Thor: Ragnarok is Lightning in a Formula

The formula used to create films for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, of which Thor: Ragnarok is the 17th entry, is a double-edged sword. Mix in varying amounts of comedy, action, drama, gratuitous cameos, and at least a metric ton of CGI, et voila. Instant superhero blockbuster. It’s predictable and safe, not to mention insanely profitable, but now that we’re well into “Stage 3” of the MCU, it’s starting to get a little old for those of us who’ve seen every film in the library. The most entertaining films in the MCU are the ones where the formula is experimented with, such as the heist-film vibe of Ant-Man or the trippy, psychedelic palette of Doctor Strange.

For the first two acts, it appears that the most self-serious part of the MCU is going to buck the trend, as well. The film starts with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) seemingly addressing the audience in a highly uncharacteristic bending (but not breaking) of the fourth wall. A few scenes later, Thor’s hammer/crutch is broken by Hela (Cate Blanchette), the self-proclaimed goddess of death (and Thor’s previously-unmentioned older sister). While Hela sets off to conquer Asgard, Thor ends up in Sakaar, a world literally made up of discarded garbage from other planets. There, Thor is easily captured by a mysterious warrior woman (Tessa Thompson) and sold as a gladiatorial slave to the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, essentially playing himself). His first opponent just happens to be the mean, green Incredible Hulk (Marc Ruffalo).

If all of that sounds out of place for a Thor film, don’t worry. It is. And that’s what makes the majority of Ragnarok feel fresh and new. And if that sounds like something you don’t want in a Thor film, don’t worry. The third act is pure, processed Marvel Formula from start to finish. See? Something for everybody.

New Zealand director Taika Waititi might seem like an odd choice to helm a $180 million superhero film, given that he’s mostly known for quirky and quietly humorous independent films. But like how Patty Jenkins spun her indie-drama skills into superhero gold for Wonder Woman, Thor: Ragnarok is a great example of what can happen when the right director is suddenly given a (mostly) unlimited canvas. Like Jenkins, it’s clear that Waititi has a sincere, personal devotion to the material. While some of the action sequences are a bit muddled, and there’s an extended scene made of pure Green Screen Fail, the character moments that are the film’s heart are polished to an attractive shine. Waititi even places himself within those moments via motion capture as Korg, a rock-monster alien with the personality of a laid-back Kiwi bouncer, and one of the film’s most memorable supporting characters.

But those moments make the film’s flaws, which go beyond the incredibly formulaic climax, all the more apparent. Most of that can be easily pinned on the drab and featureless frame of Waititi’s otherwise colorful picture. Of the three credited writers, one has no previous film credits, one is known mostly for straight-to-DVD Marvel animated films, and the third was responsible for not only the ponderously heavy Thor: The Dark World but also for Max Steel, one of 2016’s biggest bombs. None of this ends well.

It’s claimed that the vast majority of the film’s dialogue was improvised, and it isn’t what’s coming out of characters’ mouths that hurts the film. If anything, the the snappy banter saves the film from drowning in itself. Ragnarok bounces back and forth between Sakaar and Asgard seemingly at random, and the subplots feel like they were grafted together from two completely different films. Hela’s conquest of Asgard feels like a dreary outtake from The Dark World, while Thor’s escape from Grandmaster’s arena feels like a charmingly low-fi (but high-budget) sci-fi B-movie. The two don’t mesh well together at all, both stories seem underdeveloped, and simply put, it’s nearly impossible to care about Hela despoiling such a flat and boring CGI landscape such as Asgard.

Hela’s also a woefully underwritten part, especially for the first female villain to featured as the main antagonist in a Marvel film. However, Cate Blanchett does her level best to elevate the role, and few actors are able to amp up thin material as she can. Striking an appealing balance between Galadriel’s regal bearing and her campy Boris-and-Natasha role in Indiana Jones and the Legend of the Awful Reboot, Hela is a slinking, sarcastic, seductive dame of destruction. It’s clear that Blanchett is having a great time with the character, and her presence alone gives the character (most of) the weight that the script never does.

The whole cast, in fact, works their hardest to transcend the limits of the screenplay to various degrees. Chris Hemsworth himself is at his most appealing, and i’ts in stripping the character of his high-fantasy drag that allows Hemsworth to finally display the full breadth of his admittedly impressive comedic chops. Marc Ruffalo gives a committed (at times overly so) performance as Hulk/Bruce Banner, as does Tom Hiddleston, here returning as Thor’s Chaotic Neutral-personified brother/friend/enemy Loki. Jeff Goldblum, as expected, does fantastic as the always-welcome Jeff Goldblum character.

The new character who strikes the biggest profile, though, is Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie. Everything about her is on point, from her rough-and-tumble accent to the way she swaggers through the Grandmaster’s palace. Valkyrie is as formidable a fighter as Thor, but she takes a special kind of pleasure in battle that makes her scenes tremendous fun to watch. Although the film wisely jettisons the dead weight of the Thor/Jane Foster romance (and Natalie Portman along with it), Valkyrie is never expressly set up as a new love interest, allowing the character to be defined primarily through Thompson’s performance.

Like the rest of the film, however, it’s disappointing to see Valkyrie trade in her kick-ass, black leather ensemble for a set of more typical, unimpressive battle armor in the third act. For most of the film Waititi tries his best to buck the Marvel formula, succeeding more often than not. But all his idiosyncrasies are no match for the MCU machine, and the closer the film gets to its contractually-obligated end credits stingers, the more generic it becomes. Which isn’t to say the film isn’t often genuinely funny, exciting, and entertaining. It just isn’t the full-on upheaval and rebirth that a film called Ragnarok needs to be.

FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-