Let’s open this review with a controversial opinion: Thor is the best Avenger. It’s true that his solo movies haven’t hit the same creative heights as Iron Man or Captain America – although he does have the Hulk in all his iterations squarely beat. Kenneth Branagh’s Thor was a fun movie, with a great introduction to its lead character, as well as a fully-fledged and instantly iconic villain in Loki, but is often forgotten. The Dark World, on the other hand, was shit. Ok, not shit – the chemistry between Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddlestone just about save it – but it feels inessential as a piece. The forgettable reputations of these films have actually provided incoming director Taika Waititi with a blank slate. Unlike The Dark World, which like most of the poorer MCU films feels like an attempt to ape the style of Joss Whedon, Waititi has put his own particular style (displayed in his excellent previous efforts including What We Do In Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople) into proceedings which culminates into not only the best Thor film so far, but one of the best MCU films of the franchise to date.
After the events of Age of Ultron, Thor has been searching the cosmos for Infinity Stones, which he hasn’t found, and trying to prevent Ragnarok. Once he returns to Asgard, he discovers that Loki has been masquerading as Odin, and the appearance of his formerly imprisoned big sister Hela (Cate Blanchett as the latest, mostly wasted Marvel villain) to grapple with. Hela banishes him to a junk planet run by The Grandmaster (the always welcome, oddly intonated Jeff Goldblum) upon which, as the trailers already spoiled for you a dozen times over, he must battle the Hulk.
When the Phase 3 MCU slate was announced and combined with the ultimately useless cave-bath teaser in Age of Ultron, I thought that Ragnarok was going to be dark and depressing. It is about the destruction of Asgard, after all. Yet Taika Waititi goes in the complete opposite direction by crafting an interstellar comedy road trip starring some of the MCU’s most interesting characters. This creative direction provides a perfect platform for Chris Hemsworth’s skills as an actor. His depiction of the God of Thunder has never been better, as he plays up the heroic but kind of dumb and reckless sides of Thor’s character. His pig-headed belief in himself, even when he gets continually captured and frequently beat up by everyone in his path, is incredibly endearing. It’s this idiosyncratic performance that makes Thor the best Avenger, as Robert Downey Jr has been relegated to quirks, and while Chris Evans is great, Cap is rarely the most powerful presence in his own films. Hemsworth owns the screen in Ragnarok, and that’s with stiff competition with the rest of the cast.
While Tom Hiddlestone is brilliantly conniving and Mark Ruffalo is his best frazzled self as the underused Bruce Banner, it’s Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie that comes closest to Hemsworth; as the permanently drunk former soldier of Asgard, Thompson somehow overcomes a terrible accent to elevate herself to one of the film’s most compelling performers.
As almost painfully funny as the film is, Ragnarok does investigate some deeper themes. Hela’s status as the child that helped Odin conquer the nine realms (for which he imprisoned her afterward in an attempt to rewrite his history) and the parallels between her, Thor and Loki’s relationships with the Allfather, Ragnarok provides a look at the failures of a father as well as the love he instilled in at least one of his children. With father/son relationships being one of the cornerstones of the superhero genre, Taika Waititii takes advantage of the fact that, unlike many heroes, Thor’s father is still present in his own story. But the film isn’t without its flaws. As great as it is to see the Hulk, he and his alter ego are shortchanged compared to the Asgardians. The comedic tone robbed me of a better sense of empathy for Banner’s struggle, and his choice of whether to be Hulk if it means he may not come back. The film’s focus on quick-fire humour undercut many of what should have been it’s more powerful moments, especially in the third act.
Still, Thor Ragnarok is a hilarious, well-paced, and superbly acted film, that proves that Thor is the best Avenger now that he finally has a film to match him.
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By Kevin Boyle