With each successive Marvel release, I’ve found myself more and more succumbing to the dreaded and oft-discussed Superhero Fatigue. Marvel had seemingly grown complacent, becoming far too reliant on the formula—which, admittedly, has been responsible for some truly memorable cinematic moments over the last decade or so. Since Civil War (on which I’ve grown somewhat cooler in the years since its release), the MCU has threatened to go stale, spearheaded by the studio’s unwillingness to break their own mold. Even new heroes have felt startlingly familiar. Most of these phase three films have been hampered by this, with Marvel becoming experts at delivering unmemorable spectacle that crushed box offices but did little to inspire the same level of awe as their earlier efforts.
Comfort is a tricky beast. While it’s nice to know that every movie you release will earn a billion or more at the worldwide box office (not bad for a company who teetered on the brink of bankruptcy at the turn of the century) there comes a point where risk becomes imperative. Without risk, the rotten stench of mediocrity will begin to fester like an untended bedsore. The threat of cinematic atrophy has been looming now for at least a couple of years within the MCU, and the need for a shakeup was quickly becoming dire. Enter Thor: Ragnarok.
This third entry into the Thor sub-franchise is one of the most surprising and delightful films to spawn from the MCU since Iron Man first won our hearts back in 2008. Easily one of the five best films the MCU has produced, Ragnarok is a front-to-back blast, filled with all the spectacle we’ve come to expect from the studio, with ten times the heart as anything they’ve released since the original Guardians of the Galaxy.
Much of this is owed to director Taika Waititi, who made a massive leap to Marvel from indie comedies like The Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows. He was as unlikely a director for a massive property as anyone, which might in fact be the key for Marvel moving forward. While Marvel has been accused of filmmaking by committee in the past, Waititi’s unique vision is a breath of fresh air for the shared universe, and proves that the studio need not rely strictly on formula to produce successful works. A balance, surely, can and should be struck, and Waititi walks the line magnificently.
To be sure, the formula is still in play. Taking the wide view, you can still see the Marvel machinations chugging along and many of the problems with familiarity are still apparent. From the moment we’re introduced to Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett) we know about what we’re going to see—another villain with aims for world domination who forces an apocalyptic showdown with the titular hero (Chris Hemsworth). It’s as A to B as Marvel ever is, but rather than being a mere straight line, it’s the zigzags taken along the way that separates Ragnarok from the pack.
The biggest zig comes from the inclusion of Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) who’s been unseen since the end of Age of Ultron back in 2014. As Hela makes plans to takeover Asgard, Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) find themselves waylaid on a far distant planet, run by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). After being taken prisoner by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Thor is sold into gladiatorial slavery to the Grandmaster and forced to fight with his champion, Hulk.
This represents is the best use of Hulk since the original Avengers movie, and certainly gives that film a run for its money in terms of sheer Hulk madness. The relationship between Thor and Hulk plays out like the best of buddy comedy movies, and surprisingly this dynamic works with phenomenal effect. Of all the potential duos within the Avengers team, Thor and Hulk are unlikely, but this, perhaps, works in their favor. Their interplay is that of two people who belong to the same friend group but have never really taken the time to know each other. Given the opportunity for some one on one time, they each find they’re more compatible than they thought.
While the two are forced to fight (the outcome of which will no doubt be debated and argued from now until forever), it’s seeing the two finally team up that’s ultimately satisfying. The quartet of Thor, Hulk, Valkyrie, and Loki (jokingly referred to as “the Revengers” by Thor) is formidable indeed, and the climax is as fun as anything Marvel has yet done.
Much of the dynamic between the characters stems from Waititi’s loose directorial attitude. Reportedly, as much as 80% of the dialog was improvised, which gives Ragnarok a lot of room to roll. As plotted as the overall narrative is, this looseness creates a fun, spirited atmosphere between the actors which translates well on screen. Certain movies work best when its stars appear to be having a great time, and that plays out superbly here.
Even Blanchett, who, sadly, like most Marvel villains, gets precious little screen time, appears to be relishing her in role, chewing up scenery and spitting it back out at the audiences like so many bullets. Her eyes hold in them a slight smirk, as if she’s never had as much fun playing a character, which works well for Hela’s badass vibe. She may be the Goddess of Death, but that doesn’t mean that she can’t have a ball, right?
A ball is exactly what Ragnarok is. I’ve lost count of how many superhero movies have come out in recently years, and this one is at least the fifth this year (with Justice League right around the corner), and the onslaught has, I admit, gotten tedious. That tedium has been effectively broken with this release, and given me hope that Marvel can bring this narrative home as phase three begins coming to a close. With any luck, Ragnarok will set a new standard for the larger franchise and give new directors a template for how to buck expectations while still playing within the guidelines. Frankly, we all deserve to be so lucky.
Thor: Ragnarok is now playing in theaters everywhere.