[Review] Thor: Ragnarok

written by Kate Spencer

I saw three movies this week: a fantasy adventure with gods and monsters, a rousing action sci-fi space film, and a crappy comedy with jokes so juvenile they could have come from the mouths of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. All three of those films were Thor: Ragnarok. Spoilers below the cut.

The previous paragraph could easily lead you to believe I didn’t like the movie. That’s not the case. If I’m going to sum up overall enjoyment, I had a good time. Two-thirds of that movie are fantastic, but the other third tries its best to spoil the rest. It would be like if I spent this review going over the subtle nuances of the film and every five sentences included a butt joke. It’s as if the writers threw scenes together that on their own were fine, but in sequence were a night and day tone shift. What’s good is really good and what’s bad is just awful. I’ve never been this mixed on a Marvel film before.

Let’s start with what I liked and what really works. The main cast is great. Chris Hemsworth is playing a very different Thor from the other films, this one being more jokey and genre-savvy. For most of the film he’s once again stranded away from Asgard without his hammer, but he still has his godlike abilities. It’s great to see a film that remembers that Thor isn’t “God of Hammers” (as one scene puts it) but the God of Thunder. Tom Hiddleston is always great as Loki, even if it’s all retread ground at this point for the character. We know he’s going to try to be buddies with his brother again; we know he’s going to betray him again. Hulk talks nearly as much as his alter ego Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in this and it offers small glimpses into the character’s personality. He’s not all smashy; Hulk has desires and aspirations of his own. He doesn’t exactly have a Disney Princess musical number, but there’s a decent chat between Thor and Hulk which does an okay job of explaining why he’s in no hurry to return to Earth. Finally there’s Valkyrie, played by Tessa Thompson, who’s a hard-drinking badass who play-fights with Hulk, captures warriors to fight for the Grandmaster, and has a tragic backstory. All of that and no name! No seriously, they only ever call her “Scrapper 142″ or…”hey you”. She’s referred to as a valkyrie, but not called that. She has a good arc of coming back from her self-imposed exile to fight for Asgard again.

On the villain side of things, you have two main villains and a few henchmen. Cate Blanchett’s menacing Hela is supposed to be the main villain, but she shows up once in the beginning, the film cuts back to her a few times as she’s conquering Asgard, and then finally in the third act we’re given an actual confrontation between her and Thor. Blanchett does well with what she’s given, but I don’t think the writers knew what to do with her for most of the film. They set up a villain strong enough to beat Thor, but made her so strong that Thor couldn’t be around her for the majority of the runtime.

The villain with more screentime is the Grandmaster, played by Jeff Goldblum. He’s charismatic, ruthless, and narcissistic, setting himself up as a leader to be worshipped while people fight for his amusement. Goldblum plays the role exactly like you would expect Goldblum to play a role like that and it’s very entertaining. Karl Urban’s Skurge is initially a comedic character, but when faced with either death or servitude, he chooses to serve Hela as her executioner. He doesn’t do so gladly, though, and the hesitation and conflict is evident on his face in every scene he’s in. It’s the most subtle performance in the film, which isn’t saying a whole lot, but given how any other character would just be written saying what they’re feeling, it’s like Skurge is from an entirely different film.

The locations in the film are great. Asgard is still one of the most impressive locations in the MCU, even if it is all CGI. The Grandmaster’s planet Sakaar ranges from the slum-like lower regions to the grand, polished, and lavish heights of the Grandmaster’s…palace? I guess it’s a palace. There are only three scenes that take place on Earth and very little time is spent there, opting instead for more grand and alien environments. Of course this leads to a lot of CGI, but the technology has evolved enough that it at least looks passable. (If your argument is that the giant Norse fire demon doesn’t look real enough I honestly don’t know what to tell you. I’d love to see your real world point of reference because that would be awesome as Hel.) There is some pretty awful blending with backgrounds going on in the Earth scenes, but as I understand it, a couple of those were redone at the last minute to better fit the seriousness of the scene – which is baffling considering what I’m about to talk about next.

The part that made this film a difficult sit was the complete obliviousness to tone and continuity, as well as its utter disregard for any of the previous films, their characters, or their themes. I’ve been light on spoilers so far but from here on I’ll be going more in depth because there’s really no talking about how this film screws up those things without delving deep into spoilers.

Tone is a tricky thing in any film that’s trying to mix action, drama, and comedy. Thor: Ragnarok tries to mix all three and then it thinks there’s not enough comedy so it dumps even more of that on top. The comedy isn’t unwelcome, and in a lot of places it really works. The Thor vs. Hulk fight made me laugh out loud at least four times. The problem was some of the less subtle comedy and where and how it was used.

The first example that comes to mind is the very end when Ragnarok has begun and the heroes are on a ship watching Asgard burn to ruin. Korg, a Sakaarian, looks on and tries to comfort the Asgardians on the ship by saying (in a ridiculously soft-spoken voice) that as long as the foundation stands, they can rebuild. It’s poetic and evocative of a theme that was introduced in the final battle, that Asgard is not a place, it’s a people. As long as the people live, Asgard lives. The people are the foundation on which Asgard can be rebu–oh wait, no. That was only a setup for the ground Asgard is on, the literal foundation, exploding into atoms. Korg retracts his statement. Some of the audience laughed. I didn’t. What should have been a genuinely somber and bittersweet scene was ruined by the film having no idea how to hold on a moment and let the audience feel an emotion without interrupting it with the sound of a wet fart. What makes that scene even worse is the director himself, Taika Waititi, is the voice of Korg.

That’s not the only scene Korg completely ruins. When Thor is about to enter the arena for the first time, he’s telling Korg about his hammer and how he lost it. Korg says “It sounds like you had a close relationship with this hammer and that losing it was like losing a loved one.” This is the director of this film telling you what the character is feeling in lieu of actually having a scene that conveys it organically*. I can think of at least six ways I could have conveyed that, all without dialogue.

