Approaching the ten year mark of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s increasingly difficult — for me, anyway — to examine the offerings from the comic book publisher turned moviemaking behemoth outside of the context of their making. Taken on its own terms, Thor: Ragnarok is a highly enjoyable piece of product. If nothing else, it’s a damn sight better than the previous two films that bore the thunder god’s name in their titles.
Taking a comfy story of Asgardian throne game drama and melding it with an loose adaptation of the popular comic book storyline “Planet Hulk” — which found the green goliath referenced in the title (and played in the MCU by Mark Ruffalo) exiled to an alien planet where he becomes a gladiator — the new outing continues the practice of piling in more plot than any two hours should be expected to bear. It also repeats the little miracle of earlier Marvel movies of making the overstuffed proceedings feel lithe and balanced. While allowing room for many of the figures introduced in prior Thor and Thor-adjacent films, it introduces a small fleet of new characters and nothing less than a whole other world.
All in all, the film asks a lot of director Taika Waititi. If his timing isn’t always spot-on in alternating between his dual story lines — taking place, it must be noted, light years apart — he still keeps the proceedings brisk and buoyant. Like Patty Jenkins and Jon Watts before him this year, Waititi demonstrates that making the leap from low-budget features to blockbuster spectacle need not be an impossible task. Stick with the known fundamentals of narrative filmmaking and scale them up. Ocean waves are bigger than those on a vast lake, but either way it’s just about steering the ship.
As well as the director acquits himself with the action sequences — most notably the centerpiece battle between two friends from work — Waititi was clearly brought in to loosen up the franchise. He achieves that marvelously. Thor: Ragnarok is playful and funny, borrowing some of the near-spoofery of the Guardians of the Galaxy films but infusing it with Waititi’s particular sensibility, built on disguising the bawdy as sweet and vice versa. He exploits the crack comic timing of his actors — especially Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, as the godly sibling Thor and Loki, respectively — and adds a teeming basket of ludicrous understatement. As much as any Marvel film that’s come before it, Thor: Ragnarok taps into the page-turning fun of the art form it draws upon.
And yet I’ll admit that I often felt outside of the film rather than enfolded in it. As I watched, I spent as much time thinking about what the various choices said about the state of the current MCU as I did simply being jostled by the film’s thrill ride energy. As the film was in progress, I reflected on the way Cate Blanchett’s Hela continued the perplexing Marvel movie tradition of pitting heroes against underwhelming villains. (And add this film to Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull and the J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations by Peter Jackson to make the surprising but now compelling case that Blanchett does her weakest work in big ol’ popcorn movies.) I enjoyed Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, but mostly in anticipation of how she might interact with some of the other kick-ass females that have cropped up in sister films. I thought about how Waititi’s distinctive stamp represented the studio’s ongoing gradual shift from the tight tonal control that threatened to make their movies into a series of familiar beat adventures. And I took pleasure in the heavy borrowing from artist Jack Kirby, less because of the artfulness of the transfer than in gratitude for the way Marvel’s former animus toward their most important founding father has faded completely away.
In the end, I wrestle with my own longterm fandom when I watch these movies. I think the works should divert me from that instinct, and they instead feed it. I want Thor: Ragnarok to whisk me away. Disappointingly, it meets me where I am.