Ragnarok was left sitting in Marvel’s lot for a good while after The Dark World was released, and early concept images and logos for the film looked to be continuing with the same tone and look as the previous Thor films. When New Zealand director Taika Waititi came on board, all of that changed. Waititi had a bold new vision for Thor, scrapping all that had come previously in favor of a new, colorful, fun version of the character and his adventures. It completely revitalized the franchise and gave Thor and company new life, just in time for the MCU’s grand finale.
Ragnarok is the start of a new life cycle, the literal word for the Norse apocalypse, during which the cosmos is destroyed and subsequently re-created. The end of the old and the birth of the new is exactly what Phase 3 of the MCU is all about, and no other film goes quite as extreme as Ragnarok does with this premise. Waititi ditches Thor’s ultra-serious Shakespearean demeanor for something a little lighter and more playful, and Hemsworth dives straight in, revealing that he actually excels in comedy. Everything is more bright and colorful, especially on the planet of Sakaar where most of the action takes place. Thor: Ragnarok is fun above all else, veering into straight up comedy territory, and every bit of it is intentional.
Waititi approached this film choosing to fully embrace all of the weirder aspects of the Marvel universe, and he tries to have as much fun as possible with them. The dramatic shift in tone and characterization can be a bit jarring, especially in the case of Thor and Bruce Banner, and it’s essentially tonal whiplash if you’ve watched all of the films back-to-back, but Ragnarok is such a joy to experience that you roll with the punches. Waititi’s unique, bizarre style is all over the film, making it a very distinct part of the MCU. If you’ve never seen Waititi’s film What We Do in the Shadows, I highly recommend it, it’s absolutely hilarious.
Thor is finally given his due here; Ragnarok does a terrific job of showing off just how cool and powerful Thor really is, and the action that he gets to partake in really feels worthy of the God of Thunder. Or the Lord of the Thunder, as Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster calls him. I don’t know what it is that Goldblum brings to everything he’s in, but it’s something, it’s tangible, and it’s impossible to describe or replicate. But it is delightful, every time. Goldblum included, Ragnarok introduces several new character that all stand out and get their time to shine: Valkyrie, Skurge, and Korg. Korg, played by Waititi himself, gets the big laughs, while Valkyrie and Skurge get their own compelling story arcs to go through. It’s not often that the entire cast of supporting characters connects with audiences, but it works here, and the only other MCU to do it better would be Black Panther only a couple of months later.
While Ragnarok completely does away with the ideas and feel of the previous Thor films, going so far as to unceremoniously kill off the Warrior’s Three with very little fanfare, it still manages to honor what came before and carry on some of the themes that were introduced. The most notable of these is the “sins of the father” motif that is prevalent not just in the Thor films, but the MCU as a whole. Pretty much everything bad that happens in the Thor movies is all Odin’s fault, and none are worse than the revelations that come to light in Ragnarok. Odin used to be a conquerer, decimating other worlds and ruling over them. Helping him on his conquests was his daughter Hela, the Goddess of Death. When Odin finally decided to be on the side of life and put an end to his crusades, he locked Hela away, unable to get rid of her for good. Odin dies, leaving his sons Thor and Loki to deal with Hela and the mess that he created.
Hela is the most powerful antagonist in the MCU thus far, smashing Thor’s hammer with ease and taking out the Asgardian army in a matter of minutes. Cate Blanchett is a legendary actress of the highest caliber, and while she does bring a sense of royal superiority to the role, she seems a bit out of her depth, or is merely not given enough direction as to what kind of person Hela exactly is. The angle of her being Thor’s sister is never really explored far enough, and Hela often ends up feeling a bit underdeveloped, more of an immovable obstacle than a full-fledged character in her own right.
Ragnarok is a comedy, but that doesn’t void it from having strong emotional moments as well. Most of these come out of Thor and Loki’s relationship. The film takes the time to establish how the two view and relate to one another. Thor saying a short prayer for his father and Loki arriving to finish it with him is a sweet, tender moment, and the two of them reminiscing about their past adventures with melancholy admiration brings home the fact that these are two brothers who’s paths diverged long ago, but still hold great love for each other. Loki finally ends up showing real growth, arriving at Agard’s darkest hour to save the citizens and assist Thor. But he still can’t help but make it about himself (“Your savior is here!”).
Bruce Banner also gets his emotional moment, if not his most emotional so far. When the Hulk sees Natasha’s message playing inside of the Quinjet, Banner comes to the surface, and we see the most powerful, agonized reverse-Hulk transformation ever put on screen. It’s nice to see Marvel continue to commit to the Bruce / Natasha romance despite fan backlash, I personally think it’s one of the MCU’s best personal story threads. We also see a completely different side of Hulk, he’s been in charge for over two years, and has a much broader vocabulary and personality than we’ve ever seen before. That said, Hulk’s voice leaves a lot to be desired, I swear it’s just Mark Ruffalo’s voice being run through an auto tuner that goes up and down. It sounds fine most of the time but there are moments that are just plain distracting.
Another one of the weaker aspects of Ragnarok are most of its visual effects. It could be that they look the way they do because Waititi was going for a sort of Flash Gordon, B-movie vibe, but sometimes they just look plain bad. There’s a lot of easily noticeable green screen going on, and some of the action sequences, mostly those involving Hela, end up looking rubbery, with the characters moving a bit too unnaturally. However, the ending action scene, with Thor fully being realized as the God of Thunder, and Led Zeppelin blasting, is just incredible. It’s one of the most exciting and badass moments in the entire MCU, the entire film is built up to and around this moment, and it pays off in spades.
Ragnarok breathed new life into the Thor franchise, and the MCU as a whole. It broke the mold and prevented Marvel from becoming stagnant in their films. It was the perfect sort of curveball to throw audiences, with a completely different mood and aesthetic. From the vibrant colors of Sakaar to the rocking 80’s synth score, Ragnarok stands a foot above most of the Marvel universe. Marvel Studios was reaching their end game, but instead of slowing down and running out of juice, they proved that they were, miraculously, only getting better and bolder. This was the end of a franchise, but also the beginning of new kinds of films that would inhabit the MCU. Believe it or not, Marvel was just getting warmed up.