(SPOILERS) Thor: Ragnarok is frequently very funny. It’s also very colourful. And quite wacky. But very funny, very colourful and quite wacky are, clearly, the current Marvel formula du jour, such that Kiwi director Taika Waititi isn’t so much unleashing a miraculous, newfound irreverent spirit onto the studio’s assorted favourites as rearranging its recently-upholstered furniture. What makes this case a little different is that the rearranging is in the service of their least interesting title character; Ragnarok comes across as if a whole movie had been based on the scene in the first Thor where the god of thunder goes into a pet shop and asks for a horse.
Am I doing down Waititi’s contribution? After all, he’ll likely receive nothing but raves off the back of this. Well, to the extent that he works a Joss Whedon effect on all the characters herein (good or bad, incidental or main), over-feeding them gags such that they’d be indistinguishable from each other if not for the personalities of the performers (which is why Blanchett’s quips fall entirely flat while Hemsworth’s, for all that he’s pushed too far the other way now as a purveyor of non-stop comedy and non-Asgardian language, mostly travel), yes.
I should emphasise that Waititi doesn’t get a screenplay credit; that’s for Eric Pearson (Agent Carter), with story designated to Pearson, Craig Kyle (various animated Marvel series), and Christopher Yost (ditto, along with a screenplay nod for Thor: The Dark World). In other words, this has been precision-engineered in the Marvel workhouse, with the studio then enabling its selected “auteur” to sprinkle a little of his own magic fairy dust over it. Not too much, but just enough to ensure Thor doesn’t go down as the lame duck of the Avengers characters boasting their own trilogy, charisma and receipts-wise.
As such, the same is true of the direction. There’s enough that’s distinctive here for it to be clear Waititi has brought his own stamp, including a predilection for vibrant colours and designs taken from the page rather than (say) following the Bryan Singer route of all-purpose leather wear (that is, if all-purpose means everyone is wearing it in undifferentiated way). This is his first big movie and his first outside of New Zealand, so if I say you wouldn’t know, and that it looks as impressively staged as any other recent Marvel movie, it’s as much a complement to his second unit director (Ben Cooke, who also worked on the previous Thors in a stunts capacity) and the effects department (the trash planet, spaceship designs etc, are very redolent of the vibrant, upbeat look of Luc Besson SF – if only Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets hadn’t tended to the flatulent).
This is a well-oiled machine, and the action, just like the gags, drop off the conveyer belt like so many sausages. There are definitely moments where you see Waititi’s more pared-down preferences coming through (Goldlbum’s Grandmaster going to town on a space age Casio keyboard), but the big moments have been digitally storyboarded well in advance. In that sense, the nearest comparison is Peyton Reed and Ant-Man.
That comparison is significant, because Ragnarok also suffers on the pacing front. Not in concept, which is actually quite canny and robust, with its Asgard bookend and Thor thrown from the fray, needing to get back in the nick of time to save his people (if not land), complete with a Chekov’s Surtur (Clancy Brown voicing a nicely-designed fire demon) primed to be re-used in the final act (meaning the classic mid-adventure Bond/Indy opening is only apparently superfluous). And, in terms of individual scenes, these are often pitch-perfect, particularly when they rely on comic interaction and pay-offs. But in terms of weight and direction, there’s something lacking here. It was quite a while before I realised, post Thor-Hulk clash, that we wouldn’t be returning to the arena (maybe that was wishful thinking), and it quickly became apparent that every time we cut back to Asgard we were being fed a subplot Waititi had zero interest in exploring.
Mostly because there are no gags to be yielded from it, and when he unwisely attempts to enforce them on Hela (Blanchett, all Shakespear’s Sister when she isn’t Maleficent refashioned as moose), they straight up bomb. This section of the movie is entirely dreary, with Asgardians in peril, Karl Urban unable to pull anything interesting from the hat of troubled not-really-so bad guy Skurge (apart from an ill-advised mockney accent, but I wouldn’t call that exactly interesting) and Idris Elba entirely failing to shine any charisma on the one-note Heimdall (he’s been essentially redundant in all three Thors). Blanchett purveys strictly uninspired villainy, but she’s been here before, her failures (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) proving more memorable than her successes (Cinderella).
Consequently, what should be ticking clock tension working in the background fails to insert itself as strongly as it should. We aren’t sufficiently invested in the stakes Thor’s fighting for, and there’s insufficient urgency in his diversion on Sakaar. Ragnarok flows more successful in the opening act, ironically, when it’s throwing in left-field developments and cameos, than once it has established its credentials. That doesn’t mean the action of the grand Asgardian climax doesn’t carry well enough on its own terms, as predictable it is (although, Hulk fighting a giant wolf isn’t exactly effective use of his abilities), and doesn’t have the occasional surprise (Thor losing an eye wasn’t one I, er, saw coming – the trailers disguised it, for a start – even if its thematically a little too on the nose, aligning him as his father’s rightful heir).
With regard to Waititi’s sensibility, it’s a mixture of hit and miss, albeit the miss is often a consequence of cumulative hits wearing thin through repetition. His indulgently self-awarded role of friendly rock monster Korg, like his vicar in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, often doesn’t get the yuks he should, there to offer deadpan drollery but only intermittently hitting the target. Thor is set up as a butt of his own self-assured bravado, which pays-off handsomely the first or even second time, but you need to know when to hold off (you can entirely see the Jack Burton here, an influence on Waititi, but one film is not the other, so taking it on board wholesale perhaps wasn’t the best move).
