The plot of Ragnarok bears much in common with the first Thor, in which the thunder god is separated from his hammer and must prove his worth without it. If the structure is vaguely familiar to that Kenneth-Branagh-directed film, the breadth of ideas are far apart. Branagh imparted his history as a Shakespearean actor with the central familial dispute between Odin, Thor, and Loki, and similarly, Waititi brings his Maori heritage to bear on a $180 million colonialist critique. Thor had little on its mind, but Ragnarok is surprisingly deep for the genre it resides in. This is a film about chickens coming home to roost, about a vicious past that can’t be willed out of existence. Thor believes his father’s place atop the universe is as a benevolent ruler, but the emergence of Hela puts the lie to all that. His present benevolence is only possible because of past ruthlessness, a trait that she was best suited for and then was betrayed by her father when she outlived her usefulness. Coupled with its underlying plea for sanctuary for refugees, Ragnarok is a film that is conscious of the world it’s being born into.
For all its resonance, Ragnarok is a constantly hilarious film. Waititi has made himself into one of the best working comedy directors with critical hits like What We Do in the Shadows, and he can only apply that same level of humorous expertise to a superhero action film. His signature move is conversations that stop and start between characters cloaked in self-delusion, usually in the form of authority figures, and there are plenty of authority figures to laugh at in Ragnarok. The protagonist is a prince who’s only recently come into humility, and Hemsworth finally gets to flex his comedic muscles after being overshadowed by his MCU coworkers for years. He’s game for anything, and clearly having a great time. His rapport with Hiddleston is a given after so many films together, but his overconfidence with Thompson, whose scavenger is played as well out of his league, and his underdog quality against the might of the Hulk, are consistently endearing and believable. In the Goldblum part of the world, Waititi pairs him with Rachel House, a mainstay of Waititi’s films, and the dynamic between the hedonistic Grandmaster and House’s stern bodyguard never fails to amuse. For this role,tThe Goldblum level on Goldblum is turned to maximum Goldblum. It may be so natural because of an autobiographical aspect. I would not require a lot of evidence to believe that Jeff Goldblum is an immortal being who makes aliens fight each other to the death.
It can be surprising that a Marvel film has thoughts on its mind or is continuously and consistently funny. What’s expected is some fantastical action, and Thor delivers here as well. These films always have to add something that the viewer hasn’t seen before, and between an introductory hammer-wielding scene to some new powers that Thor accumulates on the way, Ragnarok pulls it off. Hela, able to generate bladed weapons out of thin air and given to acrobatic flips around the battlefield, is wholly believable as an unstoppable killing machine. Their face-off’s, and others, are repeatedly matching the mythic quality of the story with slowed-down tableaus of grand martial images. As Thor slowly descends into a waiting pile of reanimated Asgardians, sparking with lightning and scored to the opening licks of the Immigrant Song, a breath has to be taken. Joss Whedon’s 360 pan around a team of superheroes is all well and good, but some of the imagery here is framable.
Thor: Ragnarok is not the Marvel film to completely break the mold that the studio has so carefully constructed for itself. Armies of zombies make killing seem easy and pointless, and Thor eventually learns a lesson equivalent to something out of a kid’s book. When Waititi needs to make it count, he makes it count. He just knows what works. Put an old, bearded dad on a cliff overlooking the ocean as he contemplates the end of his life, flanked by his grown sons, and that’s a scene that’s going to do its job. Easily the best Thor film and in the conversation for best MCU film, Thor: Ragnarok continues Waititi’s, and Marvel’s, winning streak and hopefully enables him to continue to make unique New Zealand comedies for whatever budget he wants. B+