Whilst sitting through Thor: Ragnarok, an undoubtedly fun experience, my mind kept coming back to an article I had seen floating around the internet from a few days before. Namely an interview with the wonderfully absurd Taika Waititi, the director, in which he discusses how early cuts of the film didn’t work. And I couldn’t help but wonder whilst watching the film: did the final cut even work?
Thor: Ragnarok at most times feels like a tale of two movies. The set up is quick, with an almost immediate explanation of exactly what Ragnarok is. Paired with an unnecessary cameo from Doctor Strange and the introduction of the lead villainess Hela, the first fifteen minutes will have you worried about the pacing. Once the the characters settle into their respective elements, however, things begin to even out. But never fully.
On the one hand, we have a down-and-out God of Thunder stuck on a trash planet that is ruled by Jeff Goldblum, whom forces Thor and Hulk to fight for his own amusement. This is by far the stronger half of the movie, which clashes tonally with the situation occurring on Asgard with Cate Blanchett’s Hela. As far as villains go, whilst Blanchett gives a great performance, she is stuck for the entirety of the film in the weaker storyline, ultimately making her as forgettable as Ronin in Guardians of the Galaxy. Fortunately it’s not as dire as Malekith in Thor: The Dark World; a waste of a great character and a great actor, but it’s also doubly unfortunate when you remember that this is Marvel’s first female villain.
Elements of Taika Waititi’s humor and vision seep into the Asgard elements of the story, but it’s much more by the numbers Thor fare reminiscent of the past two movies. Ultimately it sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the hijinks occurring on Sakaar, which makes even a wacky movie like Guardians of the Galaxy look tame by comparison. A lot has been made of the way improvisation has been used in the movie, but for the most part it works. Jeff Goldblum is a delight and steals every scene he’s in. He’s also in a lot more of the film than we’ve been led to believe. It’s clear they really just let Jeff Goldblum be Jeff Goldblum. This kind of improvisation falters, however, when it comes to another big part of the movie: Hulk. As the jolly green giant he shines, but once he eventually reverts into Bruce Banner the character becomes unrecognizable compared to past performances. Granted, there’s story reasons for this new Banner (he’s been trapped as Hulk for two years), but the film moves too briskly to get accustomed to it. Not to say he isn’t fun to watch, or his chemistry with Thor isn’t great, but he doesn’t really elicit any character growth.
The characters and director seem to be having so much fun with the Planet Hulk/Sakaar elements of the movie, that they continuously neglect the event the film derives its subtitle from. It isn’t until Ragnarok becomes narratively useful that we even remember it as an element of the story. In fact, the main narrative push are the gags themselves, the film hurtling itself from one joke to the next. Whilst that makes for a fun movie watching experience, it takes away from the real stakes which become extremely dire in the third act with a truly cataclysmic ending. Taking it a step further, there are genuinely heartfelt moments all throughout the movie that are unfortunately not fully explored in favor of more levity. The dynamic between Thor, Loki and Hela promises to be an interesting one, but is never fulfilled. We briefly deal with the trauma Bruce experiences having been stuck as Hulk for so long, as well as everything he’s left behind on Earth, before jokes start being made about how tight the clothes he found are. The most rewarding character arc we receive is Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, a truly great addition to the MCU, but this is also again rushed in order to make way for zaniness.
I think it’s impossible to not have fun whilst watching Thor: Ragnarok. I probably laughed out loud more times in this MCU film than any other. But in between the laughs, I was stuck with thoughts of how the vision of the director was clashing with the overall vision of Thor and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Fortunately, I believe they pull it together enough for it to work. But it just barely misses being a mess. We’ve heard stories of unique directors clashing with studios over franchise films, and at times it has led to those parties separating ways. I don’t believe that Taika Waititi and Kevin Feige necessarily butted heads during production, but the strain of having to make Waititi’s Thor fit Marvel Studios’ Thor is very apparent on the screen. Time will tell what happens with the character beyond Ragnarok.