for takeover. Cue the arrival of prodigal daughter Hela (Cate Blanchett), goddess of death and new gold standard for Marvel villainy. Hela has daddy issues and a lust for power, both of which she can satisfy by conquering everything and making Asgard tyrannical again.
The ensuing fracas sends Thor hurtling through space onto the faraway planet of Sakaar, where he’s immediately trapped in Space Fight Club and forced to face off in mortal combat against a familiar Avengers teammate — the incredible Hulk (once again Mark Ruffalo). Can Thor escape captivity, save his homeland, and act like a true leading man for once?
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Overseeing the gladiatorial bloodshed is Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster, a spacey mastermind straight out of Marvel’s Contest of Champions limited series of old. Karl Urban is Hela’s sidekick Skurge (known more often in comics as the Executioner), a blue-collar Asgardian bumbler who just wants his contributions to be valued. Tessa Thompson (Creed) is Valkyrie, a former Asgardian warrior who’s lost her way and resigned herself to the hard-knock life of an alcoholic slaver and murderer…but who might be redeemable after all if Thor has anything to say about it, once he quickly forgets her multitude of cumulative sins.
Later in the game, Idris Elba returns as Heimdall, erstwhile guardian of the Bifrost Bridge and third-act savior. Benedict Cumberbatch lends a brief hand as Dr. Strange, whose’s been working on his mastery of the mystic arts. Also back are the Warriors Three — Tadanobu Asano as Hogun for a single worthy fight; and Ray Stevenson and Zachary Levi, future star of DC’s Shazam!, but you might miss them if you blink because Volstagg and Fandral are both treated like chumps.
Clancy Brown, one of the all-time great villain-voice actors, has a small role as the largest character, the fire giant Surtur. Taika Waititi himself takes on a voice role as Korg, a fellow combatant/captive in the Grandmaster’s illicit ring, and an old friend of the Hulk’s from the comics. Rachel House, last heard as the kindly grandma from Disney’s Moana, is the Grandmaster’s head enforcer.
Making his Marvel debut here is Westworld‘s Luke Hemsworth, once the Zeppo of the three Hemsworth brothers, as a member of an Asgardian acting troop, working alongside special guest Sam Neill and an uncredited A-lister you’ll have to see to believe. And, if you’re like me, you still won’t believe until your family has to convince you after the movie.
And of course, Stan Lee is back, this time in a cameo as a space barber.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:
1. Neglected children and former siblings-in-arms can turn really testy and vengeful.
2. Sometimes siblings will forgive an awful lot of your transgressions against them. Other times, not so much.
3. When our leaders and role models eventually pass away, we need to be ready to step up and take over for them.
4. Your government’s possessions are only as safe as the current rulers’ consciences allow. Regime change as a concept has a track record for disappointing status-quo expectations.
5. Be nice and honest with your best friends no matter which face they’re wearing today.
6. Sometimes you have to tear down before you can rebuild.
7. People are more important than places. Places are easier to replace.
8. As Deadpool proved, improv is a perfectly valid choice for super-hero filmmaking. If Jeff Goldblum is involved, do not hold him back.
Nitpicking? It’s a locked-in part of Thor’s MCU mythos that he’ll keep vacillating between excoriating Loki for his past misdeeds and extending a hand in team-up to the kid brother he still begrudgingly loves even though he’s Evil. At least Loki hasn’t murdered anyone for a while. Valkyrie, on the other hand, slays an entire crowd of alien cannibals without blinking, kidnaps and delivers victims for cash without caring that most of them end up dead, and spends much of the movie drunk. Her reluctant return to the side of Asgardian good all but ignores how she’s been spending her last hundreds (thousands?) of years and I’m not convinced it qualifies her for antihero status. But Thor really, really needs her help and they’re basically from the same neighborhood, so that’s that.
Speaking of ostensible “heroes”: it’s strongly implied that the Hulk, who’s been a reigning, willing champion on Sakaar for two years before Thor’s arrival, has been killing his opponents in the arena. Once cooler heads prevail and Thor and Hulk open a dialogue, his body count is never, ever brought up.
