‘Thor: Rangnarok’ is still Marvel’s greatest accomplishment

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 5/8/18 2:15am

As “Avengers: Infinity War” continues to dominate cinemas, it’s worth taking a moment to look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Just as the story of “Infinity War” positions itself as a culmination of the 18 films that have come before, its commercial success, as the fastest film to reach $1 billion at the global box office, reflects how the franchise has morphed into a cultural juggernaut in a mere ten years.

My overall feelings toward the MCU tend to be a little mixed. On the one hand, it’s fairly rare that the universe produces a truly memorable film — but it’s also fairly rare that it makes a genuine misstep. And while it might be unfair to write “Thor” and “Thor: The Dark World” off as full-on missteps, it’s clear that Marvel Studios never really knew what to do with the character Thor. More accurately, they never seemed willing to fully embrace the surreal fantasy aesthetic inherent to the character and his world. The decisions to hire Kenneth Branagh to direct the first film and Alan Taylor to direct the second are telling. Branagh is best known for helming five Shakespeare adaptations, while Taylor is most famous for directing some of the most pivotal “Game of Thrones” episodes. Together, they delivered precisely what one might expect: a Shakespearean drama by way of Tolkien.

And it was all so boring … until Marvel made one of the best creative decisions in recent Hollywood memory, saving both the MCU and the Thor series in one fell swoop. It hired New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi to direct a third Thor film, giving him almost complete creative freedom. The result, “Thor: Ragnarok,” isn’t just the best Marvel film. It’s one of the best films in recent memory.

The plot picks up several years after Thor’s last appearance in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” After learning that Loki is alive, he travels to Earth with his trickster brother in search of their dying father, Odin. But Odin’s death ends the banishment of Hela, the Goddess of Death, an older sister that Thor and Loki never knew about. She sends the pair hurtling off to the planet Sakaar and returns to Asgard, intent on restoring the realm to its former glory. On Sakaar, Thor and Loki find Bruce Banner (trapped in his alter-ego, the Hulk) and Scrapper 142, an alcoholic scavenger and a former member of Asgard’s Valkyrie, the elite, all-female fighting force of the realm. Together, they must work to escape the clutches of the Grandmaster, Sakaar’s addled dictator, and save Asgard from Hela’s reign.

The film immediately announces that it is Waititi’s creation through and through. As Thor tries to escape the clutches of a fire demon, one can’t help but imagine how earnestly such a scene would have been handled in the previous two films. But here it’s an opportunity for endless humor, all set to the howling intonations of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” Criticized for being faithless to the original Norse mythology, Waititi shot back, “They’re space Vikings.” The entire film is built on this sort of irreverence, but the goofiness never negates the genuine human emotions.

Everyone in “Thor: Ragnarok” came prepared with their A-game. This is a film where no one steals the show because everyone is always stealing the show. Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Anthony Hopkins (Odin) and Mark Ruffalo (Hulk) are reliable returners to the supporting cast. Cate Blanchett has far too much fun chewing the scenery as Hela, and no one but Jeff Goldblum could make a tyrant like the Grandmaster so amusing. But the real standouts are Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie and Chris Hemsworth as Thor. Thompson’s ability to capture both Valkyrie’s wit and her loss transforms the character into easily the most compelling female presence in the MCU. Likewise, Thor has been subtly but noticeably revamped. Before he was simply a bore; now, Hemsworth plays Thor as a loveable idiot. He’s a dunce and always the underdog, but his firm conviction to do the right thing makes him more admirable than any other hero in the MCU.

While apparently 80 percent of the dialogue was improvised, the film feels remarkably coherent because Waititi never loses sight of the story’s thematic center. Waititi’s films use humor to express pain, sadness and loss, and nowhere is this more evident than in “Ragnarok.” It should also be noted that Waititi is Māori, and his cultural heritage clearly influences the film’s more serious themes. At its heart, the film is about Thor confronting and learning how to make amends for Asgard’s colonial past. But the film also demonstrates how colonized people can endure despite the damage wrought by conquest and relocation, resulting in a film that feels deeply personal to Waititi.

In fact, several critics have remarked that the film works as a perfect companion piece to Marvel’s follow-up, “Black Panther.” Both tackle the lasting effects of colonialism and the sins of the past. This was expected from “Black Panther.” But no one had any real expectations for “Thor: Ragnarok,” making its boldness all the more delightful and impressive.

People sometimes ask me what kind of films I like watching most. Perhaps because I’m a film studies major, most people assume that my answer will be smaller, more personal, independent films. According to the conventional wisdom, independent films are the last haven for personal expression, while big budget spectacles erase all potential for creative freedom. Yet I get the most excited when blockbusters succeed because they are the films people are going to see in theaters. “Thor: Ragnarok” may not be revolutionary, but there’s still something wonderfully inspiring about the story of an indigenous filmmaker crafting a $180 million epic that feels as personal, political and relevant as anything else he’s made. For that reason alone, it’s the MCU’s single greatest accomplishment.