More noise than signal

Thor: Ragnarok

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

It’s rare that a series gets better as the number of instalments goes up, but there’s a solid case for that happening with the Thor films. Kenneth Branagh’s original took a few risks with the then not fully nailed down Marvel formula, and while I appreciated the effort, it didn’t quite land for me. Thor 2: Thor Harder hewed a bit closer to type, and while I recall enjoying it more, I recall almost nothing else about the film. Enter Thor: Ragnarok, with Marvel’s random director generator landing on the splendid New Zealander Taika Waititi.

First known to me as part of the driving force of the excellent Flight of the Conchords, we caught his 2010 film Boy on the festival circuit and found it a delightful experience, and I was pleased to see the new found exposure leading to a re-release (or possibly just release) of that film into cinemas recently. Since then I’ve been a little out of the Waititi loop – What We Do in the Shadows is a great idea for a comedy film, but it never landed for me in the 45 minutes I allowed it, and to my regret I’ve not caught up with the well-received Hunt for the Wilderpeople. But, we’re not here to discuss his career – although in time I hope we can get to that – but to the matter of Thor: Ragnarok.

Ragnarok may pick up from the events of either the last Thor film, or an Avengers film, or something – at this point I no longer have the spare brain cycles to care about Marvel’s continuity. At any rate, before long Thor (Chris Hemsworth) figures out that it’s Loki (Tom Hiddleston) on the throne of Asgard, pretending to be Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Exposing this lie, he drags his brother back to Earth to track down a dying Odin, but while they’re off having a chin-wag with Dr. Strange, Asgard is assaulted by Odin’s firstborn daughter and Goddess of Death Hela (Cate Blanchett), who crushes all that stand in her way, raising an army of the undead, while Heimdall (Idris Elba) tries to protect as many refuges from the onslaught as possible out in the countryside.

Thor and Loki’s attempt at stopping her is swiftly rebuffed, and a tactical retreat goes awry when they’re hurled through space to land on a strange planet, Sakaar, governed by a strange ruler, the Grandmaster (an exceptional Jeff Goldblum). Thor is captured by a scavenger that turns out to be a fellow Asgardian, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and forced to compete in gladiatorial games, while Loki manages to weasel his way into the Grandmaster’s confidence. Thor’s surprised to find that his first fight is against Bruce Banner’s emerald alter-ego, Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and to cut a narrative a bit short, hopes he can convince those aforementioned people to team up, escape the planet and destroy Hela by any means necessary.

Thor has the potential to be Marvel’s version of Superman, that is to say, a boring all-powerful dude that so outmatches his foes that there’s no drama to be had. To varying degrees, that’s happened in the previous films, but the real pleasure of his character arc is that Marvel has allowed Hemsworth to cut loose and try and be funny. And he succeeds greatly here, matching perfectly with Waititi’s brand of comedy. I suppose you’ll know if it’s for you in the first five minutes, as Thor faces off against the fire demon Surtur (voiced by Clancy Brown), with dialogue and comic timing that, multi-million CG aside, could have come straight from Flight of the Concords.

Waititi does an excellent job of combing the action with the comedy, and even allowing a few moments of character development in this gloriously silly comedy that somehow more meaningful than anything from the apparently serious Civil War film. There’s not much wrong with this film at all, really. Blanchett’s shown as a great threat well enough, but it’s tough to care all that much about her or her motivations, and there’s a hint that the film would much rather just be having madcap adventures and moments of inventive, funny dialogue. Likewise, Karl Urban as Hela’s somewhat reluctant sidekick doesn’t have all that much to do, but does it as well as anyone can.

But the positives, oh my, the positives. I could simply stop at the assertion that this is the single funniest film I’ve seen so far this year. And, well, I more or less will. The narrative bones of the film are fine, but the fleshy, tasty parts come from the host of terrific comic performances and chemistry between the featured and supporting cast. Hemsworth, Hiddleston, Ruffalo and Waititi, in his role as fellow gladiator creature Korg all bounce off each other wonderfully, but Jeff Goldblum steals the show with his performance, and his wonderful, wonderful costume.

Given that it’s been pretty successful, I don’t think it’s worth belabouring the point, but if you’re in-tune with this film’s sense of humour, it’s an absolute delight, and I think it’s now my favourite of the Marvel Studios output by a distance. If you’re not on board with it’s off beat moments, perhaps it’s less essential, and also, you are a terrible monster who hates fun.

Can’t recommend highly enough.