Taking a cursory glance at today’s cinematic landscape it would appear that Marvel, or more accurately Disney, rule the world. Since 2008’s Iron Man the Marvel Cinematic Universe has built itself up into a box-office behemoth with huge cultural influence. I have never quite got the superhero hype, however. A long-time lover of ‘proper’ cinema and arthouse flicks, in recent years I have fought against this tendency to be a ‘film snob’. My Marvel Diary is a challenge to myself to watch all 23 MCU films, perhaps proving my prejudices correct, or perhaps turning me into a lifelong fan of all things superhero.
Release Date: 24th October 2017
MCU Phase: Three
Director: Taika Waititi
Writer: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, Christopher L. Most
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston, Jeff Goldblum, Idris Elba, Anthony Hopkins
May contain spoilers.
Thor was set up as one of the three core heroes that the whole MCU was launched from, along with Captain America and Iron Man. It is no coincidence that the best Marvel film so far was the one where Tony Stark and Steve Rogers faced off. Captain America: Civil War was so good because it utilised the MCU’s two strongest assets. Throughout his solo films and both Avengers movies, Thor has lagged behind this pair. He has always lacked a clear, engaging personality of his own. His inherent goodness and nobility is pretty similar to Cap, without all the ‘man out of time’ stuff that makes that character interesting. Next to Tony, meanwhile, Thor just looked a bit bland. There was always the odd suggestion, however, that there was a funnier side to the God of Thunder. Chris Hemsworth’s swarthy charm hinted at it, and the first two films had some stronger moments when they leaned into the comedy.
Thor: Ragnarok embraces that humour whole-heartedly and produces one of the funniest, and most fun, MCU films yet. It is the first that has been openly called a comedy, and barely goes two scenes without a joke. Most importantly, it gets Thor right. You can tell from the first few scenes they’ve got him right. He is funny, but in his own way. Writers Craig Kyle, Eric Pearson and Christopher L. Yost haven’t produced a budget Tony Stark or Rocket Raccoon here, they’ve just gently nudged Thor in the direction he always threatened to lean in. In this film he is confident, but not arrogant in a Stark-like or even Cap-like way; it is more playful. He makes jokes and laughs in the face of danger, not because he wants to prove he’s the smartest person in the room, but because he’s having a great time. That has always been an untapped Thor trait; he loves the battle. He is a noble person with a heart of gold, but he’s a little rascal too who really likes a good fight. Hemsworth is perfect in the role now; it is the version of this character he was always meant to play.
At long last, Taika Waititi’s film has got Thor right. It gets a lot else right too. Not content with nailing his central character, Waititi, responsible for wonderful indie comedies like Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows, brings in a host of new ones too. Some of these are of the comedic variety one expects from him, including Jeff Goldblum’s sadistic gladiatorial impresario and, my personal favourite, Korg the hilarious failed revolutionary (voiced by the director himself). Most impressive, though, are the more ‘serious’ new characters that are brought in here, and that this film is arguably one of the best yet for action and spectacle. In Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie we have a new hero to bring back in later entries, and one of the best-developed female characters in the MCU. It’s only taken 17 films. Her funny, hard-drinking ex-warrior is a prominent addition to a film filled with colourful characters. They may have ditched or killed some of Thor’s boring mates from the first two films, but the new batch are much more fun.
Cate Blanchett is perfect casting as Hela: Thor’s sister, Goddess of Death, and one of the best Marvel villains yet. She has a properly evil, slightly mad side to her which I love. It is kind of gothic and scary rather than just plain ‘bad’. The hair metamorphosing into her crown of horns is a lovely touch too. Then there’s the solid motivation. On one level its another ‘I want to rule the world’ job, but the inherent link to her father Odin and that she was essentially raised to kill and rule makes it interesting. For Thor Odin was and always will be a good man, which is what makes Hela interesting. She and Thor are two sides of the same coin, both extreme reflections of the violent and benevolent stages of their father’s life. She brings with her more than just physical destruction; the entire fabric of Asgard and loyalty to his benevolent father that Thor has based himself on is reckoned with by Hela. This thematic strand is dropped a bit, with Thor not seeming very tormented about his father’s troubled history. Then again Thor always knew this dark side of being king, which is why he rejected the throne in The Dark World.
