I’m going to dispense with my usual feature film review format as Thor: Ragnarok is an unusual film. Though beautifully designed, funny and confidently directed, the film just left me cold. And by doing so, it is my least favorite superhero movie of the year.
Which, I stress, is not to say that it’s bad. It’s just, like the previous Thor films, hollow.
And as I see colleagues and friends sing its praises, I wonder what film I saw and if, ultimately, I’m just not fond of Thor as a lead character. The film, directed Taika Watiti, picks up two years after Avengers: Age of Ultron, when both the Lord of the Thunder and Bruce Banner disappeared from the Avengers radar. Thor’s search for the Infinity Stones appears to have been waylaid as he deals with other threats to Asgard; despite never once going home after his Ultron departure. At least, that’s how it seems. I may be recalling the end of Ultron incorrectly, but it seemed as though Thor was leaving to deal with trouble at home or find the Infinity Stones. Granted, Ultron is my least favorite of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films overall — and, unlike Ragnarok, I think it’s a legitimately bad movie — so my memory of it may be wrong.
But the ending of that film matters because Ragnarok takes great pains to wrap-up leftover threads from Thor: The Dark World (the dullest of the MCU offerings) while seemingly ignoring Thor’s stated goals from Ultron. It also stresses over and over that two years have passed since that film. That fact is important for the Hulk plot while creating a vacuum for Thor because once he comes to Asgard, he discovers Loki is in masquerading as Odin. A fact he seemingly would’ve uncovered if he’d visit Asgard in the previous two years. The quick resolution of The Dark World‘s stinger scene is genuinely funny and, as always, Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth’s bantering is fun to watch. Yet, I found myself way too preoccupied by Thor’s seeming dereliction of duty to Asgard to truly enjoy their latest reunion.
After a sojourn to Earth and a relatively funny visit to the Sanctum Santorum, Ragnarok‘s plot finally gets going. Loki’s actions in The Dark World allow Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, to escape her imprisonment. She quickly takes control of Asgard while Thor and Loki fall off the Bifrost and land on Sakaar.
Without giving too much else away, Sakaar and its wild, Kirby-inspired art direction, is where the film has truly comes to life. It looks and feels like a movie you want to watch. It’s fast and funny. Jeff Goldblum is genuinely hilarious and perverse as the Grandmaster. Watiti himself steals the movie as rock creature Korg. Tessa Thompson adds a welcome new energy as Valkyrie. Oh, and it delivers on the Thor/Hulk fight you always wanted to see. It’s everything a Marvel spectacle should do on screen. At the same time, though, it still feels rushed and hollow.
That’s definitely a sensation I got whenever the action switch backed to Asgard. Despite Blanchett’s wonderful and seemingly effortless performance as Hela, the Asgard sequences still feel as lifeless as they did in the other Thor movies. Consequently, Hela suffers as a character despite Blanchett’s acting. Watiti play those sequences as confidently as he can for their fantasy aspects — in fact, he might’ve made a great Dark Tower film — but something still feels missing. I have to wonder if, at least for me, Asgard is just a completely flawed concept. It’s consistently my least favorite element of all three Thor films and I came out of Ragnarok thinking the film would’ve been better off if the place had just been destroyed in the first scene and the action picking up two years later with Thor as a warrior in the Contest of Champions.
At the same time, that rewrite wouldn’t remove some of the emptiness in the Sakaar scenes. In that story, Thor tries valiantly to convince Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Valkyrie to join his escape and aid him in freeing Asgard. Hulk, for his part, loves his life on Sakaar. He is adored by its citizens and hailed as a champion. Compared to life on Earth, things are very good for Hulk and Hulk would rather stay right where he is. It’s an interesting conflict I wish the movie had more time to develop. Just as I wished it had more time to develop a growing tension between Hulk and Banner. But maybe that was just set up for their story in Avengers: Infinity War.
Perhaps that’s part of the problem as well. While the Contest of Champions section is a lot of fun — and for as much as I’ve criticized the film, it’s important to point out that it is still very funny — it’s sandwiched inside a plot that is, itself, a Bifrost to the next Avengers film. If the film had stood on its own, like this year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2, Thor: Ragnarok could be the best of the Marvel movies so far. But it lacks the great narrative construction of Homecoming or the emotional stakes of Guardians to rise above the quality of those recent releases, let alone the surprises that were Ant-Man and the first Guardians film (my favorite Marvel movies). And as Thor movies, for me, consistently feel hollow, I have to think it has something to do with their direct ties to the Avengers series and the storyline that will finally conclude next summer in Infinity War.
Maybe after that, Marvel will convince Watiti to return and he can make the full-throated funny and insane film Thor: Ragnarok wants to be.
Thor: Ragnarok is in theaters now.
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