Fast-paced, self-aware and featuring a delicious 80s aesthetic - Ragnarok might be Marvel's most entertaining film yet.
How many clues did you need before you knew this one was going to be different? The choice of director alone ought to have gotten you most of the way there: Taika Waititi - a man who does not do 'conventional'. Then there was the trailer: a neon-infused, synth-rock pumping Flash Gordon throwback that favoured humour over action. As it happens - so does the film and it's a delight from the first frame to the last.
Thor: Ragnarok is the now third instalment in the ‘Thor Trilogy’, and what already feels like the 200th film in the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe (the count is actually 17). Led by Australia’s Chris Hemsworth as the iconic God of Thunder, it also stars Cate Blanchett as the Goddess of Death, Tom Hiddleston as the God of Mischief and Jeff Goldblum as the Oh My God He’s Just Fabulous. As revealed by the trailer, Mark Ruffalo also returns as Hulk (having not been seen since The Avengers: Age of Ultron), and is joined by franchise regulars Idris Elba and Anthony Hopkins in small but affecting roles.
With New Zealand’s Waititi at the helm, Ragnarok has a distinctly casual, cheeky and irreverent feel compared to Marvel's previous offerings, as well as a noticeable 80s aesthetic in both its style and soundtrack. It’s fast-paced, self-aware and a genuine breath of fresh air in a franchise within a franchise that both desperately needed it.
Waititi is obviously known for his sense of humour, evident in force in his two previous films What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, yet what truly distinguishes the director is his pronounced absence of cynicism. No matter the theme or story (Wilderpeople dealt with some tragic issues amidst all the chaos), the overwhelming sensation upon leaving a Waititi movie is optimism. For Marvel, whose myriad ‘phase three’ movies have all been hurtling, darker and faster, towards the up and coming ‘Infinity War’, that contrast is as noticeable as it is necessary. Like a Roger Moore bond film, Ragnarok still has its action and seriousness, but - above all else - it's fun.
You can see it in the performances. Hemsworth's obvious comedic abilities - clearly on display in Paul Feig's Ghostbusters reboot - are given ample room to breathe in Ragnarok right from the opening scene. A significant portion of the film's dialogue was improvised, too, resulting in a free-following and naturalistic feel that also serves to accentuate the fractious yet warm friendships between the various characters, most notably Thor, Loki and Hulk.
Then there's franchise newcomer Tessa Thomson as Valkyrie. Most recently seen in HBO’s Westworld, Thompson proves a genuine scene stealer, which is no small accomplishment given hers is an almost exclusively ‘human’ performance in a movie jam-packed with special effects and CGI-characters. Again through Valkyrie we see Marvel’s ability to create lethal, confident, independent, wise-cracking female heroes as good or better than their male counterparts, yet - seventeen films in - we’re still awaiting the first female-led project (Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is constantly mooted as an option, DC of course has Wonder Woman, and there’s Marvel’s Jessica Jones on TV - but only now are we on the cusp of an actual female-led film with the up-coming ‘Captain Marvel’). Still, take nothing away from Thompson’s performance in a role undoubtedly poised to reappear in many future outings.
There are shortcomings, of course. For all its strengths, Ragnarok is not a perfect film. Blanchett and Elba are both seriously under-utilised in their respective roles, Hopkins is the beneficiary of some bewilderingly bad special effects and Karl Urban’s character has a clunky pro-gun schtick that feels entirely out of place with the rest of the film. The comedy is refreshing, but its not every actor’s greatest strength and at times Ragnarok feels too heavily skewed towards laughs when instead the scene calls for something a little meatier. Still, what Waititi and his team have crafted here is a remarkable reimagining of the MCU: at once respectful of its place in the world around it and knowing enough to never take itself too seriously. It’s a big movie that somehow still feels small and intimate, a perfect example of a blockbuster done right.