If I’m being up front, I’m not a big fan of Marvel Studios. It’s the law of diminishing returns; Thor: Ragnarok is the seventeenth film to date in the MCU (that’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, in case you’ve been under a rock). James Bond took 25 years to get to this point, Marvel has done it in nine, and that’s ignoring the various television series and other extended tie-ins. At a certain point it can’t not start to feel recycled and endless (did I mention the third Avengers movie is called Infinity War?) and personally, that point had come and gone by the first Avengers movie, five years ago.
But sometimes within that cycle of big CGI explosions and stupid one-liners there are opportunities for filmmakers to put an individualistic spin on the material. This film is one of those opportunities realized and is stronger for it. Director Taika Waititi (heretofore best known for horror-spoof What We Do in the Shadows) leans in to the absurdity of the whole thing with a sharp comic sensibility. That instinct adds enough wit and weight to the bloat of the film’s inheritance to at least make it sort of enjoyable.
The story doesn’t really matter that much because you know it already, but alright, particulars. In this case, the big bad villain that shows up and threatens the world (Asgard, this time) is Hela (a gothed-up Cate Blanchett, clearly having a lot of fun), heretofore unmentioned, exiled sister of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who I guess isn’t dead. She kicks her brothers out of town and takes over, gleefully killing everyone that Heimdall (Idris Elba, actually getting to do something in this entry) can’t protect. Meanwhile said brothers somehow end up on trash planet, which is presided over by a dandyish Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, also clearly having a lot of fun). The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is also there for some reason, and has become a champion in the fighting pits where Thor gets dumped by scavenger/bounty hunter/something Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson, easily the most earnest performance in the movie), who might just have a connection to Asgard herself and… well, you can pretty much figure out what happens from there.
Most of the Marvel movies have had a pretty light tone, but it’s clear from the opening sequence that this one is going to have a particular emphasis on comedy in a way that even Guardians of the Galaxy did not; a temporarily imprisoned Thor keeps interrupting a monologuing monster while he spins awkwardly from a dangling chain. The moment is conversational and generically self-aware and sets the tone for a lot of what’s to follow. An apex of this kind of reflexive humor comes as Thor returns to Asgard where Loki, in the disguise of Odin (Anthony Hopkins, getting a paycheck) watches a stage production (featuring a cameo by Sam Neill, by the way) of his own death that basically parodies the end of the previous Thor movie (2013’s Thor: The Dark World). Waititi and writers Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost clearly know how absurd the whole affair is and are having fun with it.
To their credit, they also seem to be trying to do something relevant with it as well. The tagline that gets repeated a couple of times toward the end of the film, “Asgard is a people, not a place” (which I don’t think really counts as a spoiler), and the events of the climax (which would) point toward a humanist perspective on the ongoing real-world refugee crisis. Hela’s frustration with Odin’s revisionist history of their home is loaded with post-colonial subtext (“Where do you think all this gold came from,” she pointedly asks her brother). The Grandmaster’s balking at the term “slaves” (he prefers “prisoners with jobs,” a euphemism delivered by actress Rachel House whose small part as his assistant Topaz is also a highlight) rings similarly with satirical force.
But the social commentary is blunted a bit by the… Marvelness of it. By that I mean the film is typically overlong (130 minutes) and loaded with enough weightless CGI to make (fellow New-Zealander) Peter Jackson blush. Despite a couple impressive tableau moments (the Valkyries’ ride against Hela, Thor’s leaping attack on the Bifrost bridge), it feels much like its predecessors in the hollowness of its massive spectacle, without any real sense of menace, danger, or consequence. As part of such a large series, it also suffers from being somewhat incomprehensible without at least a passing familiarity with a lot of the rest of the material–the admittedly funny sequence featuring Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) leaps to mind as an example.
I don’t hate fun or anything, but I am finding myself questioning the point of reviewing this film. Odds are anyone reading this (or any other review) knows whether or not they’re going to see it already, and pretty much exactly what to expect if they do. And even if all the critics in the world completely panned on one of these movies, it’s not like the next five or six haven’t already been made (that’s not an exaggeration, by the way–there are presently 6 more MCU films in various stages of production), so it’s hard to feel like any individual opinion really matters here.
But individual opinions are what I’ve got so here goes: this move really didn’t need to exist. But it does, and as far as the frenetic baubles of the MCU go, it’s one of the more enjoyable ones, up there in the top rung of the pack with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. If you’re not sick of superhero nonsense at this point (which apparently many people are not), but are discerning about which ones to see (are there such people?) this one should go on that list. If you are sick of superhero nonsense, there’s nothing here that’s going to change your mind. Since I kinda fall in that category, the most appealing aspect of this film was seeing a promising independent filmmaker get such a big break. But I did laugh.