And those are just the slaughters of the nameless crowds. Death scenes for characters with names are among the film’s clumsiest bits, for varying spoiler reasons.
Also, intermittent moments of junior-high crassness pretty much seal the deal on the PG-13 rating, just in case murdering aliens wasn’t enough. Best example is a place called “the Devil’s Anus”, which is an actual plot point and not just a single throwaway line. If you were thinking about introducing your kindly grandparents to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this isn’t the place to start, and not just because it’s the 17th in the series. (Content aside, I can’t even hazard a guess as to how newcomers must feel wandering late into the party.)
From the department of minor things bugging me: one extremely cool-looking scene near the end has one character wielding giant guns that could not possibly have been stashed anywhere logical, and contain roughly ten thousand bullets each…
So what’s to like? …but honestly, by that late in the game, it’s too late to think the movie through because Waititi firmly has the audience enthralled in a magical popcorn fervor. Thor: Ragnarok is an exhilarating collection of what would be spectacular double-page panoramas in the comics — often in slo-mo just so you can absorb them and linger over the majestic details — made all the more stunning by the fact that nearly all of them are original compositions and not pastiches of previous drawings (see: Zack Snyder’s 300). Anchoring this bombastic interstellar epic is Chris Hemsworth as a reinvented Thor who’s ten times funnier and less stupid than he used to be because some intelligent writer woke up one morning and realized the titular hero of any given super-hero film should, in fact, be Our Hero, not everyone else’s dimwitted straight man. He can still be bested or taken by surprise, but in general he’s the man with the plan, the warrior out front that everyone else follows, and the king’s oldest son who, three movies later, has proven himself worthy at last.
It also helps that Marvel has surrounded him with one of the best possible ensembles. Cate Blanchett’s menacing Hela, one of the best Marvel movie villains to date, is so off-the-charts that she even makes the character’s implausible Jack Kirby headgear work and terrify. Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner is as believably meek as ever, but he also treats us to a Hulk who talks (like, a lot), thinks, has feelings, and nails his punchlines. Karl Urban’s Skurge could have been an interchangeable henchman, but even he has his shining moments, one of them among the most touching. And then there’s Jeff Goldblum just doing what he does, but in stranger hair and makeup than usual.
If we set aside Ragnarok‘s casual attitude toward the rampant butchering of hordes of faceless aliens, it’s otherwise one of the better Marvel movies to date, and easily Thor’s personal best. Now if they’d just tell us whatever happened to the absent Sif, that would be keen.
How about those end credits? Comics fans will be gratified to know a sizable list of Marvel creators past and present are name-checked in the end credits, along with separate Special Thanks to Walt Simonson, whose classic ’80s Thor run was the backbone for Asgard’s part of the film; and to Greg Pak and Carlo Pagulayan, chief perpetrators of the “Planet Hulk” arc that was the loose template for life on Sakaar. (Related note: I’m disappointed that Korg and Miek were the only members of the Warbound to show up by name, and Miek doesn’t even have any lines, but they’re a good start.)
And to answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there are indeed scenes during and after the Thor: Ragnarok end credits. For those who fled the theater prematurely and really want to know without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy mild spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…after the main cast list and accompanying graphics: Thor and Loki share a conciliatory post-apocalyptic chat aboard the bridge of their super-sized getaway ship and make the mistake of remarking to each other that, y’know, what else could possibly go wrong? Almost on cue, an ominous shadow looms large as a super-duper-sized ship pulls up alongside them. DUN-DUN-DUUUUUUN! To be continued in some other Marvel film! The very, very end of the film confirms Bond-style that “THOR WILL RETURN IN AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR”, so it’s probably continued there and not in Black Panther.
Right before that parting message, those who stuck around are rewarded with one last scene — another special moment with Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster, emerging from his crashed escape pod with two dazed women presumably from his harem, only to find themselves surrounded by armed members of the new Sakaar rebel alliance. The Grandmaster heartily greets them and congratulates them for their awesome revolting, and then congratulates himself for being a really good villain, because that of course is a thing every successful revolution — and movie — needs.