The History of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Chapter 17: ‘Thor: Ragnarok’
In The History of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ScreenCrush editor-in-chief Matt Singer looks back at every film in the MCU to date, leading up to the premiere of Avengers: Infinity War on April 27. Previous chapters can be found here.
Chapter 17: Thor: Ragnarok
Director: Taika Waititi
Writers: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost
Release Date: November 3, 2017
U.S. box office: $315 million
Worldwide box office: $853.9 million
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 92 percent
Metacritic score: 74
Letterboxd average grade: 3.8
My Original Review
“Thor: Ragnarok is sort of like a giant flatscreen TV hanging on a wall with an enormous hole in the middle of it. The TV is beautiful, but it doesn’t fix the hole. It just covers it up.” - Read more here
What Holds Up
Avengers: Infinity War can kill Captain America, Iron Man, and the entire roster of the Guardians of the Galaxy as long as Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster survives and gets to return for more Marvel movies.
Goldblum is so great Thor: Ragnarok. Supposedly he’s playing an alien warlord who rules the garbage planet of Sakaar by presiding over gladiatorial games called the “Contest of Champions.” But basically he’s just playing Jeff Goldblum: Intergalactic Weirdo. His comedic timing is sublime and his mugging to camera is ... well the only way to describe it is Goldblumian. Here’s how he trails off after saying that time works differently on Sakaar, so that if he lived somewhere else he’d be a million years old. But here on Sakaar he’s...
The casting and unleashing of pure, unfettered Goldblum is indicative of the sharp left turn Marvel took with Thor: Ragnarok when they brought in Taika Waititi as director. Where the previous two Thor movies were superhero stories glossed in faux-Shakespearean drama, Ragnarok is a winking comic adventure. The new supporting cast also includes Waititi himself as a soft-spoken alien rock-creature who cracks jokes about his gladiatorial enslavement and totes around his dead buddy’s carcass because he stepped on him in the middle of a battle.
There’s some heavy stuff in Ragnarok. The title refers to Norse mythology’s version of the apocalypse, one that ultimately occurs before the end of the movie. Odin (Anthony Hopkins) evaporates into a bunch of sparks, leaving Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to stop their sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) from conquering Asgard, and then she murders the Warriors Three with almost no fanfare. (Look on the bright side, Zachary Levi: Now you can play Shazam!) Waititi barely dwells on those deaths. He’s much more committed to his vibe of wisecracking fun, and it definitely works through most of the film.
What Doesn’t Hold Up
In order to fit that vibe, Waititi has to tweak the franchise’s stalwarts a little bit. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor was previously a haughty, rigid hero. In Ragnarok, he riffs his way through the story like the universe’s beefiest improv comedian. Loki, who I’m pretty sure was directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in The Avengers, here is treated less like a sadistic monster than a kooky misunderstood antihero who’s just looking for the love and acceptance he never got from his family. And Odin, the stern, disapproving dad who perpetually scolded his sons or took away their powers when they displeased him, has now become a nurturing philosopher grandpa.
Ultimately, the changes to the Asgardians work because they fit into the movie Waititi’s making. Hemsworth is really funny as Thor, particularly in his interactions with the Hulk and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo); Hiddleston has maybe the funniest line in the entire movie, during the cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange. (“I’ve been falling... for 30 minutes!”) Thor: Ragnarok is basically the movie version of when a new writer comes on board your favorite comic book and reshapes the whole series’ status quo to suit the ideas and themes they want to work with. Being a comic fan requires a certain amount of mental flexibility to account for the way Matt Murdock has a drastically different personality when he’s written by Ed Brubaker versus Mark Waid. The same holds true of Thor: Ragnarok. On its own, it’s very entertaining. When you’ve watched 17 Marvel movies back to back, though, the shift in Thor, Loki, and Odin is a little jarring.
The other jarring part of the movie is its scale. Its story involves the complete reshaping of two different alien societies; Asgard, where Hela slaughters the entire ruling class, and Sakaar, where Thor’s gladiatorial efforts inspire a peasant revolution. But the film barely shows us what either of these places or their people are up to while following Thor, Loki, and Hulk. Instead, Heimdall (Idris Elba) will tell Thor what he’s missing back home or one of the Grandmaster’s underlings will inform him that his slaves (excuse me, “prisoners with jobs”) are displeased.
