The word I keep coming back to is “loose.” The third Thor movie, Thor: Ragnarok (the first from director Taika Waititi, whose previous outings were the glorious What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople), feels loose. It’s as if the extended world around Thor has shaken off the more formal bonds of a story of demi-gods and -goddesses and acknowledged that our hero has spent a bit of time among mere mortals and picked up a few of their bad habits and vocabulary (and perhaps their sense of humor as well). Whatever Waititi’s influence has brought to the Marvel cinematic universe, it works like a charm and had me laughing, cheering, and actually caring about these characters for the first time outside of an Avengers film. Of course, the secret weapon of the movie is, as Tony Stark says in the first Avengers movie, “We have a Hulk.”
There has always been something special about the relationship between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and it likely stems from the idea that they don’t belong together. They both rely a great deal on physical strength, but Thor’s has always been more refined and targeted, while Hulk’s has been…less so. It almost makes sense that neither were included in Captain America: Civil War, because their presence in that film would have tipped the scales of whatever team they sided with. Also, they are unique in the Avengers because neither one chose to be superhuman. Thor was born into royalty as the God of Thunder, while Hulk became green and oversized by accident. And while he can control it to a degree, he struggles to stay even-keeled lest the big guy get loose.
Thor: Ragnarok begins by catching us up. It’s two years since the events in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Thor has been searching the known universe for Infinity Stones and anything else that might belong in Odin’s vaults on his home of Asgard, where he returns after a long absence. His brother Loki (the great Tom Hiddleston) has been disguising himself as Odin (Anthony Hopkins), turning Asgard into a his private pleasure palace, which Thor sets right almost immediately. Hearing Hopkins say “Oh shit,” under his breath when he first sees Thor has returned was the first of many big laughs for me, and it speaks to that loose quality I mentioned. That’s what the disguised Loki would be thinking, so why not let him actually say it?
Thor and Loki’s quick jaunt back to earth in search of Odin is both amusing (thanks to a not-so-secret cameo by a recent addition to the Marvel movie world) and touching. More importantly, it sets the stage for our first meeting with Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death and Odin’s first born, whom he banished from Asgard when her bloodlust grew too great. Hela is the ultimate goth girl, wearing what appears to be a rejected Catwoman costume, a headdress that would make any moose jealous, and so much eye shadow it’s like she owns stock in it. But it’s Cate Blanchett, so it all works thanks to a powerful, steely-eyed performance in which she simply assumes she rules everything and everyone, and if you don’t fall in line, she’ll kill you or have you killed.
Thor doesn’t really have to deal with her for much of the film, since on his return trip to Asgard (with Hela in hot pursuit), he gets knocked off course and sent to the junk planet of Sakaar (literally an alien world where portals open up in the sky and dump trash on the surface). He’s captured by a warrior who turns out to be the last remaining Valkyrie of Asgard (Tessa Thompson) and delivered to the Grandmaster (an appropriately twitchy Jeff Goldblum), who rules the planet and runs gladiator-like games, in which Thor will fit in quite nicely. We find out Loki has also made it here and has befriended the Grandmaster. As you likely know, this is all leading to a confrontation between Thor and the Grandmaster’s longtime champion, the Incredible Hulk, who has not reverted back to his Bruce Banner form in the two years since he left Earth.
This film’s version of the Hulk is quite different than what we’re used to. Being around people, he’s learned to speak (more or less); he’s revered as a champion; and he doesn’t answer to anyone. He’s also great friends with the former Valkyrie, who drinks far too much to cover the pain that led her to leave Asgard in the first place. I’ve seen Thor: Ragnarok twice now, and it crystal clear that Valkyrie is my absolutely favorite character in this film. Maybe it’s because she’s introduced a new energy to the dynamic, but she’s unpredictable, cantankerous, and smarter than anyone in this movie by a country mile. I have to assume she’ll be a part of the next Avengers movies, because if she isn’t, that would be a tremendous missed opportunity.
I’ve always loved and admired the Thor-Loki dynamic in the past, but it’s a bit less intense here. Loki is softening to a degree, which does not mean he isn’t above betraying his brother for his own betterment, but he doesn’t seem like a genuine threat as he has before. That said, some of the movie’s most heartwarming moments are between the brothers. For some reason, Thor will not give up on this man whom he admired and loved growing up and still sees in him some amount of good.
Eventually, Thor, Hulk, Valkyrie, and Loki leave Sakaar for Asgard to deal with Hela, who has recruited a sidekick executioner in newcomer Skurge (Karl Urban), turned the corpses of ancient Asgardian dead into an army, and is barely being held at bay by Heimdall (Idris Elba), who has left his post at the Rainbow Bridge to protect and hide civilians. Thor is aided by a group of second-tier Sakaar gladiators, led by a very funny, rock-covered creature named Korg (voiced by Waititi). By the end of the film, Thor has assembled an impressive group of misfits into his own team, and they’re almost easier to love collectively than the Avengers.
With writers Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost, director Waititi seems to have made his goal with Thor: Ragnarok to shake things up and take things apart. From Thor’s intense haircut (at the hands of a scary old man) to another cosmetic change to the God of Thunder that happens late in the film, to the outcome of the battle with Hela, the filmmakers don’t give our heroes much choice but to return to Earth. Even Ruffalo gets to do something different as Banner, who is disoriented and just plain weird after returning to human form. He also figures out that if he returns to his Hulk form, he likely will never be able to become Banner again, so the stakes are high for him in a much more personal way.
I also couldn’t get enough of the costume and production design work here, particularly on the residents of and architecture in Sakaar, which could have been renamed Jack Kirby-land. The legendary artist who created so many of the looks featured in Thor: Ragnarok permeates every frame. I couldn’t stop looking at the helmets that some of the background players wear or the cosmic, mechanical squiggles painted on the sides of machines. Even in the never-ending landscape of junk that makes up most of Sakaar’s surface, his shapes and influence abound. It made my eyes practically glow seeing this, and I can’t wait to watch the inevitable Blu-ray extra that talks about the film’s Kirby influences.
While Thor: Ragnarok certainly leaves the future of many characters somewhat up in the air (especially once you see the mid-credits sequences), it doesn’t feel like a film that’s simply taking us from one Marvel film to another. It’s its own unique beast, and although it features familiar faces and places, it moves them through this story in unexpected ways. The action sequences are tremendous, relying more on one-on-one, physical confrontations and less on shooting bullets or some manner of energy at one another. You feel the blows, and they hurt. Despite a few minor issues with pacing in the middle (when all forward movement stops cold in favor of comedy or some amount of character development, neither of which I really minded), this is a tremendous step in the right direction for both the Thor franchise specifically and Marvel movies in general.