The Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t had much luck with Thor. His first two films are the least memorable of the bunch, largely because the MCU doesn’t know what to do with him: is he a fearsome Norse god or a comic relief character? Marvel producer Kevin Feige prefers to just send him on a side mission and forget about him for a few movies. But now thunders in “Thor: Ragnarok”, cashing in on the god’s comedic component as if that was the plan all along.
Continuing their self-defeating cycle of hiring talented directors only to stifle their creativity, Marvel Studios invited indie comedy extraordinaire Taika Waititi into the director’s chair. His previous two films—New Zealand indie darlings “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”—are gleeful exercises in wit. Waititi’s voice as a comic is hard not to give an immediate stamp of approval, so how does “Thor: Ragnarok” fare?
In the grand tradition of the Thor movies—well, you know what they say about the definition of insanity.
It would be easy to blame the failures of “Thor: Ragnarok” on the oxymoronic synthesis of an artist and a studio, but many of the film’s woes stem from Waititi operating in an unfamiliar realm, much like his protagonist. “Ragnarok” finds Thor stuck on a zany planet of bright colors and dangerous game shows; Taika Waititi finds himself stranded in a land of big budgets and audience expectations to meet.
And though “Ragnarok” does achieve a peculiar mood that sets it apart from the rest of the MCU, nagging issues from past efforts still bog it down. It takes the ‘super people vs. faceless army’ trope and hashes it out three or four times over, which is compounded by the fact that Waititi is not an adept action director: fight scenes and war sequences feel more video game than cinema, due to abundant CGI and slow motion. They’re also not frenetic enough to maintain momentum, as Waititi keeps interrupting them to tell a joke or revisit a side plot.
The movie’s biggest problems lie in tone and pacing. Waititi doesn’t trust his signature eccentricity enough and ends up shoplifting other tones: “Ragnarok” is sometimes a fish-out-of-water adventure like the first “Thor”; it’s a mystical head trip when Doctor Strange briefly appears; it’s a wacky farce when Waititi himself is on screen as a rock creature. It all feels very sloppy when coalesced into one product.
The pacing suffers from a threadbare structure. Instead of repeating the same Marvel narrative progression again, “Ragnarok” opts to dilute its structure away. It comes off like junior high presentation advice: tell them what you’re going to do, then do it, then tell them what you did. The movie is always explaining its next move, which drags on after too long.
The screenplay allows for a litany of clever moments, though eventually it’s hard not to notice that every character talks like Taika Waititi. The visual comedy fares much better: the film’s funniest moments stem from a wily understanding of how to manipulate the frame in the name of laughs. The cast is game too, particularly Chris Hemsworth and the effervescent Jeff Goldblum—the latter’s presence is a successful joke in and of itself.
Concerning Cate Blanchett’s highly anticipated goddess of death: all hail the casting director who had the idea to bring her in, and curse the screenwriters for giving her so little to work with. She’s an unambiguous evil with ambiguous powers, neither of which makes for a compelling villain.
The vibrant color palette of “Thor: Ragnarok” is a constant reminder to have fun against all odds. When you’re willing to turn off your brain and look past the cheesy dialogue and too-perfectly timed character growth, the movie can be a blast—but never for long.
★★½ (2.5 out of 5)