It should be noted that Thor, his story and his world, are my jam. I love them more than most things that I’ve read or watched over the years; even when I wasn’t really reading comics in my younger years, I was reading Thor comics or following the general story through Wikipedia or chat rooms. Also, Norse Mythology was one of my favorite set of myths to read as a kid. But even with all that inherent positive vibes, the Thor Marvel movies have not been great. The first one is a very competent introduction to him and his world and it lays a lot of ground work that the larger MCU has only really begun to dig into now, but the second one is by far one of the weakest MCU movies, down there with Iron Man 2. It’s convoluted, boring and the last half of the movie is kind of a drag. Chris Hemsworth has always been a pretty good Thor, but the movies themselves? Meh.
But enough about all that, because Thor: Ragnarok kicks ass on just about every level a movie can. Set a couple of years after Age of Ultron, Thor has continued his unsuccessful quest to find any of the Infinity Stones, but he has managed to find an underpowered Surtur who is the key to Ragnarok, the end times for Asgard and those who live there. Thinking he has stopped the apocalypse before it even really began, he returns to Asgard and discovers that his brother Loki has been masquerading as Odin for some time now. They find Odin, Odin kinda tells them he loves them and dies, which releases Hela, their evil older sister, from some sort of prison. She beats them up and conquers Asgard pretty quickly. The Odin sons end up on Sakaar, a garbage pile of a planet full of rejects where they are reunited with the Hulk and meet PTSD victim Valkyrie, both of whom help them escape, but only after some fights, good jokes and quality character moments. Eventually they all head back to Asgard, fight a lot of undead warriors and the status quo of Thor and Asgard is forever altered in the MCU. Led Zeppelin music is used exactly as much as it should be throughout.
I think that what makes this Thor movie so much better than the previous ones and gives it that sense of fresh air is that the movie unabashedly goes for it. Everything is big, over the top and feels epic and cosmic in a way that the other movies simply do not; Thor becomes a Gladiator, Thor and Valkyrie jump from ship to ship in a chase sequence where they basically beat up their pursuers by punching their ships do death. There was a lot of chatter in the lead up to this movie about how they really wanted to do something different and director Taika Waititi and the screenwriters splash that motto all over the movie. By taking Thor and his posse out into space but away from Asgard, the movie gets to bask in a lot of the weirdness and fun that Guardians of the Galaxy does while still retaining some of the core aspects of Thor that work. The weird family dynamics, the expectation of leadership and rising to the occasion… these weighty issues that Thor is always right on the cusp of dealing with in the comics actually get dealt with in this movie because the movies have permission to move things along. By the end of this movie, Thor is essentially Odin, only much younger and not burdened with such a violent past. That’s really interesting and hopefully since this movie did so well, something that the next Thor movie actually gets to deal with. Like the very best Marvel films, this movie packs more heart and interesting ideas into its run time than it really ought to be able to.
The movie works so well in part because the cast does a really great job. The movie feels like a tardy coming out party for Chris Hemsworth, who get a nice haircut and also gets to lean into some of his comedy chops that Marvel has not quite afforded him. His Thor is funny, warm and wiser than he once was. Besides earning the right to wield Mjolnir, Thor has matured into a man (God? Alien?) who knows who he is and knows what he is about. The scenes he shares with Loki come off as really heartfelt and sad because this is a Thor who finally knows his brother and knows what they have lost because Loki just can’t make up his mind. Hiddleston is also really good in this movie in a slightly different way than in past Loki performances; he’s funnier and more well-rounded. He no longer wants to take over the world or is bitter towards his family. Him and Thor have found common ground and an understanding of each other. Cate Blanchett is basically doing her Galadriel thing from the LOTR movies, but it works really well, so don’t complain; the bit where she buts on her helmet whenever she has to fight is just so damn cool.
Moving outside the royal family, Mark Ruffalo’s Banner/Hulk is an interesting step forward for the character. This Hulk can talk, has a recognizable character beyond rage and likes what he has become. Banner, on the other hand, has been stuck on the inside for two years and is thoroughly freaked out by the idea of having been “gone” for so long. The movie doesn’t give him a whole lot of time to really deal with that, but it’s a nice touch and gives the Hulk some needed character; he can’t always be the rage monster. Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie is also great and gives us something that the Marvel movies have not really had time to deal with yet; a tired, broken, PTSD suffering former hero who doesn’t want to do it anymore. There is an important romantic aspect to her character that was cut from the movie for some reason, but it’s pretty obvious if you are looking for it (HINT: she once had a girlfriend and she no longer has a girlfriend). I don’t know what to say about Jeff Goldblum except that he is more entertaining in 20 minutes of screen time than any other human is capable of being. They kind of waste Idris Elba, to be honest, but still, I enjoyed seeing him save everybody behind enemy lines. I wish they would do more with both the actor and the character.
Lastly, Karl Urban as Skurge is very interesting. If you know the comics, you know that he has one of the all-time great stories during Walt Simonson’s amazing run during the 80’s (you really must read it, it’s the best). the movie version of the character is very similar to the comic version, only played for more laughs. His story works really well, not least because of Urban’s really good performance, but I think it would have been all the better if he had been in the background throughout the past movies, as a warrior who never quite got his chance for glory; we just don’t get enough time with him for him. And that speask to the only real critique I have for this film; it movies quickly, almost too quickly. I would have loved more time with Odin, more time on Earth, a couple more gladiatorial fights on Sakaar, and more time with Thor wrestling with his newfound power and assuming Odin’s role as leader of his people. Not that I’m complaining toooo much.
If you look at the Marvel movies that don’t have Avengers in the title, they all have a lane they work best from. Iron Man is about a man rebuilding both himself and his life into something better than it was, Captain America asks solid questions about patriotism and how we balance freedom and security in the modern age, while Guardians of the Galaxy asks do we still care about adolescent men (yes, we do when they are charming as Chris Pratt) but if you were to ask me what the Thor movies are about, I don’t think I have a clear answer. Family? Fathers failing their sons? Sons failing their fathers only to turn it around eventually? Kinda, yes even, but it’s never been expressed all that well. That legacy of their parent’s shapes Thor and Loki into who they are but it doesn’t really work in the first two films. Honestly, the first two movies aren’t about much of anything.
But Ragnarok fixes that. Thor Ragnarok is about accepting the legacy of who you are, who people want you to be, and then choosing what YOU want to be. Yes, it’s a fun space adventure, heavy on the adventure, but throughout it Thor and his friends make choices that feel important, feel like they are going to hold until the end of this cycle of the MCU at the very least. Thor feels like a fully realized character, finally, and it only took 5 movies.
Also, why is her name Valkyrie? That’s a job title, not a name.