Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material
Score: 5 out of 5
The Thor films were previously seen as the black sheep of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While the first film was good, helping to introduce a radically different side to what had previously been a purely science-fiction world by revealing that the Norse gods were real there, its sequel, Thor: The Dark World, is remembered as one of Marvel's few misfires. Granted, this is Marvel we're talking about, so a misfire for them still means a movie that's just pretty good instead of really good. But it felt as though large amounts of the plot had been sacrificed on the cutting room floor, and whenever Marvel's detractors criticize the lackluster villains in their films, Malekith is usually the first example they point to. Plus, Thor himself is often seen as the most "boring" member of the Avengers, for the same reasons that people often criticize Superman: whereas the rest of the team was composed of people who, while armed with either superscience, high-tech weaponry, or simply excellent training, were still human and not invincible, Thor is a literal god, one who can only be seriously stopped by other literal gods. How do you make an interesting story with him?
Thor: Ragnarok answers that question, as it both nukes the character's status quo and crafts what is easily the best Thor film yet, and a shining moment for the MCU as a whole. It is, at once, a character piece, an exploration of imperialism, and one of the most "fun" films in the franchise. Every character works, it's not afraid to make huge changes to the world at large, and with the action, it goes for quality over quantity to deliver a rockin', sockin' good time. It takes its title from the apocalypse of Norse mythology, and it is precisely as epic as that title demands. In a year where only horror movies and superhero movies have consistently impressed me at the multiplex, this film is one that can easily hang with Logan and Wonder Woman as one of the year's best.
The film opens with Thor learning that his treacherous brother Loki has had their father Odin exiled to Earth, disguised himself as Odin, and is now ruling Asgard. Odin's disappearance from Asgard, and eventual death on Earth from old age, causes an ancient enemy to return: Hela, the long-lost sister of Thor and Loki who once fought alongside her father Odin in Asgard's conquest of the Nine Realms, only to be imprisoned after Odin grew suspicious of her ambition. Smashing Thor's hammer and casting him and Loki into the depths of space, Hela returns to Asgard and takes over, sickened by how her father has whitewashed the glories of their conquests and seeking to launch new ones on new realms. Thor and Loki, meanwhile, get dumped on a trash planet called Sakaar, whose leader, the Grandmaster, forces Thor to fight in the arena against his champion: the Incredible Hulk, Bruce Banner, another person who wound up getting dragged to Sakaar. As Hela schemes and several Asgardians lead a resistance against her, Thor, Loki, Banner, and Scrapper 142, a former Asgardian valkyrie turned bounty hunter who fought against Hela back in the day, plot to get back home, overthrow Hela, and prevent doomsday... or so it seems.
Right off the bat, I recognized this as a Taika Waititi film. The director having previously made What We Do in the Shadows, I expected, and got, a whole lot of witty banter from his characters, the film feeling almost like an buddy action-comedy at points as our heroes try to make it off of Sakaar while the Grandmaster runs it as his pleasure dome. Fun times are practically Marvel's calling card, but this film is a downright laugh-riot, whether it's our introduction to Scrapper 142 drunkenly stumbling off of her shuttle or watching a melodramatic stage play about Loki's betrayal and eventual redemption (complete with Chris Hemsworth's brother Luke as "Thor"). The old characters -- and the actors who play them -- are as on-point as ever, with Hemsworth's Thor eager to save the day, Tom Hiddleston's Loki looking (as always) to get ahead, and most notably, Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner fearing that the Hulk is taking over his personality. The new blood, however, easily holds its own. Tessa Thompson is a revelation as Scrapper 142, a hard-drinking, hinted-to-be-bisexual (and made explicit in a deleted scene) ex-soldier who couldn't possibly give a damn about Asgard, a place she left for a reason. Slowly coming around to Thor's heroism, the former valkyrie learns that there's more to life than booze and big guns, rediscovering her heritage in the process. Jeff Goldblum's Grandmaster might have annoyed me if he'd been the main villain, given that he's little more than a two-bit thug, but he's not the main villain; rather, he's an obstacle for the heroes to overcome on their way to facing the real enemy. Even in a small part, Jeff Goldblum was clearly having fun, relishing the opportunity to play this sort of campy bad guy.
There was only one real MVP, however. Cate Blanchett's Hela sets the screen on fire with her presence, signifying that Marvel's streak of forgettable villains is over, at least for now. Her flamboyant costume is just the tip of the iceberg for a character who, in lesser hands, easily could've turned into a generic, fetishized "bad girl"; instead, Blanchett brings sheer force of personality to play in making Hela into an over-the-top, attention-seeking vamp of a tyrant. She takes the imperialism that has always existed under the surface of Asgard, which had been given a friendly makeover by Odin, and sets out to embrace it for what it always was, and for what it can be. I was going to crib liberally from this article about Hela in outlining why I loved her, but for the sake of spoilers, let me just say that I don't think it's a coincidence that Marvel selected an indigenous director (Waititi being half-Maori) to helm this film. Hela is a manifestation of imperialism at its ugliest, stripped of all attempts to make it look "nice"; she literally draws her power from Asgard, and disapproves of past conquests only because they stopped. One of her big acts upon taking the throne is to smash the frescoes that Odin installed in the palace, revealing the far more warlike images underneath from before he got scared of Hela's ambition. All of the glory of Asgard came from brutal conquest, and Hela believes that Odin and his fellow Asgardians were being a bunch of raging hypocrites by willfully forgetting about this and trying to put a benevolent face on what they did. It takes a lot more than just defeating Hela to fully answer for all the damage -- and not just on her part, but from Asgard as a whole. Without spoiling anything, the manner in which the contradictions that Hela exposes are resolved not only makes for a downright awesome scene straight off the cover of a Viking metal album (I can, in fact, picture a ton of videos on YouTube after this comes out on video setting that scene to black metal music), it takes the running theme of the film to its logical conclusion and straight-up "goes there" in its damnation of imperialism. Obviously, the real intention of the ending is to set up a brand-new direction for Thor and Asgard to come as Marvel prepares for The Avengers: Infinity War, but as a standalone film, this is downright radical and subversive for any Hollywood movie, let alone a massive tentpole blockbuster.
The Bottom Line
A massively entertaining epic action flick that's smarter and funnier than it ever needed to be, held up by great performances, a tone that effortlessly mixes humor and stakes, and a director willing to find some daring subtext in the material. Once again, Marvel shows how it's done.