“Ragnarok cannot be stopped. What makes you think you can succeed?” ~ Surtur
“Slaves is such a harsh word. I prefer prisoners with benefits.” ~ The Grandmaster
“I’m not a queen or a monster. I’m the god of death.” ~Hela
“Asgard is not a place, it’s a people. And its people need your help.” ~ Odin
“Last time we saw you, you were trying to kill everyone. What are you up to these days?” ~ Bruce Banner
“It varies from moment to moment.” ~ Loki
“Life is about growth and change. But you, my dear god of mischief brother, just want to stay the same.” ~Thor
The Asgardian god of thunder returns to the big screen in Thor: Ragnarok, reuniting the title character with a long absent Avenger team mate, introducing major characters from the comics into the cinematic universe for the first time, and presenting an apocalyptic scenario that takes up the second part of that title. In Norse mythology, Ragnarok is the end of the world and the end of Asgard, and it’s a premise that plays out here with formidable threats rising up as the story goes along.
Two years after the Battle of Sokovia (detailed in Avengers Age of Ultron), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been busy searching for the Infinity Stones, but finds himself in a perilous state. The fire demon Surtur, a familiar threat from mythology and the comics, has taken him captive, and makes some dark prophecies to the Asgardian about the future, as well as a revelation that his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is no longer in Asgard. Thor’s journey includes a return to Asgard and a reckoning with his devious brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), but before either of them know what’s happening, their secret sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) makes her presence known, and nothing for Asgard will ever be the same again.
As of yet, Marvel’s cinematic universe has yet to stumble, and that doesn’t happen here (if they make a Howard the Duck movie, all bets are off). There have been two previous Thor solo films, with the character also turning up in the two Avengers movies, so of course there was going to be more. The screenplay is credited to three writers, Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost; the second and third of whom are comics writers who have worked together before and have a good grasp of the genre. Their story draws on storylines from the comics, introducing figures well known to readers of the Marvel universe, both from Thor’s point of view, as well as bringing in a welcome influence from another character- the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and the Planet Hulk storyline that played out in that character’s solo title. The Asgardian fantasy and high drama is well mixed with the concept of the gladiator world the characters find themselves in through the story, and the narrative of the film keeps things flowing along.
We’ve got a new director in the mix, Taika Waititi, a New Zealand director and actor with a Maori background who turns out to be quite adept at maintaining a balance between characterization with his cast and the epic sweep of the story. Waititi doubles (or triples) in the film by doing a stop motion performance for the rock creature gladiator Korg, and the same for Surtur (who is voiced in the right way by character actor and frequent villain stand-by Clancy Brown). Waititi’s previous experience, mostly in film work from his native country, might not seem the likely choice for a super hero epic, but the Marvel cinematic universe has had success with unlikely directors at the helm, and that maintains itself here. He also brings a rich sense of humour into the film, which feels light at times- even when dealing with the prospect of the end of worlds.
There’s a good deal of special effects involved, with green screen and motion capture used in the creations of character or places, but it all blends seamlessly with the cast. Character design matches what has come before, with characters or places already established maintaining their continuity- all while changing as the story goes along (a haircut for the lead, for example). And new places and characters are well rendered. The world of Sakaar, for instance, looks like you’d expect if you’d read the original storyline, an alien world different from our own, and yet not that different from the Roman empire with its emphasis on gladiatorial combat. The hordes of Hela and the ferocious terror of Surtur are particularly vivid.
The cast are all well chosen, even with cameos. That includes the obligatory Stan Lee cameo, as funny as always, and some unexpected well known faces in a mirroring their own profession capacity. Tadanobu Asano, Ray Stevenson, and Zachary Levi reprise their roles briefly as Hogun, Volstagg, and Fandral, the Warriors Three, still maintaining the friendly demeanour of the characters as we’ve seen before, a combination of bravery and irreverence in the face of danger. Waititi’s take on Korg is a good one- the character looks like a rock pinnacle come to life, and yet is soft spoken, becoming a friend to Thor as the film goes along. There’s even a cameo by Benedict Cumberbatch, reprising his role as Doctor Strange, providing guidance at a critical juncture.
A character who was first established in the Thor part of the Marvel comics appears here first in the cinematic universe, getting the right actor cast in the role. Skurge is a character who’s straddled the line between good and evil, and here that applies to the character as he comes into the cinematic universe. Karl Urban (who’s spent time in The Lord Of The Rings and Star Trek film franchises in the last few years) has the role, and his character is torn between conscience and survival, with wavering loyalties that leads him to be quite conflicted. Urban plays to that throughout the film, which makes him compelling to watch.
