Thor: Ragnarok is the seventeenth movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Fifteen movies in nine years. James Bond, of course, has more at twenty-five, but it took fifty-six years to get there. Batman has had seventeen movies over twenty-eight years, but that’s not a franchise so much as a popular character getting rebooted. Star Trek got thirteen movies over thirty-seven years. Those numbers alone should show how remarkable the Marvel film franchise is, but all of those other long-lasting franchises have also had some terrible entries and box office flops, Marvel has yet to make a film that has disappointed on either an entertainment or a box-office level, though the Thor films have come the closest to doing both. Thor: Ragnarok not only continues Marvel’s pedigree of excellence, but it is also far and away the best of the Thor films and in the upper echelon of Marvel movies period.
Marvel is advertising Thor: Ragnarok as the studio’s first comedy, though I would argue that the Guardians of the Galaxy movies and particularly Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 were, but if you know what the term Ragnarok means you know that it’s dealing with pretty dark subject matter for a Marvel movie let alone a comedy. (If you don’t know, I won’t spoil it for you here.) This contradiction is a balancing act walked throughout the entire film by its cast and crew as they try to keep things light-hearted and fun while at the same time showing that the story has serious stakes and consequences for those taking part in it. While they do have to cheat here and there to pull off this feat, pull it off they do and spectacularly enough that the cheating can be mostly overlooked.
Chris Hemsworth (Thor) was initially cast as Thor largely because of his appearance and because he’d worked with Joss Whedon earlier on Cabin in the Woods so he’d proven he could take on a large film anchoring role. Take on the role he absolutely did, and with gusto, but the character of Thor is one the more bland Marvel heroes as he has to be both so immensely powerful as to rarely be in honest danger, but also has to embody humility and virtue so doesn’t really have major character flaws, either. He’s Marvel’s Superman, but without a great rogue’s gallery and level of fame, and this made for a character that even when played as well as possible by Hemsworth is still the least interesting of the Avengers. Over the last few years, though, Hemsworth has proven he has some real comic chops between his shorts as “roommate Thor” and being the funniest character in the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot. Marvel very intelligently ran with that and allowed Thor to also be the funniest Avenger, which is the defining character trait he’s needed all along and allowed Thor: Ragnarok to finally be a truly special Thor movie.
The rest of the cast is also fantastic with Mark Ruffalo returning as The Hulk/Bruce Banner and showing that he also has comic talent, Tom Hiddleston giving us a Loki who we already knew could be both hilarious and nefarious, and Jeff Goldblum appears for the first time in a Marvel movie as the Grandmaster and manages to steal every scene he appears in with his own eccentric brand of comedic performance. While these four give the film its heart and soul, Cate Blanchett as the god of death Hela is incredibly menacing and captivating, and Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie and Karl Urban as Skurge hold their own in this amazing cast as two Asgardians with more personality than we get from the majority of the gods. The only real disappointments here are Idris Elba returning as Heimdall and Anthony Hopkins as Odin who both seem like they were more or less phoning in their roles, and Hopkins not even caring if anyone noticed.
The movie does play fast and loose with the lore of both Marvel comics’ version of Thor and actual Norse mythology. For the most part, the changes work and add a fun unpredictability to the film for those who know either story of Ragnarok well but could annoy the geekier purists out there. The patchwork light and dark tones also make for a story able to surprise, particularly in the film’s climactic battle which is the most daring ending to a Marvel film yet, but it can also make for inconsistent motivations from the characters as they act in ways which are more concerned with what is funny or exciting than what is consistent or realistic.
Thor: Ragnarok has one of the most unusual soundtracks for a Marvel movie to date. Most of the Marvel films use a classic orchestral score while the Guardians of the Galaxy films are famous for their use of classic rock. Thor: Ragnarok has a largely orchestral score, but it also mixes in techno music reminiscent of 80’s New Age music and somehow has the rights to Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song” despite the band’s legendary stinginess with giving out the rights to their music. This mix works for the most part and allows for some incredibly epic action, but every now and then it can be distracting enough to break the movie’s spell.
Final verdict: Thor: Ragnarok continues the Marvel tradition of giving us an excellent thrill ride with just enough of the familiar to make us comfortable and just enough spin to make a superhero movie not quite like any we’ve seen before. Its mix of comedy and bold plot complications makes for a bit of a patchwork, but a pretty remarkable patchwork that manages to work far more often than it distracts, though it certainly isn’t perfect. If you’re already a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe then heading out to see Thor: Ragnarok as soon as possible on the largest screen possible is an absolute no-brainer. If you are either not a fan or have somehow avoided seeing any of the other fourteen films for this long, it’s not quite as easy of a recommendation, but while you will miss some of the nuance longtime fans of the series will enjoy, Thor: Ragnarok is so much pure fun that I find it hard to believe that any but the most interminable stick in the muds will find a good amount of enjoyment in it.