In Thor: Ragnarok Jeff Goldblum plays a flamboyant, decadent, sadistic connoisseur of extraordinary specimens, including slaves, known only by a nominalized common noun, “The Gamemaster.” If he seems somehow familiar, perhaps he reminds you of a character in Guardians of the Galaxy who fits the same general description: “The Collector,” played by Benicio Del Toro. The similarity is not coincidental. You won’t learn this in Thor: Ragnarok, but the two characters are “brothers,” at least in the comics. (They belong to a class of obsessively trivial ancient beings called the “Elders of the Universe,” though this may or may not apply in the big-screen Marvel universe.)
Officially, Thor: Ragnarok is the third Thor movie, but in spirit it’s closer to being the third Guardians of the Galaxy movie. This is both a mark of the massive success of the Guardians films, with their colorful, whimsical design and self-mocking humor, and of the relative failure of the first two Thor films, especially The Dark World, to find a vibe of their own.
It’s also a mark of the effort to bring together the almost entirely unconnected worlds of the Avengers and the Guardians. Other than a few points of contact, notably the Infinity Stones, the Guardians movies might be taking place in a different universe than the other Marvel movies. Thor: Ragnarok doesn’t entirely close the gap, but it broadens the Avengers’ horizons to the point where convergence is now possible. This is a film where Thor could turn a corner and bump into Groot or Gamora. That he doesn’t is only a matter of timing: Avengers: Infinity War is coming next summer, and the Guardians are part of it.
So there’s no sign of Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster or Stellan Skarsgard’s Erik Selvig, which is fine, because they weren’t helping anyway. Instead, there are plenty of gaudy otherworldly settings, lots of humor, and even a couple of 1970s musical glosses, including Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, which, with its Norse-mythology references, is almost too on the nose.
Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is back, because of course he is. But for the main heavy, Ragnarok introduces Cate Blanchett as Hela, the Norse goddess of death and perhaps the first Marvel villain since Loki who seems to be having any fun. (I’m not saying Michael Keaton wasn’t having fun in Spider-Man: Homecoming, but his character was understandably angry and cautious, and not really about kicking back and enjoying himself.)
To capture the desired Guardians-esque vibe, Marvel turned to New Zealand director Taika Waititi, whose Hunt for the Wilderpeople was one of last year’s best comedies. Waititi’s gentle, deadpan sense of humor is evident throughout the film, but especially in the soft-spoken, Kiwi-accented rock-monster Korg, whom Waititi fans will recognize as the director’s avatar even if they don’t know that he’s voiced and performed via motion capture by Waititi himself. Waititi does what is required, which is largely to keep things Fun (or “Fun”), with lots and lots of riffing on previous Marvel movies, especially Joss Whedon’s Avengers films. The jokes are mostly funny, though at times it feels a little too much like an episode of The Orville as opposed to real Star Trek. The movie actually opens with Asgardian players performing a burlesque parody of past events — a spoof that comes close to setting the tone for what follows.
Meanwhile, in all this lighthearted diversion, something important has been lost. “Ragnarök” in Norse mythology is an apocalyptic event of immense consequence. It is the doom or twilight of the gods and the destruction of the world as we know it by the world-destroying giants. Odin, Thor and Loki fall in battle; the great wolf Fenris consumes the sun and everything on the face of the earth; and the creation of the cosmos is reversed as the Earth sinks back into the watery chaos from which it emerged. Obviously going Full Ragnarok isn’t an option. There is an option, though, that could have some emotional power — if the film didn’t undercut it in every way possible.
In an image straight out of Kung Fu Panda, a major character does die, but not in battle. Another major character is maimed, but it’s shrugged off. There’s a computer-generated wolf that’s unreasonably big, but hardly an apocalyptic giant. Above all, the movie takes as a mantra a line of dialogue that in context basically amounts to “Ragnarok doesn’t matter.” Think about that. If Ragnarok doesn’t matter in a Thor movie, what could you possibly put onscreen ever again that would matter?
There’s no air of foreboding or doom, no sense of elegy or loss or noble sacrifice. The great, tragic heroism of the Norse/Germanic worldview — “The giants will beat the gods in the end, but I am on the side of the gods,” in C.S. Lewis’ paraphrase — finds not the slightest echo here. Hang it all, that burlesque parody in the first act is more elegiac than anything else in the film. This is all the more frustrating in view of the film’s subtle drift toward its Norse mythological roots in one respect: Where previous movies were careful to clarify that the Asgardians aren’t really gods, Thor: Ragnarok seems to be okay with calling Hela “the goddess of death” and Thor “the god of thunder.” Apparently we have gods now, yet the specter of their twilight or doom holds no dread.
I see I haven’t mentioned the Hulk yet. Mark Ruffalo is back, although neither the Hulk nor Bruce Banner feels quite like the character(s) from previous outings. The Hulk is suddenly much more talkative; he’s gone from (almost) being the wordless Hulk played by Lou Ferrigno in the Bill Bixby series to talking like how Hulk talk in comics. Banner, meanwhile, is less dryly cutting and more frantic. Both have obvious explanations, but in regard to Banner at least something has again been lost.
The DC universe has Amazons, and the Marvel universe has Valkyries, including a superheroine whose real name is Brunnhilde but who goes by Valkyrie. She’s no Wonder Woman, but as reinvented for this film and played by Tessa Thompson (Selma, Creed), Valkyrie isn’t going for Wonder Woman. She’s a sort of fallen Valkyrie, a disillusioned, drunken bounty hunter who wants nothing to do with Asgard or its troubles.
I’m tempted to say that Blanchett plays Hela like Galadriel took the Ring and decided she liked it; it would be too glib, but I’m tempted to say it anyway. Hela’s about as one-note as most Marvel villains, but more fun to watch than most. Hela’s grievance against Odin and the myth of Asgard, along with Valkyrie’s disenchantment, could potentially offer some thematic heft, in a movie capable of such a thing. It’s kind of cool that the five main characters include two super-powered women — twice the ratio of any previous Marvel movie — including big-screen Marvel’s first supervillainess and their first super-powered woman of color.
If only anything were allowed to matter. Walter Chaw rightly says that Thor: Ragnarok is at its best in a brief early sequence featuring Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange. Doctor Strange remains the best Marvel movie at least since the original Guardians, the most consequential since The Avengers and the best redemption story since the original Iron Man. If only Thor: Ragnarok had wanted to be less like Guardians and more like Doctor Strange.
I think the problem came into sharpest focus for me in a crucial scene as, if I recall correctly, Thor stares at a conflagration and asks: “What have I done?” The moment echoes, I would guess intentionally, a similar moment in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, with William Shatner’s Captain Kirk asking: “My God, Bones, what have I done?” as they watch the fiery death of the Enterprise.
Bones’ reply is affirming but measured, acknowledging the weight of the great loss they have suffered. The destruction of the Enterprise is a powerful moment because we cared about the Enterprise. The answer that Thor gets to his question is effectively “Ragnarok doesn’t matter.” No one is allowed to care about what is lost here. The movie won’t have it. Bring on the “Fun.”
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.