By rights, marvel should be slowing down and flagging a bit by now. Thor: Ragnarok is the seventeenth movie in the MCU, which has been going for a good nine years. No one would be surprised if things were becoming stale by now. Yet somehow, this year has seen a run of films that have just gotten better and better. After the excellence of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, Taika Waititi has created what may be my comicbook movie of the year.
Waititi is a real left-wing choice to direct a Marvel movie. Only Edgar Wright seemed more of an odd fit, and we saw how well that partnership ended. Nothing in Waititi's previous work, least of all his celebrated What We Do in the Shadows, makes you think “this guy needs to do a superhero movie.” In a weird way, though, he's a perfect choice, and what he does here with Norse mythology and operatic superheroics is much like his deconstruction of vampire lore and gothic romantic literature in Shadows. Hats off, too, to the writing trio of Yost, Kyle and Pearson, who put together a script that, for the most part, manages a fine balance of the grandly dramatic and the overtly comedic.
It's obvious that Marvel wanted to grab some of the success of Guardians of the Galaxy in restyling the Thor movies, which haven't generally been the most popular of the ongoing MCU series (although I've loved both previous instalments). Ragnarok explores the cosmic side of the Thor comics, something that the previous films have largely overlooked, as well as accepting just how ridiculous a character he is. Thor is at his best when simultaneously an amazing hero and a figure of fun, as he is in the best moments of 2011's Thor and in Avengers Assemble, and it seems film-makers have finally realised what excellent comic instincts Chris Hemsworth has. (Say what you like about Ghostbusters, Hemsworth made a one-joke character work far better than he should have there.) Ragnarok combines Thor's mythical side with the galactic comedy of Guardians, and also jumps on the same retro bandwagon to great effect. After all, the eighties are the decade right now, and the Masters of the Universe, synth-rock, Led Zeppelin mix just work perfectly. The other obvious comparison is the 1980 Flash Gordon movie, and Waititi has said that really Queen should have provided the songs for this film, were it not impossible for obvious reasons.
As with all the best superhero films, Ragnarok benefits from an exceptional cast who give their all in playing these absurdly over-the-top characters. Tom Hiddleston grins that grin to maximum effect throughout, although his usurping of the Asgardian throne is dealt with far more quickly than we might have expected, and he's so perfect as Loki that he can nail the character both as out-and-out villain and shifty ally. After a fair few ineffective and underwhelming villains (in spite of some excellent actors) Marvel has come out on top this year with its baddies, and Cate Blanchett as Hela, Goddess of Death is the best of the lot. Not only does Blanchett look incredible in the costume (damn, now my goth thing is back), she drips with menace and contempt. As secondary villain the Grandmaster, Jeff Goldblum basically plays Jeff Goldblum, but frankly, would you want it any other way? Then there's Karl Urban as Skurge the Executioner, somehow looking exactly like the comics character, clearly having a whale of a time as the scurvy thug.
On the heroic side of things, we have Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, who is just stunningly good as the tough, beautiful, drunken warrior woman. She's a perfect foil for Hemsworth's Thor, a far better match as a potential love interest than either Jane or Sif (both of whom hero worship him too much), and I'm so glad we'll be seeing more of her in Infinity War. A fun cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange makes the brief terrestrial scenes feel as wonderfully odd as the scenes in other realms, while Anthony Hopkins makes his surprisingly brief appearance as Odin his best in the role yet.
And then there's the Hulk. The idea of a Planet Hulk film never really appealed to me, no matter how much fans clamoured for it. I mean, I love monsters, I really do, but the idea of two hours of green CGI musclemen pummelling each other seems tiresome in the extreme. Making it part of a larger storyline, though, is a brilliant move, and dumping Thor in the middle of it is a stroke of minor genius. Cutting him and his pomposity down to size by leaving him reduced and defeated is, of course, part of the reason that initial Thor storyline worked so well, and he needed a dose of that again. Thor is at his best when he doesn't have his hammer. His weirdly tender interplay with the Hulk is a winning factor for the film, and Mark Ruffalo is as perfectly cast as ever as the uncomfortable Banner, having to rediscover his balance all over again after two years in Hulk mode. The Hulk's chattier than we're used to on film, but his intelligence has always fluctuated in the comics, and it's reasonable that he would have developed somewhat given longer to learn and explore his existence.
Sakaar is an incredible location, a cesspit of a planet in an unstable region of space/time, where the passage of time is unreliable and wormholes dump miscreants without hope or warning. It's exactly the sort of place you'd expect the Guardians to turn up, and they probably will at some point when they want to link the series together. (In fact, the time dilation on Sakaar would be a good way of syncing up Star-Lord's timeline to the Avengers movies, if need be.) The planet features a colurful bunch of monsters, although the standout is, of course, is the rock-man Korg, played by the director himself (although at first we thought it might be Rhys “Murray” Darby, such is the intense Kiwi-ness).
Bookending the cosmic hijinks is Ragnarok itself, the end and rebirth of Asgard and the ultimate battle of Norse mythology. As a huge mythology buff I adore this aspect of the film, and the storyline, via the comics, sticks surprisingly closely to the legendary sources. Naturally, there are some differences even before you chuck all the spaceships in – Hela is Loki's daughter, rather than Odin's, an aspect that might stem more from the character Angela than Hela herself – but the bulk of the material is linked quite strongly to Norse mythology. And in any case, any movie that not only brings Surtur and Fenris to the big screen, but has the Hulk punch them both in the face, is a winner in my book.
Observations, questions, spoilers:
Where was Lady Sif during all this? She's conspicuous by her absence. Have I missed a development in the MCU? It's been a while since I watched Agents of SHIELD, did they do something to her? Still, I'm glad she didn't meet the same fate as the Warriors Three.
That big-ass spaceship at the end? Thanos, of course. I'm guessing this leads straight into Avengers: Infinity War, especially as he'll have unfinished business with Loki (who also probably has the Tesseract in his pocket).
There's no way we've seen the last of Hela. Apart from the fact that she's practically immortal, she's the goddess of death, and if there's one thing that Thanos loves, it's death. In the comics, his mad conquest is all to impress the personification of Death itself, with whom he is besotted. Given that comicbook movies and TV often simplify matters by conflating characters, I suspect he will have a thing for Hela in Infinity War.
I'd also expect to see the Grandmaster again. He is, after all, the Collector's brother, and Del Toro is expected to appear in either part one or two of Infinity War.
Lovely touch explaining away that continuity howler by brushing off the Infinity Gauntlet in the Asgardian vaults as a fake. I also loved the gigantic stone carvings of Beta Ray Bill and Bi-Beast on Sakaar.
The extreme eighties-ness of the film is not lessened by Surtur and Thor continually referring to the Eternal Flame. However, the Bangles do not appear.
One of the funniest moments in the film is a play in the Asgardian court, in which Luke Hemsworth portrays Thor and Sam Niell portrays Odin. We were too busy going "Oh my god, that's Sam Niell!" to notice that Loki was portrayed by an uncredited Matt Damon. (One note: with the Hemsworth brothers, Blanchett, Urban, and Neill, this has to be the most antipodean version of Asgard ever imagined, but then, they did hire a Kiwi to make the film.)