Taika Waititi is a genius and the fact that it took Hollywood so long to give him a large budget and free reign is a mistake that can only be rectified by giving him both of those things in the years to come.
This isn’t so much a statement inspired by Thor: Ragnarok as a statement that would have been true basically no matter what else he had done. But Thor: Ragnarok does provide central proof to my thesis being a film that sails in simply how much of a delight it is. A psychedelic, candy-coated heavy metal fantasia with a surprising layer under the surface, it’s just refreshing to sit back and have something to really enjoy. It’s still Marvel, yes, but it’s Marvel with a little extra spice.
Picking up after Thor: The Dark World and Avengers: Age of Ultron set Thor (Chris Hemsworth) on a journey through space searching for the Infinity Stones and leaving behind his home on Asgard. In his absence, his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has taken on the identity of his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and is ruling Asgard.
Thor’s return to Asgard exposes Loki and also sets Hela (Cate Blanchett) on a war-path to retake Asgard and conquer the universe. And also sets Thor and Loki adrift in space to land on the planet of Sakaar, a world ruled by the eccentric Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Thor must fight his way off the planet with the help of the roguish Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), who has no interest in helping, and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who ended up on this planet in the aftermath of Avengers: Age of Ultron and became the champion of the Gladiator games, so that he can save the people of Asgard.
You can’t talk about a film like this without talking about in the context of the larger franchise around it first and foremost. Thor: Ragnarok stands apart a little bit, as the Thor franchise sort of always has. Thor has never been the most connected character, if mostly because like the Guardians of the Galaxy his adventures take place far away from Earth.
But Thor: Ragnarok connects with its surrounding universe in slightly more substantive ways than the last two have. Not so much in plot threads (all of that’s pretty well-explained for any third movie in a trilogy in part of a massive mega-franchise), but in those nice little references that get a little extra “oomph” with their callbacks.
Take the first moment that Loki sees the Hulk in this movie, not knowing that he is the Grandmaster’s champion. Hiddleston’s sheer stomach-dropping terror is a great little touch to cut back to (considering we know what happened the last time he ran into the Hulk…)
and there’s an extra little oomph later on when Loki cheers after Hulk does the same thing to his brother. Not only for the repeat, but because we know the relationship that has been developed between Loki and Thor, that Loki feels Thor was always somewhat sheltered from the things Loki had to deal with.
There’s also storytelling that works because we’ve gotten to know these characters for so long. In the first Marvel film directed by a person of color, Thor: Ragnarok manages to seat a pretty fascinating little discussion of the legacies of imperialism and colonialism and the way our history paints over them. Hela is imperialism personified, Odin shoving her and her blood-thirsty ways under the rug and literally covering up the history of their conquest.
But it works so well because we know this world, we’ve gotten to know Odin as the kindly old father-king and we know the glowing utopia of peaceful warriors. Seeing how it was built, seeing the horrors needed to build it only has the impact because we had the history.
Thor: Ragnarok is full of those little touches, little shout-outs that feels based in the world they’ve been building. Not alienating in its density, but just character moments and jokes that work because there’s some history behind them. Think more TV show, less movie franchise.
Which could be insulting, but Thor: Ragnarok definitely isn’t scaled like a TV show. On the contrary, Thor: Ragnarok perhaps smartly scales things up bigger than the Thor films have up until now. Mainly by trading its Lord of The Rings and Game of Thrones influences for Jack Kirby, heavy metal album covers, and Heavy Metal.
While Asgard keeps its Rivendell look, a massive chunk of this film takes place in the candy-colored twisting Sakaar, filled with bizarre creatures (think Guardians of the Galaxy aliens) and towering structures. The costumes are more colorful and elaborate and the world feels more packed with detail, it’s a welcome injection of psychedelia into a franchise that’s often struggled with its identity.
It also helps that it turns out the amazing work Taika Waititi has done on a smaller scale really does translate to blockbuster filmmaking. His control of the image on the smaller scale translates to a splash-page ability on the big screen that makes a few really great compositions (there’s a shot of Thor flying across a lava planet chased by a dragon that is just *mwah*) in a franchise that often lacks visual distinction.
But more important is Waititi’s control over his actors and their chemistry and relationships. Thor: Ragnarok runs directly up to the line of comedy and it seems to let many of the long-running actors spread their wings more than anyone else.
None more than Chris Hemsworth, a comedic actor in a leading action hero’s body. Getting the chance to play a more overtly comedic character creates a more natural performance for Hemsworth and one that feels like he’s not trying so hard to occupy whoever this person is and out of that flows a much more natural conception of things like his royalty or his strength. But it also helps Anthony Hopkins, who finally feels like he’s not phoning it in, and Tom Hiddleston, who locks into the idea that it’s super funny when dignified people have comedy to them. It’s funny when a guy falls down a manhole, it’s funnier when that guy is wearing a monocle.
It’s the new supporting cast that really makes Waititi’s work stand out though. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie is an unabashed show-stealer, playing the fallen warrior as a Han Solo-type, slowly regaining her belief in anything. It’s pure swagger from the moment she walks on screen and Thompson’s screen magnetism is never more on display than in her brilliant opening scene.
You’ve also got the great Cate Blanchett playing Marvel villain by way of Gloria Swanson which honestly stirred up all kinds of feelings in me. She’s only slightly surpassed in her scene devouring by Goldblum’s Grandmaster, playing as much Goldblum as he can. Karl Urban does a great turn as the morally conflicted Skurge and I also absolutely must give a shout-out to Waititi himself as Korg, the quietest revolutionary.
Thor: Ragnarok is simply a firework, a burst of fun and excitement and visual delight (with a few caveats, that Norway scene oof). So worth escaping into, so worth the attention that Taika Waititi has always deserved.