Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
I still recall where I was when the first Thor (2011) trailer dropped. I remember plopping myself down on the bed and tossing on my expensive headphones to watch the clip on my laptop computer. I remember squeezing my then girlfriend’s hands excitedly as I shook with joy at the images on my screen. I was an early convert to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) beginning with that fateful Friday night in 2008 when I stayed late after the credits for Iron Man. The 17th movie in that series, Thor: Ragnarok (2017) feels like the culmination of Marvel Studios’ promise.
Ragnarok begins with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) trapped inside the dungeons of Muspelheim where he’s hoping to secure an audience with Surtur (Clancy Brown). Brown has an absolute blast voicing the giant flaming demon with all the gravitas and pomp traditionally associated with such characters and Brown’s trademark baritone. Surtur, however, is frequently interrupted by a very flippant Thor whenever the chain which the Asgardian is dangling from causes him to spin away from Surtur’s throne. This is the tone for the rest of the film in a nutshell. Very serious topics are brought up, in this case, the oncoming Norse God apocalypse, which are then immediately washed down with Marvel’s most farcical humour yet. It’s a task to which the film’s director, Taika Waititi, has proven time and again he is perfectly suited.
Marvel’s critics, while perhaps exaggerating slightly, often complained of a sameness and lack of risk-taking which they felt characterized the Marvel films. Such criticisms fell flat once audiences were presented with the dour and boring DC comics film franchise but resurged after the critical and box office success of Wonder Woman (2017). Marvel fans, meanwhile, were eagerly anticipating the newest wave of movies which were going to be produced outside the aegis of the Marvel Creative Committee. That organization has been blamed for much of the company’s shortsightedness and conservatism, but restructuring in 2015 placed Marvel Studios further under Disney’s oversight. This meant that Marvel renegade James Gunn would have even more freedom with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) and that while Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Doctor Strange (2017) would still feel the effects of the Committee and Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) would have to negotiate with Sony the productions of Ragnarok, Black Panther (2018) and beyond would have an unprecedented amount of freedom. The fact that this has truly paid off for the latest Thor film (the best in the trilogy according to many) is proof positive of something of a turning point for Marvel Studios. Ragnarok is so filled with Waititi’s unique voice that it would be shallow mistake to try and compare it with Marvel’s previous endeavours. A similar issue faced critics attempting to wrap their heads around Doctor Strange when some dismissed it for its superficial similarity to Iron Man.
Marvel Studios swipes from a number of comic book stories and their adaptations to craft their MCU. The extraterrestrial superscience angle for Thor’s people is a relatively recent development in the comic; a good chunk of Ragnarok comes straight from the acclaimed Planet Hulk storyline and much of the MCU’s themes and aesthetic have been cribbed from the in-comics alternate universe The Ultimates. What sets Ragnarok apart, and what will only be a growing aspect of the MCU, is that it’s beholden to its own filmic history beyond simply adapting moments off the page.
Thor (2011) opens with the titular prince about to ascend to the throne of Asgard where he will succeed his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) as King of the Nine Realms. The Nine Realms themselves have been at peace for for Thor’s entire life in part thanks to Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge, which connects Asgard to the Nine Realms with nearly instantaneous interstellar pathways. This peace, however, was hard fought. Hundreds of years ago the Ice Giants attacked Earth and were in turn beaten back and conquered by Odin. Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Odin’s adopted son, is himself a spoil of war from this conflict when he was found on Jotunheim after Odin defeated Laufey, Loki’s father and king of the Jotuns. When Thor broke the Bifrost at the end of the first film he then had to travel throughout the Nine Realms in Thor: The Dark World (2013) to restore peace and quell raiders. It’s in this film that we learned of an ancient war between Asgard (led by Odin’s father Bor) and the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim. Asgard’s victory was so complete that the Dark Elves themselves were believed extinct and considered little more than stories meant to frighten children. Ragnarok continues the Thor tradition of revealing secrets about Asgard’s bloody past.
Hela (Cate Blanchett), disgusted by Odin whitewashing Asgard’s history, destroys a fresco depicting aeons of peace and harmony which reveals beneath it an older mural of war and conquest. Hela is the main villain of this film and she is deeply tied to Asgard’s violent history. However, she is not some victim of that history come seeking vengeance, she is the main perpetrator of that history come to revive it. Thor once idolized the glory of battle but gained maturity and humility just as Dr. Strange did when he finally realized that it’s not about him. That’s his main arc of growth in his first film. Thor’s antagonist in this third outing is his older sister, Odin’s firstborn, who seeks to bring back what she believes is past glory and continue to whet her bloodlust by conquering the universe. Hela is outraged at being cast aside and forgotten. Where others see the horrors and hardships of war she sees only more worlds to conquer. It’s an astute villain for this film, turning Asgard into a colonial power, and one that is perhaps uncomfortably close to home for many. Set alongside Ragnarok’s death toll which is so relentless that I believed in my heart most of the dead would be resurrected in the film’s final act, it makes for a film that is truly unafraid to address heady issues even while it distracts us with laughs. There is no better way to get excited for Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther then by seeing Thor: Ragnarok.