The continuity of emotion is another big issue. Maintaining an emotion from scene to scene is important, and changing that emotion can be tricky when it’s going from something serious to something funny. Thor: Ragnarok doesn’t even make an attempt in some really glaring spots. We’ll go from a scene of Hela slaughtering an entire army of Asgardians and a major character from the previous films to Thor riding on a chair through a tunnel introducing him to Sakaar in a theme park attraction kind of way mixed with the spooky riverboat tunnel scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The scene is meant to evoke the latter more, and I know this because the music is “Pure Imagination”. It’s a scene that’s meant to be wacky…right after we’ve seen the terrifying main villain of the film cold-heartedly kill people.

I know perfectly well why scenes like those were put together. As I mentioned before, to avoid throwing Thor into fights he couldn’t possibly win they had to keep Hela far away from him and far away from the main plot. But we needed scenes for Hela. We needed to be reminded she was still there and still a threat, so we check up on her now and then. Where that falls apart is when the B plot is so far removed tonally and thematically from the main plot that they’re like two entirely different movies.

I touched briefly on the characters from the previous films, but I really want to get across how much of a disservice is done to them and the themes and growth of our main character. Starting with the latter, this film gives us a reckless, immature, and overconfident Thor that the character should have grown out of in the first movie. That was his entire arc in the first movie. He learned to fight with his head and not just the hammer. Yet in this film, he acts childishly around Hulk when the green giant doesn’t want to leave Sakaar. He sees the loss of Mjolnir as the loss of his power even though he can still go toe-to-toe with the Hulk. And he’s downright nasty and manipulative toward his allies at times. At the end of the film he has to be reminded by Odin (in a vision) that he’s the God of Thunder because he thought those powers came from the hammer – even though he’d just used them on Hulk a day earlier.

Speaking of Odin, he dies. His death is what freed Hela from her imprisonment (BTW Hela is Odin’s daughter but she was too power-hungry so he locked her up and now no one remembers her because plot convenience). There’s a decent death scene where Odin sits on a cliff in Norway, admiring the view with his two sons, before fading away into sparkles. Why did he die? I don’t know. Thor seems to think it’s because Loki imprisoned him on Earth at the end of Thor: The Dark World but mostly he just dies from terminal stage four plot necessity. If I sound like I’m making light of what should be the tragic death of a beloved character, I’m practically giving a heartfelt eulogy compared to how the movie treats it. Thor barely mentions Odin post-death and seems more upset about the loss of his hammer and Hela being loose. I think the character who talks about Odin the most is Hela herself and she hated him.

That said, Odin got all of the love and respect in the universe compared to other characters from the first two films. Jane Foster is brushed off with a line about her dumping Thor and then Thor denying it because he totally wasn’t dumped. It was a mutual thing. In fact, he dumped her. He had to spend more time focusing on his music, and he just needed his space, brah. Don’t worry, the actual line was way more cringeworthy. Sif isn’t even given that much – there’s no mention of her in the film whatsoever which in hindsight, might be a good thing because the Warriors Three are unceremoniously butchered by Hela. Fandral and Volstagg may actually spend more time onscreen as corpses than they do as living characters after Hela kills both the moment she exits the Bifrost. Hogun actually lives long enough to have a line or two before he’s impaled right before the “Pure Imagination” scene. Thor never asks about any of them and they’re completely forgotten outside of the scenes they’re in. They’re only in the movie to die horribly so we know that Hela is a badass. Their deaths serve no purpose beyond that and have zero impact on anything.

Apart from the more glaring problems, I also took issue with some of the humor used in the film. Most was subtle and well-done, but there were a few jokes that were either repeated far too often or were just too juvenile to enjoy. Examples: Thor tries to calm Hulk down with the “lullaby” from Avengers: Age of Ultron during their fight in the arena. It seems to work for a moment but then Hulk grabs Thor and smashes him into the ground repeatedly as a callback to the “puny god” scene from the first Avengers film. That was genuinely funny…but then every interaction Thor has with an angry Hulk or an anxious Banner has him repeating the “the sun is getting low” line to calm him down and it’s ruined as a joke and as a callback. The other one that annoyed me was that the wormhole from Sakaar to Asgard is called “The Devil’s Anus”. Haha, butt joke! Got a mild laugh out of me. Then they keep repeating it over and over. How many times can you say “Devil’s Anus” before it stops being funny? The script thinks it’s about six or more. I think it’s one.

I’m just really mixed on this film. What it did well, it did very well. What it did badly, it did horribly. It’s not my least favorite Marvel Studios film to date, but I wouldn’t put it in the top five. If it was the worst, even the less than great Marvel Studios films are still good. The bad isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, but it does make it a tough sit – which is really unfortunate, because I think the good parts of the movie do outweigh the bad. I think I would have preferred two separate movies: Thor: Ragnarok focusing more on Asgard and Hela, and Planet Hulk focusing on Sakaar and the Grandmaster. Putting all of that in one movie did a disservice to both plots.

If you’re a fan of the Marvel Studios films, go see this one. If you’re specifically a fan of the Thor films…I’m not sure if this is your movie. There are Thor elements in there, but they’re trying a little too hard to make this another Guardians of the Galaxy to the detriment of what makes Thor what it is. It’s not one of the Marvel Studios films I’m in a hurry to watch again. I think if I did watch it again, I would be skipping over large parts of the film to watch specific scenes and avoid others. Again: what’s good is Hela good, what’s bad is Hela bad.

Kate Spencer can be reached on Twitter and scolded for that last pun at @WearyKatie.

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