Dying is easy, comedy is hard. It’s an age-old truism that, at least in entertainment, always persists. Just look at how many studios have struggled to make their own somber and ponderous superhero franchises—much less a universe filled with them—and then how deceptively easy the Marvel Cinematic Universe has continued to truck along in comparison. While other filmmakers risk dying on the vine in a reach toward the grandiose, the MCU seems to skate into its unending success, just as its irreverent smirk spreads ever wider.
That appealing consistency is certainly true of the next movie off the Marvel Studios assembly line, Thor: Ragnarok. Directed by indie darling Taika Waititi, the Kiwi director behind two of the decade’s most delightfully strange comedies, including Hunt for Wilderpeople, Marvel has arguably never leaned deeper into the realm of slapstick and the type of knowing satisfaction that comes with playing everything as a lark. Even the Norse mythology genocide in the film’s title is a punchline. When the apocalypse proves to be a situation ripe for ridicule, it is difficult to do anything but also chuckle.
This is par for the course with the film, as Thor: Ragnarok would appear to offer the final confirmation that has permeated around Marvel Studios films since their 2008 inception: they work better as comedies. To be sure, not all Marvel movies are laughers, and there have been even a few that took a respectable stab at something resembling dramatic weight. Look no further than Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a superhero movie wherein all involved told the press lines that this was the equivalent of a “1970s spy thriller.” They even had Robert Redford stuck in a glorified cameo to pove it! Yet very few spy thrillers end with a fight to save the world from a giant CGI leviathan crashing into the Potomac. Nay, the MCU films have always kept more than one foot in the realm of Saturday morning cartoon, and a tongue firmly planted in their cheek.
Thus after nearly 10 years, it seems Marvel Studios has finally done some soul searching, as Thor: Ragnarok caps a trio of 2017 MCU films that were low on stakes (even if two of them involved the fate of the whole galaxy) but were high on cheeky sass. And honestly, all three of them were a cut above most compatriots derived from the Marvel Studios formula, with Spider-Man: Homecoming being exceptionally strong. Comparably, Thor: Ragnarok plays swell as an easygoing farce about surfer bros—at least during its best sequences—and embraces the MCU’s most worthwhile and self-aware elements while not rocking the brand’s boat. When Thor works, like Guardians of the Galaxy and the most recent Spidey adventure, its lighthearted charms are infectious. Just so long as you don’t think about it too hard, of course.
Ragnarok’s virtues and flaws are apparent in simply how the film is divided. Cut into three sections, it is in the abnormally long second act where Waititi is allowed to paint a little bit outside the very familiar lines and find his preferred absurdity. That is also why the mid-section takes up a full hour.
The threequel about Marvel’s most illustriously coiffed superhero begins redundantly enough. Like the two Thor movies before it, Chris Hemsworth’s talents are checked by a general aversion by the Marvel powers-at-be to ever take the material too seriously or attempt something substantial with the rather uncomfortably adorned fantasy trappings. Thor has returned to Asgard, suspecting something is amiss with his father (Anthony Hopkins) and quickly deduces that he is actually facing his adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in disguise as the old Norse king. They squabble again. And then, after much fan service and narrative rambling, confront their father once more.
Everything is so played out, even the reveal of a delicious new villain in the shape of Cate Blanchett at her most ferocious (and hammy) is treated rather perfunctory. Whereas a similarly mythical-superhero hybrid earlier this year, Wonder Woman, treated the concept of Amazons and Greek gods with complete sincerity, Marvel is always weary of getting too close to Harry Hamlin territory. While lurching back into superhero conventions can cause other strange origin stories to appear serviceable, the cautious self-deprecation of the Thor movies always felt akin to filmmakers apologizing in advance for the silliness of the concept.
Yet if the studio will never dare reach toward Lord of the Rings or even Harry Potter-adjacent airs for its fantasy, that doesn’t mean it has to be so damn boilerplate either. Hence why Waititi and the audience are overjoyed to spend most of the film’s running time on the second act where Thor gets banished from Asgard and the by-the-numbers plotting that resides there. (Alas, the game Blanchett isn’t so lucky.)
Instead the film becomes a situational comedy, much like Spider-Man: Homecoming’s intense fascination with day-to-day high school hijinks, or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 devoting more time to Rocket and Yondu hanging out than on the cosmic potential of Ego’s powers. And when Thor changes its attention to an exiled god on a planet called Sakaar, we are all the better for it. The film essentially switches into the same genre as Guardians (smug sci-fi), and Waititi and Hemsworth are allowed to adlib and go into some off-the-wall directions. Suddenly, a narrative detour turns into a comedic goldmine. Among the elements that lift the movie out of its potential doldrums is a wonderfully depraved Jeff Goldblum who gives his most meta-acknowledgement of playing “Goldblum” this side of a Jurassic Park sequel. Embodying a lecherous and decadent king who finds inventive ways for executions via ray guns, and celebrates his birthday via cosmic pleasure palace, it’s a gnarly and sideways turn within the contours of what’s expected in a Marvel movie.
In essence, Sakaar is Jabba the Hutt’s opening of Return of the Jedi stretched out for an hour with Goldblum as the proverbial slug. How can that go wrong? Other winners include re-introducing Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner and his green-meanie alter-ego as a gladiatorial foe. This is right out of a Marvel Comics story called “World War Hulk,” but it plays much more like Point Break for whenever Banner is onscreen instead of the CGI big guy, with Ruffalo playing an awed Keanu to Thor’s alpha Swayze. Luckily, it’s not all so macho since the best character in this whole narrative tangent is Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), a hard-drinking anti-heroine who essentially gets to be the Han Solo of the movie.
It’s just irresistibly funny. At least until they all have to go back to Asgard to defeat Blanchett. Then the story falls back into MCU banalities and dutifully closes the plot with a gray-scaled, computer-generated overload. And it’s fine. It lacks the thrill of a twist that benefitted Spider-Man: Homecoming’s finale or the emotional weight that Guardians unexpectedly earned with Yondu, but it’s fine.
It’s also about as good as a Thor movie is going to get, because after 10 years, it’s abundantly clear that Marvel is never going to shakeup its formula too much. At least since 2012’s The Avengers, Marvel movies with few with few exceptions have played out a certain way, and that has provided tonal consistency but narrative repetitiveness. In almost each of these movies, one or more Avengers (or aspiring Avengers) will learn a lesson about their own hubris and build a makeshift team together to save the day, whether they’re actually called the Avengers, Captain America’s Super-Friends, Ant-Man’s Ocean’s 11 crew, or the Guardians of the frickin’ Galaxy. Ragnarok even had some fun with this cliché by having Thor call his own film’s final team-up, “The Revengers.”
It can all be deadly boilerplate and will never risk reaching for something as ambitious—cinematically, narratively, intellectually, or emotionally—as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy, or even James Mangold’s Logan from earlier this year. Even Thor after three films can’t take its conceit of gods and magic as earnestly as the unapologetic Wonder Woman from Patty Jenkins.
Yet there is method in this madness, as many superhero adventures that reach for that amount of vulnerability often just end up a vulnerable mess. The slow derailment of the original masterplan for the DCEU, beginning withg decade ago, but it also lends itself to seamlessly continuing the story, as each movie can be an episode in Peter Parker’s life as opposed to a life-shattering turning point.
Comedy might be harder than dying, but if this year’s three MCU movies are any indication, comedy is going to keep Marvel movies far from their deathbed for a long time to come.g