Jeff Goldblum appeared as the Grandmaster in a cameo during the second Guardians Of The Galaxy, and here he gets a lot more to do as the character. The character is an Elder of the universe, one of those high and mighty enigmatic beings who feel above it all. He rules Sakaar, is indifferent to the concerns of lower life forms, and approaches his life with a carefree, hedonistic air, which Goldblum plays to. The actor, gifted with a quick wit and sardonic sensibility, uses that throughout his performance; the Grandmaster might be a vain bastard, but he’s fun to watch.
Idris Elba returns as Heimdall, the wise and fiercely protective guardian of Asgard’s Bifrost Bridge. Circumstances in the film have led him from a state of self-mandated exile to rebellious leader, and Elba’s take on the character this time out maintains the strength of will and resourcefulness that we’ve seen before with a ferocity that comes from fighting for the fate of his people.
Anthony Hopkins reprises his role as Odin, last seen being impersonated by his trickster adoptive son Loki. Finding out what has become of him, the audience might expect to feel sorry for him, and yes, we do, but the actor also plays the moment with a certain improvisational energy as the character makes revelations. It’s Odin, and yet it’s Odin as we’ve not seen him before, which was a good variation on the king of Asgard.
Tessa Thompson makes her debut in the Marvel cinematic universe as a character first referred to as Scrapper 142, a bounty hunter for the Grandmaster who happens to have ties to Asgard- she’s a Valkyrie. Her story takes her from one point of view- the tough and fierce drinking mercenary who doesn’t question her boss to someone who has to come to terms with the truth of who she is. She interacts well with both Hemsworth and Hiddleston in how her character plays off both of their characters, and she makes the role her own. I look forward to seeing more from her down the line.
Cate Blanchett, who can make any role interesting, gets the villain’s role as Hela, and runs with it. The character’s background is a bit different from the source material, where she’s a daughter of Loki and the goddess of death with personal designs on the god of thunder; here she is the long secret daughter of Odin, and a ferocious threat of her own accord. Long since imprisoned and written out of Asgard’s history because of her own ambitions, Hela is a formidable adversary, focused on getting what she wants. Blanchett’s performance brings the character to life in an over the top way, but one that clearly shows her to be the threat she is.
Mark Ruffalo returns once more as Bruce Banner, the scientist whose cranky side just happens to be the gamma behemoth the Hulk, who makes his arrival in a splashy way. Since we’ve last seen him, the Hulk hasn’t reverted back to his Banner form, and the character has had some changes himself in terms of vocabulary and appearance. The character is a mix of vocal and stop motion performance when in his Hulk side (with swagger, at that), and Ruffalo brings back his humanity as Banner. It’s fun to see the character return (especially in a way that brings out aspects of the Planet Hulk storyline), and to have the Hulk interact once more with Thor, that friendly rivalry playing out in a completely different context.
At heart, the Thor films have, among other things, been about the tense relationship between two brothers raised together, and one of them just happens to be the devious trickster Loki, as played by Tom Hiddleston, who’s returned now to play the character for a fourth time, including his occasion as the primary antagonist of the first Avengers film. Hiddleston’s take on the character continues to be a compelling one as Loki straddles the line between doing right and wrong, between sympathetic and devious. He’s narcissistic and mischievous- to the point of carelessness when his schemes unravel on him. And yet there are times when the trickster is capable of doing right- all while the actor has fun playing him.
Chris Hemsworth has now been playing the title character through five films- six, when you include his cameo in Doctor Strange- and the character has been through a lot, maturing from the arrogant, thoughtless god of thunder we first met in the origin film. His take on Thor this time out is an interesting one- imprisoned on more than one occasion under circumstances that might break someone else, his Thor takes things in stride and keeps moving forward. And there’s a light, humorous touch in how the actor plays him, particularly with how he interacts with Loki or the Hulk, but also in how he contends with villains. The actor has fun with where he takes the character, even among the apocalyptic scenario of both villains.
Thor: Ragnarok has a mix of influences- comic book sprawling epic, buddy comedy, gladiator drama- and it’s a lot of fun, a thrilling roller coaster kind of film with formidable antagonists and actors who are enjoying themselves among all of the CGI wonders. It introduces new and compelling characters, advances the state of the Marvel cinematic universe, and entertains in its own right.