Why would anyone like Thor? Marvel super heroes are known for being more grounded than their DC counterparts; oftentimes they are people with tragic origins or who find their powers become more of a burden than a blessing. Spider-Man can’t balance crime fighting with his real life, Iron Man is a deeply flawed person under his armor, Bruce Banner has little control over the Hulk. But Thor (at least the contemporary incarnation of the character) is different. He is a supremely powerful, immortal, god(-like alien). Where do you go with that? What’s the appeal?
The answer lies in the 1980s, just like Ready Player One told us. Back then, over-the-top blockbusters like Big Trouble in Little China and Commando showed just how entertaining an invincible, muscular man with a sense of humor could be. Now, I liked the fish-out-of-water comedy of the first movie and the Lord of the Rings by way of Star Wars thrills of the second, but even I can admit that this is the best fit for the character and Thor: Ragnarok is among the strongest MCU movies.
After a disturbing vision during the brief Age of Ultron (more like week of Ultron, am I right) Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been searching for a way to save his home of Asgard from some looming, unknown threat. So basically, the first 20 minutes of this movie are catching up with the stuff we’ve seen in the credits of the last few MCU movies – Loki replacing Odin, Thor meeting Dr. Strange, yada yada yada. Eventually he finds out that the evil he’s been worried about is an Asgardian called Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death, who destroys Thor’s hammer and strands him and his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), on a garbage planet called Sakaar.
The best parts of Ragnarok take place on Sakaar, which reveals itself to be ruled by a eccentric Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) who keeps the people in line Roman-style with gladiator matches. Thor is captured by a mysterious and powerful woman (Tessa Thompson) and ends up being forced to fight the Grandmaster’s champion: The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). How the Hulk managed to get across the galaxy in an airplane is a question probably best not asked.
Regardless of how they got there, this creates an opportunity to ground the MCU’s most over-the-top characters and, believe it or not, it works. Thor has conversations with the Hulk (as in not puny Banner) that, for the first time, develop the giant green guy as a person. Loki’s mischievous ways are pushed to their limit, revealing what perhaps is the insecurity underlying his schemes. Thor, who’s had these crises of conscience before, becomes a jolly sounding board for everyone’s strife. But the movie never loses it’s comedic sensibilities, making this whole section of the film a delight.
It almost feels like the middle of Ragnarok is a separate movie from the Thor sequel that bookends it. Sakaar is fun and colorful, while the rest of the movie looks much more like the Thor scenery we’re used to. I have no trouble imagining there were rewrites after Taika Waititi was brought on to direct, stepping in for Alan Taylor. Waititi has also said he encouraged a lot of improvisation on set, which probably helped develop the movie’s comedic tone. But the weight of this franchise, the fact that the title was announced years ago, meant that no matter what, the movie had to hit some beats.
Where that hurts the most is with Hela, who ends up being a disappointingly conventional MCU villain. She has a great look, and Cate Blanchett is obviously having fun with the part, but Hela just isn’t much more than the stock doomsday fetishist we’re used to. Which is doubly a shame because with her as the main villain, we don’t get to spend as much time with the Grandmaster or his bodyguard, who’s played by Rachel House somewhat in the mold of her child welfare worker character from Waititi’s last film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople. The end of Ragnarok is the type of movie we were promised years ago, and it’s just not as good as the other stuff.
But that’s OK, a movie that hits this many highs is allowed a few lows. Plus, I feel like I’m kind of overstating the dichotomy, it’s not like the first act doesn’t have funny, great moments and it’s not like the last act doesn’t have goosebumps-inducing action. I really liked Ragnarok. I really liked all three funny MCU movies this year, and this one may have been the best.