One of the more valid criticisms levelled against Marvel’s films is that for all its claims of being filmmaker-led and tonally diverse, they’re increasingly unimaginative productions. Slick action scenes, a smattering of Whedonesque quips and the occasional fan-servicing cameo are all staples of any movie with the Marvel logo, and while that formula might prevent another (relative) failure like Thor: The Dark World, it also robs audiences of the chance to be truly surprised.
Enter Thor: Ragnarok, which gives proof, just as we need it, that Marvel Studios will still give movies the chance be surprising. The film is directed by Taika Waititi, a filmmaker made famous by his eccentric, genre-lampooning horror mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows. There’s no mistaking his fingerprints all over Ragnarok, with its constant action-bathos and frequent juxtaposition of the mundane against the fantastic. The movie skewers Marvel’s own tropes so frequently that, like Iron Man 3 (aka the best Marvel movie) it threatens to leave the playground an unusable mess for anyone that follows.
As a viewer, that’s exciting. There’s a genuine sense in Ragnarok that anything could happen to anyone – that the rules no longer apply. Paired with Waititi’s technicolour visuals and speed-prog soundtrack, the movie is a sensory delight. When you’re not being dazzled, it’s because you’re laughing: this is as close to an outright comedy as Marvel has ever dared allow. Struck against its prequels – the slightly undercooked Thor and the decidedly limp Thor: The Dark World – Ragnarok comfortably obliterates them. It is, by some distance, the most enjoyable Thor movie, and the first that even gets close to realising the true scope of these characters.
Unfortunately, you have to take the rough with the smooth. What Thor: Ragnarok gains in charm and comedy, it loses in story. Individual character arcs are vague, characters themselves are borderline unrecognisable, and more than a couple of film’s big twists are accompanied by quick leaps of logic that it’d really prefer you didn’t dwell on. Waititi’s genius undoubtedly lies in the movie’s technicolour aesthetics and sheer tonal poise. It seems like he isn’t that interested in much else. If you squint, the movie has discernible themes, but they’re way, way in the background.
The problem, if you consider it one, is that everything comes second to the jokes – even established character. The Thor of Ragnarok, though heroic, is clumsy and petty. Banner’s intense sadness and self-loathing is replaced with jumpy, rabbit-like neuroses and slapstick. The returning actors clearly love stepping into twisted versions of their roles – but if some audience members came out feeling robbed or cheated, you’d really struggle to begrudge them. Waititi clearly finds it funny to tease the headliners down to their very DNA. Gods help you if you don’t agree.
That’s not to suggest the film is completely incapable of playing it straight. Hela is a formidable villain, easily top three for the MCU, and with the operatic brilliance that Asgardians demand. Blanchett is perfect in the role, with a sneer that looks like it could destroy the world. Many of the other supporting players get the kind of genuine, unqualified moments of triumph that are repeatedly ripped from the grasp of the bigger names.
As a director who has stayed away from action blockbusters, one senses that Waititi’s movies have had the luxury of being a little meandering or unusually paced. Over in blockbuster world, this is a movie that starts dialled up to 7 and, over the course of two hours plus, manages to hit the dizzying highs of 8 or 9. For all its Spinal Tap bravura it doesn’t get anywhere near 11 (with the exception of Goldblum’s performance, which is clocking somewhere close to 900). The peaks and troughs – that rollercoaster feeling of watching a great blockbuster – are all but absent. It’s a string of sketches and skits, rather than a single epic.
In that sense, by any technical assessment a movie that completely disowns a lot of the criteria by which you’d judge a standard blockbuster. It’s so weird and idiosyncratic – like an indie movie scaled up to Marvel-size – that it’s almost tough to know what to make of it. Personally, I can’t wait to see it again, partly to catch the jokes I missed, and partly to try and untangle what it’s actually doing with itself. Unlike Marvel’s last few movies which have, more often than not, been examples of the kind of unspectacular and inoffensive pictures the Marvel house style can produce, this seems like a movie destined to live in the extremes of opinion. If the studio is to keep itself fresh as it heads towards its second decade of existence, Thor: Ragnarok is exactly the type of movie it should be producing: visually unique, narratively unpredictable and tonally audacious. But if you come out hating it…? Well, there’s a sporting chance too.