We don’t really have a good sense how Sakaar operates as a society. Why are the people ready to rise up now just because Thor punched Hulk a couple times? (The answer, unfortunately, is the movie needs something to ratchet up the stakes in the third act.) Likewise, the whole film builds to Thor’s recognition that Asgard isn’t a place, it’s a people, and that it’s much more important to save the realm’s citizens than its real estate. But as seen in a handful of brief establishing shots, the population of Asgard is like 45 people. Not that those folks deserve to die, but it seems like an awful lot get sacrificed in the name of a couple dozen of movie extras. More screen time and more money spent fleshing out both of those worlds would have given the ending a lot more emotional oomph.
Coolest Foreshadowing of Future Marvel Events
As with my Spider-Man: Homecoming piece, it’s hard to pick the best foreshadowing in Thor: Ragnarok because the seeds it planted won’t be harvested for a while. Still, if I had to guess, I’d point to Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie as the film’s most important element for Marvel’s long-term plans. She’s introduced as a drunken, fallen hero who failed her king and now works rounding up potential fighters for the Grandmaster. But Thor reminds her of what she left behind and in the big climax she reclaims her old costume and sword, and joins him in fending off Hela and her undead army.
Where she goes from there is anyone’s guess, but I strongly doubt Ragnarok is the last we’ve seen of Valkyrie in the MCU. Thompson has already voiced her enthusiasm for a Marvel movie with an “all-female” team, a very plausible option for a film in Marvel’s Phase 4. (How about an A-Force film with Valkyrie, Captain Marvel, Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Medusa, and Sif?) Even if that concept never comes together, comics’ Valkyrie has strong ties to a lot of the existing MCU heroes; she was a longtime member of the Marvel Comics Defenders (which, unlike the Netflix version, typically featured characters like Doctor Strange and the Hulk). They’d need to come up with another name for the group, but I could easily see her returning for something like that as well, especially if the Avengers are decimated by Thanos and the universe needs a new group of heroes to protect it for a few years.
Best Marvel Easter Egg
If you want Thor: Ragnarok Easter eggs, we’ve got a whole post here on ScreenCrush about that. My favorite one remains the visual influence of Thor co-creator Jack Kirby on the sets and costumes on Sakaar. The red dude in the far left behind Loki in the image above could only come from a Jack Kirby comic book (and the wall behind him looks like wallpaper made out of actual Kirby artwork, something I would very much like in my house if someone wants to sell that).
Also, I remain surprised how many people don’t recognize the connection between Thor and Led Zepplin’s “Immigrant Song,” which is used in Ragnarok’s action opening and finale. There’s a line about the hammer of the gods! That’s not a reference to MC Hammer, my dudes! (Although the plot is technically about how Thor is too legit to quit.)
After 17 movies, it does appear that Marvel has their art down to a science. They’ve got their departments filled with craftsmen dedicated to design, costumes, sets, and effects, and they plug a new filmmaker into the machine, and he can bring his unique perspective while still maintaining that consistency of look and continuity of story that fans expect.
From Marvel’s perspective, Thor: Ragnarok might be the ideal Marvel movie. It’s immune to the most persistent criticism against Marvel — that all their movies looked the same — but it still fulfills all the expectations a viewer might have for a movie with the word Thor in the title. It‘s got an evil bad guy with a plan to take over the world (or at least a world); it’s got superhero fights, space battles, post-credits teases, and the Hulk punching a giant wolf in the face. It also has an awesome retro-eletronic score by Mark Mothersbaugh and a play-within-a-film about the “death” of Loki in Thor: The Dark World starring Luke Hemsworth as the God of Thunder and Matt Damon as Loki. It’s somehow both the most formulaic and least formulaic Marvel movie all at once.
Even at its wildest, it feels and moves like Marvel. But it also feels and moves like a Taika Waititi movie. It has his sweet affection for misfits, along with his balance of sentimentality and self-deprecating humor. It is demonstrably something the guy What We Do in the Shadows would make, and demonstrably something the studio that produced Captain America: Civil War would make. One hopes that Ragnarok’s success — it’s the highest-grossing Thor film by over $100 million in the U.S. and $200 million worldwide — encourages Marvel to keep bringing in interesting new voices to lend more varied personalities to their movies.
So Ragnarok gives you hope for Marvel, but I’m worried it may be too late to give you hope for Thor. If you believe what pundits are writing, odds are good that Loki or Thor (or both!) could die in the next two Avengers movies. I’m sure if they’re sent off to the great Valhalla in the sky, they will receive moving farewells. Still, the timing of their potential demises, right after this franchise-revitalizing movie, is not ideal. Ragnarok barely scratches the surface of what could be done with these characters, particularly if Waititi could be coaxed back to make another sequel. Despite its title, Thor: Ragnarok feels like a new beginning for the franchise. Now the question is... will we see it?