By Érico Lotufo
BU News Service
If there was one major weakness to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s nearly uncontested critical and fan acclaim of its movies, it was Thor. An argument about the MCU as a quality film venture would always boil down to the opposing side arguing “Well, but the Thor movies were pretty bad, huh?”
They weren’t, but that was a part of the point. Both Thor movies were okay, but pedestrian compared to true accomplishments like “The Avengers,” “Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Now that “Thor Ragnarok” has come out, they look downright nasty. The third installment has put them to shame.
It comes as a pleasant surprise how “Ragnarok” finally embraces the MCU spirit. It’s sincere instead of cynical, uplifting instead of dreary and colorful instead of dark. The truth is, the first two were probably the most un-Marvel of all the films, attempting to be the “serious” ones in the land of green monsters, men in robot suits and talking raccoons. Yes, the magic hammer alien-god story was the serious one.
“Thor Ragnarok” picks up where we last saw Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in the movies, looking for the Infinity Stones after a vision quest in “Age of Ultron.” It takes him to the land of Surtur, the being that will bring Ragnarok (the Norse mythology’s prophesied apocalypse), who tells him that his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is no longer ruling in Asgard. Instead, his trickster brother Loki (Tom Hiddlestone) has taken Odin’s place, pretending to be the All-Father.
Thor’s quest to find Odin leads to the return of Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of Death and his long-lost sister, and her conquer of Asgard. Exiled and weakened in the planet Sakaar, Thor has to regather his strength to take back his home country. On the way, he meets Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) again and the mysterious Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson).
It’s a story that depends on its main character to succeed. Finally, this Thor movie delivers on its protagonist. Previous iterations of Hemsworth’s character were molded around his comic book counterpart’s no-nonsense, stranger-in-a-strange-land personality. While both were earnest attempts, it just made him boring. In “Ragnarok,” Thor more resembles the hilariously self-aware parody of himself from a “Civil War” DVD extra.
That’s a good thing. It means he can deliver on the jokes (Hemsworth’s comic timing had always been criminally underused in previous films) and at the same time be relatable as an otherworldly hero. He now understands how little the fate of Asgard means to anyone but him (even the viewer) and decides to use his charisma and strength to rally others to his cause. You still may not care about Asgard by the film’s end, but you definitely care about how Thor reacts to the events surrounding his home.
This also means that Hiddleston is no longer the showstealer he was in previous films. Instead, it seems like every actor cast bet on themselves to be the true star of the movie. Blanchett dominates as Hela and is as menacing as she is campy. Thompson appears at first a one-note character, but gets fully developed with an arc, a clear motivation and her own set of jokes. Ruffalo finally gets to play the Hulk in an expanded role beyond smashing lowly minions with the Avengers. And Jeff Goldblum (who plays Sakaar’s leader, the Grandmaster) is, well, Jeff Goldblum.
If not for the fact that Hiddlestone also stole the show in “The Avengers,” it wouldn’t be wrong to believe that his star-turning role in both Thor movies were more a result of everything happening around him being utterly forgettable. He’s still great in “Ragnarok,” but just one among many.
All of these improvements, however, would be useless if Marvel used the bland color-palette of “Thor: Dark World” to create Sakaar and its inhabitants. Instead, director Taika Waititi put the franchise in the 80’s logo generator to build a vibrant, colorful world. Like “Doctor Strange” from 2016, “Ragnarok” relishes in translating its comic book roots visually into the screen. It also doesn’t have a problem borrowing from other colorful sources, especially death-metal album covers. Hela’s design alone sells that look.
Some will jump on “Ragnarok” for having too many jokes, a common criticism of the MCU. But they work with and accentuate the darkness of the underlying themes. Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” isn’t used twice just for fun, it serves as bookends on the film’s views of colonialism and the meaning of place in the collective consciousness of certain group of people. The jokes aren’t there just to build levity, but to say that sometimes there is no better way to understand sad truths than to laugh.
After a while, it becomes hard to find how to tackle “Thor Ragnarok” in critique. It’s too smart, pretty and funny for its own good. It somehow elevates the MCU to an even higher stratosphere in the public eye to make us ask: “How did they do this again?” Well, in Thor’s case, he just needed a chance to shine and he finally got it.