If you had told me a year ago that a Thor film would be one of my favourite Marvel movies in recent years, I would have looked at you like you were touched in the head, possibly by a mythical hammer. For me, the two first Thor films were firmly at the bottom of the MCU, kept company only by Iron Man 2. In fact, I would have said that the character Thor was my least favourite of all the main characters in Marvel’s cinematic universe (though I am not including the TV series in this reckoning, because, well, Danny Rand). Yes, thanks to The Avengers I could see that the big, blond lug had some potential, but mainly as a supporting character and as the butt of a bunch of jokes.
After Thor: Ragnarok, though? Well, let’s put it like this: if you’re looking for story or theme in an MCU film, the latest adventure of the God of Thunder won’t make you a convert. If you’re expecting a plot that is significantly different from, oh, pretty much every single Marvel movie since Iron Man, you’re out of luck. If you want a movie that fully embraces the silliness inherent in this ever-growing comic book universe translated onto the screen, though? Then hell, yeah – Thor: Ragnarok is an embarrassment of riches.
I’m not of the opinion that comics, or even just superhero comics, need to be silly, primary-coloured entertainments with little weight to them. At the same time, I think that the more seriously a story featuring caped crusaders and superpowered heroes and villains takes itself, the more po-faced its tone, the more it will be weighed down by itself. Thor: Ragnarok very rarely takes itself, its world and its characters too seriously. Where it succeeds most, as far as I’m concerned, is in how little it takes Thor himself seriously. There can be a sharp edge to Tony Stark; his near-constant snark hides a deeply neurotic character who is sometimes only a step or two away from turning villainous in his need to prove himself a hero. Steve Rogers has a sweet earnestness that, if used well, can give him a certain dramatic weight. The Bruce Banner/Hulk combo can be used to great poignancy, not least with a talented actor like Mark Ruffalo donning the purple trousers and gluing on the mocap sensors.
Thor, however, works best as a goofball, and how gloriously goofy the character is in Ragnarok! It’s where Chris Hemsworth’s performance shines most: the actor throws himself into the comedic silliness of his latest film with great abandon and to fantastic effect. (I’m reminded of David Boreanaz’s Angel being weighed down by the serious plotlines he was usually given in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and finally getting a chance to prove his comedic chops in his own series Angel, though Hemsworth is a more talented funnyman than Boreanaz.) Thor on his own wouldn’t be quite enough, though, and that’s where I suspect that director Taika Waititi (of Flight of the Conchords and What We Do in the Shadows fame) had more of an influence on the script than the credits let on. Or, perhaps more accurately, IMDB suggests that “Eighty percent of the dialogue in the film was improvised, in order to create a ‘very loose and collaborative mood’ among the cast”, and it’s likely that Waititi wasn’t exactly unimportant in guiding the results of those particular improv sessions.
Obviously the MCU is no stranger to comedic dialogues: with actors like Robert Downey Jr and writer-directors like Joss Whedon, a certain brand of snarky wit has become part of the franchise’s DNA, and especially fan favourite Guardians of the Galaxy is largely an action comedy – but Ragnarok takes it further. As a matter of fact, although it was apparent in the trailers that some of Guardians‘ genes had made it into the latest Thor film, I found myself reminded less of James Gunn’s sci-fi adventures than of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s The Lego Movie (minus its mawkish meta elements) in how Ragnarok prioritises gleeful silliness throughout. This goes beyond the humour: visually, Thor: Ragnarok looks like decades worth of doodlings of a talented teenager who has been perusing the covers of his older brother impressive collection of ’70s heavy metal albums. The film’s aesthetics are gaudy, but differently from the first two Thor films Ragnarok embraces the sheer fun of its over-the-top kitsch, with almost every frame filled with joyous, giggly invention.
This generous, all-embracing silliness suffuses all aspects of the film. Its villain Hela, the Goddess of Death, isn’t all that much more interesting in concept than the dull, leaden antagonists of Thor and The Dark World, but Cate Blanchett vamps it up with an abandon that is a joy to behold and amplified by her gloriously antlered outfit. It’s impossible to watch Ragnarok without getting the impression that everyone on set and behind the camera was having a gloriously goofy time – and if you’re receptive for this kind of silliness, it is definitely infectious.
I’ve criticised the Marvel movies in the past for being too timid in stretching their wings and trying out new things. Thor: Ragnarok doesn’t reinvent the franchise and it does go back to the same old plot well in most respects – but this is a film that clearly isn’t about telling a story, it’s about embracing the silliness that underlies the entire fictional universe and running with it. I don’t know if this approach would work as well a second time around, but let’s wait and see what the MCU brings us next. For now I’m more than happy to break out the old air guitar and raise my voice:
We come from the land of the ice and snow
From the midnight sun, where the hot springs flow
The hammer of the gods
We’ll drive our ships to new lands
To fight the horde, and sing and cry
Valhalla, I am coming!