'Thor: Ragnarok' finds humor at end of the world
It's weird because it's a movie about Norse mythology that focuses more on technological marvels than the mythology inherent to its title. It's weird because of the dramatic tonal shift from the other Thor movies. And it's super weird because Jeff Goldblum shows up with shockingly blue hair and literally melts a man with a stick.
"Ragnarok" is a trip, but it is one heck of a journey to a place more bizarre than other Marvel movies have ventured.
What's so hard to reconcile about "Ragnarok" is how lightly the movie takes the end of a world. Superhero movies are all about saving planets from destruction while making sure the people are safe and the damage is minimal. A few jokes are sprinkled in to ensure the story doesn't get too dark, but for the most part the superhero as savior concept is a foundation for a lion's share of comic book-related lore.
Except for "Ragnarok," in which the threat of the destruction of Asgard starts as a gag between Thor (Chris Hemsworth reprising his role) and a skeleton just above a pit of fire. It sets the rhythm for the rest of the movie, with the comedy taking a precedence over the gravity of the situation the characters face. Everyone cracks a few jokes, from the naturally talkative Loki (Tom Hiddleston), to the goddess of death/destroyer of world Hela (Cate Blanchett), to the otherwise stern Heimdall (Idris Elba), to the fallen Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). Even the Hulk, the Incredible Hulk and not Bruce Banner (both of whom are versions of Mark Ruffalo) showcases something resembling a sense of humor.
And you know what? It's actually kind of glorious in its own way. The sense of humor is akin to what's found in the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but "Ragnarok" makes it unique by changing the context to make the jokes a greater joke itself. "Ragnarok" is a slightly different family tree as "Dr. Strangelove," in which the biggest laugh is earned by the insanity of the movie mocking the inherent somber nature of earth's destruction.
The story "Ragnarok" tells is just as dark as "Dr. Strangelove," but with brighter colors and Disney's stamp of approval. That also means the Thor movie can't be as nihilistic as "Dr. Strangelove" is; it is still a blockbuster first and foremost. But director Taika Waititi and the screenwriters push "Ragnarok" further than the other Thor films to do what the best MCU movies have done; make a movie with their own imprint on it.
There are, again, limits to how far creatively the filmmakers can get with the Marvel movies - an entire cinematic universe is at stake - but Waititi and company turned a Thor movie into a comedy. Like the excellent "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and the very good to great "Guardians of the Galaxy" movies, "Ragnarok" stands on its own as a piece of cinema.
Still, there remains a bit lacking with "Ragnarok" that pushes it a step or two down from the aforementioned Marvel movies and puts it more on par with the fun "Spider-Man: Homecoming" and "Iron Man 3." There is what should amount to a great story arc involving Thor and the uncovering of his father Odin's (Anthony Hopkins) past, something that should force the mighty god of thunder to confront his own background and the demons his father has wrought upon his people.
It's a Shakespearean bit in line with the first Thor movie, with the evil Odin committed living far beyond the good he brought in. "Ragnarok" barely touches the surface of this story, having Thor just sort of go with the news that his father was a monster for a very long time. That could be marked as a sign of character growth, but Thor does drop a few tears for Odin early on, and the amount of time the movie spends reconciling Odin's history is disappointingly minimal.
But the baseline for a quality superhero movie - good action, likable characters, expansive world building - remains intact, and the goofy nature and general oddness of the situation only add to those key elements. To re-purpose another classic literary line, "Ragnarok" opts to end the world not with a whimper but with a bang and a lot of laughs along the way toward doom.
Rating: Four out of Five Stars
Target audience: As with every Marvel film, everyone who has ever watched a movie from the MCU and wants to keep up with the ongoing story.
Take the whole family?: Really depends on how OK the parents are with a lot of violence but little blood to show for it. A couple years under the PG-13 mark should be fine.
Theater or Netflix?: It's fun for a trip to the theater, although the 3D isn't really worth it though.
How has 2017 been for the MCU?: Pretty great. Despite releasing three movies, two of which were a second and a third installment to long-running series, this is the first time in a while that Marvel fatigue hasn't hit that hard. It helps that the three movies released were good and different enough to offer some separation to the weary viewers. It also offers some hope for 2018, with the release of Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" and the probably stupidly stuffed "Avengers: Infinity War."
Watch this as well?: Along with the other MCU entries, comedian/author John Hodgman has a comedy special devoted to the impending "Ragnarok," called "John Hodgman: Ragnarok," that is quirky and hilarious, highlighted by his decision to send a kid out in the cold to wait for doom to come.
Rating: PG-13 Run time: 130 minutes