So too Hulk. Ironically, as he’s the big selling point here, it becomes evident pretty quickly that the reason Whedon sold him so deceptively easily was that he limited him to short, sharp bursts. Put him on screen with Thor for too long and the rewards begin to wear a little thin. You start to feel like you’re the one bouncing his baseball repetitively against the wall. As such, bewildered Bruce – and thus visible Mark Ruffalo – is a better semi-permanent fixture than his alter-ego, particularly as a fish out of water who has lost several years.
Some of Ruffalo’s baffled interactions with Hemsworth are beautifully delivered (“That doesn’t sound right” in response to Thor informing Banner he beat Hulk easily in combat), but it’s also true to say that the lie Thor tells both Hulk and Bruce (that he prefers each of them to the other) reflects that there isn’t a strong dynamic between these characters, certainly not one that can be sustained beyond quips. It’s additionally unfortunate that we had to be reminded of Whedon’s ill-advised decision to inflict a romantic undercurrent between Bruce and Natasha, just when we were hoping Marvel might choose to forget it, like they had their one-time wedding with Whedon (on the other hand, the light made of Natalie Portman’s Jane’s absence from the proceedings is handled just right).
Also just right is Thor-Loki’s fraternal love-hate. Hemsworth wanting to believe the best of his brother while knowing the worst is inevitable, Hiddleston enjoying himself with the scheming and double-dealing. While Waititi’s reaction to Thor’s prowess is to mock him, his presentation of Loki is consistent with what we have seen before, if maybe a little broader; it’s a joy to see how palpably unnerved he is at the sight of Hulk in the arena, and his unbridled glee at Thor receiving the same treatment from his big green mitts he did in The Avengers. And then there’s their “Get help” routine, illustrating as effectively as anything one might muster how close they’ve been in the past and how easily they slip right back into it.
The remaining supporting cast are variably effective. Tessa Thompson ought to have been a no-brainer – she was great recently in both Westworld and War on Everyone – but is strangely wrong-footed as Valkyrie (are all the Valkyries called Valkyrie? I’m surprise Waititi didn’t riff on that), unable to convince as a hard-drinker, and striking little chemistry with her co-stars (in spite of the insistent voicing of unknowing familiarity between her and Bruce).
If this is to be his last appearance in the Marvel-verse, Anthony Hopkins at least gets to have some fun. Not so much in Odin’s ghostly advice to his son once he has shuffled off to Fólkvangr, but rather when he’s playing Loki playing Odin (his “Oh shi…” on seeing Thor returned, while kicking back watching a play in which he’s performed by Sam Neill – with Luke Hemsworth as Thor EDIT: one of my co-attendees said Matt Damon was in this scene, and I thought he was referring to the Thor actor, rather than Loki. I need better eagle eyes! – is worth all his going-through-the-motions previous essayings of the role combined). It’s also fun seeing Stephen Strange run rings around the Asgard brothers (“I’ve been falling… for thirty minutes!”), although Cumberbatch’s accent remains nothing short of a train wreck. And then there’s “creepy old man” Stan Lee playing a crazy hairdresser (one thing Marvel have consistently hit their marks on lately have been his cameos).
The laurels go to Goldblum, though. I wouldn’t say the Grandmaster is a particularly iconic role on the page, and it certainly doesn’t have that much screen time, but Goldblum’s presence in a movie is as inimitable as Christopher Walken’s – they both have unmistakable, idiosyncratic cadences to match their personalities you just can’t replicate with anyone else – and Waititi wisely gives him a long leash. He was evidently enough of a hit with all concerned that he was awarded the final post-credits scene (“And, uh, it’s a tie”).
As with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Waititi combines generally funny gags with a level of crudity that makes you think he just gets lucky. Devil’s Anus is exactly the kind of juvenile gobbery he would come up with (even if he didn’t), as is Thor’s hammer “pulling him off” (should wank gags be in Marvel movies? if Waititi’s involved, there’ll no doubt be paedo ones next). It’s that same inability not to go too far you find with Matthew Vaughn, but you’d have though Kevin Feige would know better on when to pull back (rather than off).
If that’s too much, at other key moments he’s unable to ramp up. As in, the populace. Asgard appears to be populated by about fifty people, which is very fortunate when it comes to a mass evacuation (now, in what I assume is a nod to topicality, they are refugees heading for Earth – I wonder if they’ll be welcome?)
Mark Mothersbaugh delivers his first Marvel score, and either he or Waititi have evidently been watching Stranger Things, as pulsing ‘80s synths are the order of the day during driving moments. For the grand battles, though, Led Zeppelin is called upon – not exactly original since Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo first “rediscovered” Immigrant Song for the movies in 2011 (I should probably cite School of Rock, but it doesn’t really count in the same way), a bit like James Gunn re-employing Hooked on a Feeling – and it’s a suitably stirring accompaniment, in yet another nod to Guardians of the Galaxy’s influence as Marvel’s current pace setter.
So Thor: Ragnarok is very funny, but it’s not as funny overall as, say Iron Man Three or this year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, and it’s very colourful, but in a manner that seems derivative of, rather than as defining as Guardians of the Galaxy. And it’s wacky, but in a jokey sense rather than inventively (again, as per Gunn’s Marvel work). In terms of character, sure, it advances Thor strategically, but not in a way that feels substantial or defining, so it rather underlines that the character just isn’t that interesting (in a similar manner to Waititi turning him into Jack Burton, it suggests he was never that impressive in the first place). It’s a good movie, to be sure, it’s a funny movie, and it’s a superior movie, by quite a margin, to the previous Thors, but it isn’t a peak Marvel moment. Perhaps if it had arrived four years ago, before Gunn it would have felt like the next big thing. Right now, it’s par-for-the-course Marvel.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.