Crucially, whilst offering continuous humour yet a genuinely compelling action plot, Ragnarok is always huge amounts of fun. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: MCU films usually work best when they retain their sense of fun. They are about aliens and people in capes and silly hats. These are not stories that are easy to take seriously. The best way to make us care is not to tell us how terrible it is that the world is going to end, but to endear us to the heroes as people, and that is usually done through humour and the joy of watching them do cool shit on screen. From the moment Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ starts playing, you know Ragnarok is going to be a blast. There is a rock n’ roll cool about it mixed with swaggering action and pops of colour. Interestingly, this song appears twice, and everything is scored, not soundtracked. This is a new and effective technique, emphasising the use of popular music rather than making it the norm like Guardians of the Galaxy does.
It is worth taking a little time now to explore some of the film’s storytelling choices. When discussing Avengers: Age of Ultron I wrote at length about how these films all tie into each other, and the perils of ignoring what has come before. That film’s main fault, to my mind, was in looking at good work done by The Winter Soldier and Iron Man 3 and neglecting to build on it. A more dubious mistake was the decision to ignore arguably bad decisions made in Thor: The Dark World. It is undeniably a criticism of the MCU and its style of storytelling as a whole that pieces don’t always fit together and story threads are dropped. Whether it makes the film that made the mistake or the film that ignores it the weaker is a trickier issue.
With Thor: Ragnarok they don’t really have the luxury of just ignoring the blunders of The Dark World; they have to make a decision. Two of the main issues that the second Thor instalment left us with were that Loki was still alive and on the throne after not really dying again, and that the writers clearly didn’t care about Jane Foster and she was surplus to requirements. Waititi’s film makes a seemingly definitive decision on both, and does a good job of it. Jane is completely out of the picture now. She has broken up with Thor and is mentioned only by name. It is a shame that this has happened, because it is always a pity to see any character just forgotten about and dropped. However, perhaps it was best for the franchise to cut their losses here. Thor films by their nature need him hopping around the galaxy not Earthbound, and the romance between them always felt inauthentic because of how underwritten Jane was at the start. So despite my qualms, I think moving on and telling a better story was the right decision here.
With Loki, they take a different approach. You cannot just ignore the fact he is King of Asgard now, so the film tackles it head on. Thor finding out and their home coming under threat in part due to Loki’s negligence is dealt with swiftly and believably. Waititi and co. make the most of having Loki back, too. He was always one of the MCU’s most enjoyable characters, and they build that into the story nicely here, bringing back the sibling love/rivalry that was the best part of The Dark World. Most impressively, the film is self-aware enough to not just retread the same trust-betrayal cycle we’ve seen so many times before. Thor is now wise to it and accepts who Loki is – a generally bad dude. Loki is a minor part in the story too. He’s there enough to give that familiar enjoyment, but not so much that we’re covering old ground. It’s all so well done it’s enough to make me glad he wasn’t dead. Maybe.
Just as we thought Thor and the gang had escaped the reckoning on Asgard and shepherded its people to safety, a big scary-looking spaceship appears in a mid-credits sting. It leaves the story on a darker, more foreboding note after such a rollicking good time. We are getting very close to Infinity War now, and this must have something to do with it. It is interesting that we haven’t had many Thanos or infinity stone-related reveals recently. It’s a nice move. They planted all the necessary seeds back in Phase Two and are now more focussed on keeping the rest a secret whilst getting all the players in place. Sting number two is just Goldblum’s now-toppled dictator emerging to hordes of revolutionaries after the Thor-inspired revolt. It’s light-hearted and amusing, if relatively needless.
Where it Ranks
I don’t think this quite reaches the top. Civil War is, at this point, the ultimate MCU movie. It has all the best elements of the other films and blends them together almost seamlessly. My other top-tier choices so far are The Avengers and The Winter Soldier. The former is there because it is pure, well-executed fun in film form; I think Ragnarok does the same thing but somehow ups it. The Winter Soldier is there because it does something interesting with character and works really well as a film within a different genre; Ragnarok pretty much does that too. By combining strengths of the two, I think Waititi’s film has to take the silver medal for now.
- Captain America: Civil War
- Thor: Ragnarok
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- The Avengers
- Iron Man 3
- Spider-Man: Homecoming
- Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Iron Man
- Doctor Strange
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- Avengers: Age of Ultron
- Iron Man 2
- Thor: The Dark World
- The Incredible Hulk