THOR: RAGNAROK. Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins. Directed by Taika Waititi. 130 minutes. Rated M (Action violence).
The Thor films have been somewhat of a struggle for Marvel Studios. Compared with the conspicuous and faithful genre-hopping of Captain America, the effortless cool of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, the intergalactic irreverence of the Guardians of the Galaxy, and the epic stakes of the Avengers team-up events, Thor’s solo outings have always felt somewhat minor, somehow flatter. Perhaps it was that the fantasy genre trappings woven through the source material, heavy on capes and Shakespearean family issues, couldn’t quite cut it in today’s competitive superhero environment.
By handing the reins to Kiwi cult-favourite director Taika Waititi, Marvel Studios made their intent to buck this trend clear. Waititi, known for homegrown, quirky hits like ‘Boy’, ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ and ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’, was plainly drafted to embrace and augment the strangeness of Thor’s Asgardian setting. In its best moments, ‘Thor: Ragnarok’, by now the third film in the Thor franchise and the seventeenth in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, feels utterly fresh and inspired, everything that Waititi’s hiring promised. In its worst, it feels patchy and trying. It may well be the best film in the Thor franchise (the jury’s still out on this front), but it’s a little inconsistent to be up there with Marvel’s best flicks.
‘Ragnarok’ takes a pronounced detour from the territory of its predecessors, moving the action away from Thor’s home planet of Asgard as quickly as possible. When a catastrophic event leads to the release of the goddess of death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), Thor (Chris Hemsworth, having a blast) and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) are sent spiralling off into the far reaches of the galaxy. They eventually land on Sakkar, a planet ruled over by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), a mad immortal with penchants for power and retro synthesisers. While Loki ingratiates himself with the Grandmaster, Thor is captured by former Asgardian and current boozehound Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and forced to compete in the Grandmaster’s “Contest of Champions”, a gladiatorial battle that pits all manner of aliens against each other. It just happens that the Grandmaster’s current champion is none other than the Hulk, the monstrous, green alter ego of scientist Bruce Banner (both played by Mark Ruffalo, who shares great chemistry with Hemsworth).
One of the film’s strong suits is its production design, from Dan Hennah and Ra Vincent. Sakkar is part junkyard, collecting the universe’s debris as it comes tumbling in through a series of wormholes, and part bustling metropolis, full of colourful, diverse species and spotted with haphazardly constructed skyscrapers. Everything is futuristic, but its sensibility is very much how the future was thought of by people in the 70’s or the 80’s, filled with chunky, pastel-coloured props and costumes. This design meshes nicely with the tone that Waititi strikes for the film, itself very much a throwback to comedic action-adventures of the late 20th century.
Thor knows that there is a ticking clock on his imprisonment on Sakkar – Hela has arrived in Asgard, recruited a right-hand man, Skurge (Karl Urban), and an army, and every moment brings them closer to Ragnarok, the prophesised destruction of Asgard. To save his home, Thor must recruit a team to stop Hela before it’s too late. The new cast members are all evidently having a blast, particularly Tessa Thompson, whose alcoholic warrior unlocks the actress’ wonderful comedic timing and capacity for fight choreography (although her accent, which I believe is intended to be British, can get spotty). Jeff Goldblum is a delight onscreen in a role that really allows the veteran to do whatever he pleases. The Grandmaster is a strange character with a clearly villainous role in the film, but Goldblum fills him with such levity that you miss him when he’s not on screen. Australia’s Cate Blanchett tackles her first role in a comic book adaptation and imbues Hela with the necessary spunk and grandstanding villainy to serve as a viable foe to Thor and company.
The script, written by Eric Pearson, is sprinkled throughout with Waititi’s signature humour, which lands and misses with equal regularity. So much of Waititi’s humour relies on the kind of awkward, off-beat comedy that marked fellow Kiwi export ‘Flight of the Conchords’, and it can undoubtedly work. Some of the dialogue feels ad-libbed, and the naturalness of these exchanges lend themselves to these sorts of laughs (though some can go on too long). However, when they’re forced into a more staged moment or set piece, they just don’t feel right; they grate a little. That’s not to say that set pieces can’t be funny – Banner’s entrance into the climactic battle provides one of the film’s big laughs – but there’s a style of humour that suits them better than that which Waititi occasionally tries shoehorn in.
As I thought about the film’s music, provided by iconoclastic composer Mark Mothersbaugh, I began to think of it as symbolic of the film more generally. At its best, the score is wonderfully strange, combining synthesisers with more classical instruments to craft a thrillingly experimental blockbuster suite. At other times, it’s a forgettable, stock standard, strings-and-choir-driven arrangement, aspiring for loftier things but often lost in the mix. Waititi’s hiring on ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ promised a very special departure for Marvel Studios – the finished film delivers on this promise about half of the time.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out October 26.
Walt Disney Studios.