**1/2 out of ****
(for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language, and brief suggestive material)
Released: November 3, 2017
Runtime: 130 minutes
Director: Taika Waititi
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Tessa Thompson, Jeff Goldblum, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Karl Urban, Taika Waititi, Benedict Cumberbatch
If it’s broke, then copy what isn’t.
That’s the approach Marvel has taken with its lackluster Thor franchise. After two standalone installments that have underwhelmed to diminishing returns (The Dark World, especially), Marvel gives Thor a full Guardians makeover in its third go-round, Thor: Ragnarok.
Chock-full of jokes and amped up with classic rock hits pulled straight from a Star-Lord playlist, Thor: Ragnarok is the most aggressively silly venture yet in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Breaking fidelity to its mythical source, Thor: Ragnarok is an entirely new form of fan service; not the kind that checks off expectation boxes for diehard fanboys but rather, and more crassly, it’s an ilk that panders.
It’ll pay off at the box office, but the calculation is shameless.
Playing to the most obvious common denominator with goofy abandon yet zero conviction, this utterly disposable blockbuster trifle would be more appropriately titled Thor: Ragnalark. It’s completely inconsequential to the MCU (other than one end credit tease, natch), and that’s all well-and-good, but there’s no narrative, character, or thematic ambition to speak of. It’s just another apocalyptic cash grab.
Asgard is Thor’s home planet, and “Ragnarok” is Asgardian for “End of All Things”. This prophesied doom is about to be unleased by the all-powerful might of Hela, Goddess of Death. She’s also Thor’s unknown long lost sister (why wouldn’t she be?) who’s now free from some penitential captivity, ready to wreak havoc. Cate Blanchett brings as much gravitas and flair to a one-note character as possible, but it’s still one note.
With a tongue-in-cheek winking absurdity, the threat of this annihilation looms light. Even if Hela succeeds, you know everything and everyone will somehow be alright. And it is. There’s no danger, suspense, or surprise. Without the weight of consequences, even an unapologetic comedy feels limp, growing tiresome long before it passes the two-hour mark.
It’s a Game of Throne between Thor and Hela, with Loki along as Thor’s ally. This showdown is diverted for nearly half the movie, maybe longer, as Thor and Loki are trapped on Sakaar where its Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, thankfully in full Goldblum mode) rules over a planet of misfit aliens. The Grandmaster humors himself with the Conquest of Champions, in which gladiator prisoners battle to the death.
Thor is forced to fight, as teased in the trailers, The Incredible Hulk. Like Captain America’s Civil War before it, this pointless face off has the inevitable conclusion of a draw. Making matters more ridiculous is the fight itself, which erupts into a truly cartoonish excess of destruction, defying physics and biology like an old Looney Tunes short. Even for superheroes it’s overkill.
This sequence typifies the whole, a movie of Marvel kitsch that’s impossible to get invested in. Chris Hemsworth sports superb comic timing and instincts, with physical comedy in particular, but all of the jokes and lines are forced. Easy, not witty.
Taika Waititi, the New Zealand filmmaker who’s established a specific brand of humor in indies like Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do In The Shadows, and HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, was not brought in to do his thing. This is Marvel’s movie with a Guardians stamp, and Waititi is simply a smart hire to execute that deliberate vision.
His sensibility is probably seen most clearly in the mo-cap rock creature named Korg, who Waititi himself performs. It’s definitely a highlight. He also has fun creating a world that seems to take inspiration from the cheesy Flash Gordon cult classic 80s remake, but beyond that this is another work-for-hire.
Composer Mark Mothersbaugh also adds some originality in the music, mixing orchestral tradition with synth rock. Tracks like “What Heroes Do” or “Parade” (which goes full Tangerine Dream) are cues I never thought I’d hear in a Marvel movie, so there’s that. (See track links below.)
Otherwise, this is a Marvel extravaganza through and through, in all its bloated blandness. Action sequences carry a video game aesthetic to new extremes, not just in structure and design but also visual effects. Gaudy and pummeling, there’s nothing credible about a movie almost entirely comped over a green screen, buzzing with garish digital bells and whistles, all writ monotonous, signifying nothing.
An orgy of geekery over substance, Thor: Ragnarok is a nerd epic. However that description strikes you is a perfect barometer for how you’ll respond to this latest effort by Marvel to print money.