When it comes to recipes for success, Marvel would doubtless resent the suggestion that they need advice – they’re billions of dollars into their grand cinematic project, with few signs of letup. However, their films are undeniably homogenising, the distinctions between them blurring. In giving Thor Ragnarok to director Taika Waititi they have taken a bold step for once, and his influence on the film supplies its primary strengths; the Marvel formula is its millstone. Let us hope that Marvel realises that they more control they cede the more interesting their films will be.
Waititi brings his trademark offbeat dialogue to Thor’s Norse mythology, spinning a yarn of family surprises and welcome character resets. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor always had an edge of charm, and Waititi sets it loose with abandon, allowing Hemsworth to flex comic muscles to match his appropriately herculean physique. Ragnarok is consciously an action-comedy, and its comic beats are testament to strong work from Hemsworth, Tom Hiddlestone as the scenery-chewing Loki, and a bevy of supporting characters from Waititi’s oeuvre. Sam Neill has a tremendous cameo after the sublime Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and that film also lends Rachel House to the mainstream.
Her Topaz is a belligerent sidekick to ‘The Grandmaster’, played in full weird mode by Jeff Goldblum; he is the dictator of Sakaar, the garbage dump at the edge of the universe, and editor of gladiatorial spectacles in the Roman style. Here, Thor is captured and forced to fight by Valkryie, an imaginatively named ex-valkyrie played with one eyebrow permanently cocked by Tessa Thompson. At long last shorn of his unconvincing wig, the god of thunder’s opponent is the missing Hulk, revelling in his combative fame. A team-up is inevitable.
After all, there’s always someone else to battle. In this case our antagonist is the devilish Hela, Loki and Thor’s older sister and goddess of death. Cate Blanchett inhabits the role gleefully, but is short of scenes with other main players to bounce off – her main companion is Karl Urban’s dull Skurge, a walking subplot of little interest and no surprises. Hela’s plot to overtake Asgard involves an interesting purge of Asgardian characters – names of major and minor note die in Ragnarok, but all do so without evoking any particular sadness. These are curious directorial decision, and arguably missteps.
However, this lack of reflection is but one more contribution to the film’s wanton sense of fun, its best quality. Boring CGI fights and signposted Marvel meta-plot moments are distractions from repartee and visual quirkiness that are the envy of entries such as Doctor Strange and Captain America: Civil War. This film is in the former’s realms in visual terms, however, matching its psychedelic palettes but spreading them more liberally throughout its runtime, and flitting between epic-style shots and flat personal closeups to suit its designs.
Variety could be the spice of life for the MCU – certainly something will be needed to sustain this lumbering giant in the years to come. Thor Ragnarok is not a triumph, but demonstrates, in its coy way and, most importantly, through its singular tone and flavour, that giving directors and writers with actual individuality the chance to play with Marvel’s growing canon is a calculated risk worth taking.