Nearly a decade in, Marvel seems to have fully embraced its own enduring marketability and fame. Audiences are consistently impressed with the level of talent drawn to these pictures from scene-stealing stalwarts like Anthony Hopkins, Michael Douglas, and Robert Redford, to fresh new superstars like Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael B. Jordan, and Tom Holland. Ragnarok is chock full of cameos both big and small that are sure to delight fans of all ages. For example, Thor catches the tail end of a stage play entitled “The Tragedy of Loki” in which the principal actors are played to brilliant comic effect by none other than Matt Damon, Luke Hemsworth, and Sam Neill as Loki, Thor, and Odin respectively. Toss in villains in the form of the inimitable Cate Blanchett and modern genre-hero Karl Urban as Skurge The Executioner, and Thor: Ragnarok is well on its way to rivalling Guardians 2 in the sheer number of featured special guests. The true standouts of Ragnarok, however, are Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, Jeff Goldblum as The Grandmaster, and the director himself as Korg the Kronan.
Most of what we learn about Asgard’s past comes from Hela’s skewed perspective. What we know for sure is that when Odin decided to put a stop to his daughter, he sent the Valkyries after her. Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) appears to be the lone survivor of that all-female royal guard and has taken to drink to soothe her ancient, tormented, soul. It should be difficult to nail the indomitable fighting spirit of her character alongside the lost and broken aspect of her tragic past all the while injecting the role with the comedy required by the tone, but Thompson makes it look easy. Her character’s sexual orientation may have been left on the cutting room floor but Thompson is a huge get for the MCU and I hope she delights audiences for years to come. Marvel Studios has taken some liberties with the Elders of the Universe but having The Collector portrayed by Benicio Del Toro certainly made the character memorable. Jeff Goldblum lives up to Del Toro’s performance in playing the delightfully weird Grandmaster who in this interpretation is ruler of Sakaar. As The Grandmaster, Goldblum plays to his strengths portraying a man who is either believably insane or unbelievably clever.
Sakaar, the titular planet from Planet Hulk is the Junkyard of the interstellar universe. Portals in the sky litter the surface with junk and rejects. It’s native inhabitants scavenge, enslave, and fight to survive. Valkyrie, Loki, Thor, all found their way to this planet of misfit toys where Loki has ingratiated himself to the planet’s leader and waits snake-like for his chance to seize power, Valkyrie has scraped together a life for herself as an alcoholic scavenger, and Thor has been thrown into the gladiator pit to do battle against The Grandmaster’s champion. In the pits Thor meets the erstwhile revolutionaries Korg (Taika Waititi) and Miek who were impeded only by a lack of organisational skills and weapons. Miek is an insect-like soldier, one of the natives of Sakaar in his original comic, and Korg is a Kronan, one of the famous Stone Men from Saturn of Thor’s debut issue. While Miek is practically mute preferring to swish his bladed arms about in anticipation of a fight, Korg is quite talkative and incongruously soft-spoken thanks to the comic stylings of Taika Waititi.
While Cumberbatch does well continuing to incarnate Dr. Strange, the final ingredient of the cosmic answer to Civil War is Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Hulk has always had a heart in a King Kong or Frankenstein’s Monster sort of way, but Ragnarok finally gives us a thinking, feeling, talking Hulk. It presents us with the ultimate existential question of identity, one which Thor has immense trouble navigating. Hulk and Banner are too different personalities who essentially share a body. As the Hulk points out, “Hulk always Hulk” even when Bruce is in charge. Getting to watch the Hulk crack jokes in his room and do crowd work before a match is huge for his character and probably way more interesting for Ruffalo than yells and grunts. Bringing up such rich themes as this in as light a comedy as Ragnarok does cause some problems, however.
Ultimately, it can begin to feel like the film is uninterested in truly addressing these issues preferring instead to crack wise or devolve into a few minutes of violence and action. Thor is delighted when he finds the Hulk because he is in desperate need of powerful allies to help him defeat Hela. However, neither Hulk nor Banner are initially interested in accompanying him to Asgard. It’s both amusing and dismaying to watch Thor try to play Banner and Hulk off one another. Hulk seems content in his new home on Sakaar where he is, for now, idolized and revered as the big green Champion of the ring. Banner, on the other hand, is desperate to stay away from stress and danger because after two years spent trapped he is concerned that Hulk has become the dominant personality and his next transformation could very well be his last. To watch Thor be relatively undeterred by this is difficult. Banner calls him out for this briefly but the film is also relatively undeterred by it as well. Played against the destruction Hela has been bringing to Asgard and what she plans to do to the rest of the cosmos Banner’s psyche seems like a small price to pay. The fact that Banner ultimately makes the decision to give himself up to the Hulk in order to save lives is a testament to his outstanding heroism, but one the film seems hesitant to acknowledge playing much of it for laughs.
Ragnarok is a wonderful film bursting at the seams with ideas, jokes, and details. All of these actors seem so comfortable in their roles and have eagerly taken their characters into interesting new dimensions. With more than a few jaw-dropping moments of action and gut-busting moments of comedy, it’s almost impossible not to recommend this film to everyone. Civil War and Ragnarok have set the stage for Infinity War (2018) so deftly, emotionally, and organically that it’s difficult to imagine a better beginning of the end for this series. With Black Panther on the way and Ant-Man and The Wasp (2018) to take us forward along with Captain Marvel (2019) the future looks brighter than ever. I know that I will Make Mine Marvel.
(Image Courtesy of Disney/Marvel Studios)