Thor struggled in the first two Phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The character first appeared in Thor (Branagh, 2011), a film that elegantly, if a bit timidly, introduced essential magical, supernatural and cosmic elements into an otherwise science and technology-based film universe. After his debut, however, Thor was lost in the shuffle of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers ( 2012). His character arc was one of the least-defined in the film despite Thor’s adopted brother/nemesis, Loki, acting as the chief villain.
Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World (2013) was entertaining enough, but doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny and is generally considered one of the weakest entries in the MCU. Finally, Thor’s subplot in Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) was mostly cut in a post-production compromise, and the bits that remain make little sense. Despite faithfully adapting many elements from the comics, after four films Marvel Studios had yet to find success with Thor on film. But with his third solo film approaching, there was certainly hope. Third installments in the MCU tend to go in bold new directions. Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 (2013) stripped its title character of his technology and resources to find the hero underneath the suit of armour. The Russo Brothers’ Captain America: Civil War (2016) blew up into an Avengers-sized film as it took its title character from patriot to insurgent. Thus, the third Thor film had the potential to finally find the proper approach to the character.
No one wanted a new direction more than Thor star, Chris Hemsworth. In Joanna Robinson’s November 2017 Vanity Fair interview with Hemsworth leading up to the release of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Hemsworth recounted his frustration and boredom with Thor’s depiction following Age of Ultron. He was dissatisfied with the seriousness of the high fantasy approach in previous films and longed for a more comedic, unpredictable direction more akin to James Gunn’s 2014 film, Guardians of the Galaxy.
Hemsworth’s feelings were galvanized after hearing director and professional fanboy Kevin Smith criticize the MCU’s Thor on a podcast. Hemsworth considered Smith a representative of the larger fan community and felt his concerns were shared by the fans. As ideas for Ragnarok began to develop, Hemsworth insisted on stripping Thor down of his Norse mythology accouterments (losing the cape, the enchanted hammer, his long blond hair) and leaning into more comedic elements. Previously, the films had taken Thor quite seriously, a thousand-year-old alien god of thunder whose story is rich with Shakespearean undertones. Hemsworth instead wanted to make use of his comedic talents in his role of Thor, talents which had become apparent in films such as Ghostbusters (Feig, 2016).
Kevin Feige, the head of Marvel Studios and chief architect of the MCU, accepted these bold suggestions. As he saw it, Branagh’s Thor had faithfully adapted the comic book version of the character, but after four appearances Chris Hemsworth was now Thor in the minds of filmgoers, regardless of the presence — or absence — of hair, hammer, or cape. Screenwriters chose to include the Hulk as a supporting character in Thor: Ragnarok. Mark Ruffalo, who had portrayed Bruce Banner/Hulk in both Avengers films, also suggested a new direction for his character that would play out across several films, beginning with Ragnarok. All of this indicates that, by the 17th film in the MCU, Marvel Studios was refreshingly willing to allow it main actors to take ownership of their characters and even dictate major changes for them that would ripple through multiple MCU film series.
The screenwriters of Ragnorak, first Chris Kyle and Christopher Yost, then Stephany Folsom, and finally Eric Pearson, were certainly game for these major character changes, creating the wildly subversive plot in which they would occur. The film is best remembered, however, for the hilarious glee with which it tears apart the Thor mythos. That humour and iconoclastic approach is largely credited to Waititi.
Fists, Fire and Water by thommas68 (Pixabay License / Pixabay
The New Zealand-born director was best known for writing and directing smaller-scale films with his distinctive brand of offbeat humour and surprising poignancy. After some short films and a pair of features, Waititi broke out with the hilarious vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (Waititi and Clement, 2014), followed by the critically-acclaimed Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), which are both absolute must-sees. Marvel Studios is now known for hiring talented lesser-known but distinctive directors to helm their big films, hoping they will bring their unique style to the MCU. Waititi was the latest in a long-line of these up-and-coming talents given control of a blockbuster series.
Indeed, he was given a shocking amount of control with Ragnarok. Waititi considered the screenplay a “jumping-off point”, rewriting much of the dialogue and encouraging improvisation on set. In this way, his strange, irreverent sense of humour permeated the film. Waititi viewed Thor as a privileged Asgardian rich kid up to this point, not relatable unless he was stripped of his privilege. The director was excited to destroy and dismantle what came before to build something new. One of the funniest aspects of Guardians of the Galaxy is the way it undercuts nearly every heroic or emotional scene, barely allowing itself to ever be taken seriously. Thor: Ragnarok takes that approach even further. Waititi later claimed that he was surprised by the latitude he was given to humorously undercut big moments. He gives Marvel Studios credit for both allowing him such a free hand and ensuring the film stayed on track amongst the craziness.
And, to be clear, this film is absolutely bonkers. Throughout the 46 Marvel films overall, including 17 MCU films that I have covered in this series, there’s a great deal of variation between the films in terms of faithfulness to the comics both narratively and aesthetically. Over time, the strangest, most colourful, most “out-there” aesthetics of comic books have slowly made their way into the films, as if filmmakers have been gradually increasing the “comic-booky” elements. That being said, never before has a major Marvel film looked and felt so comic-booky. Waititi drew stylistic influences from the work of Thor co-creator Jack Kirby and science-fiction B-movies of the ’70s and ’80s, notably Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon (1980).
Waititi presents those Kirby visuals with the highest possible budget and quality in Ragnarok, along with a retro-sounding, synth-infused score by Mark Mothersbaugh. The result is an exciting big-budget upgrade to cheap sci-fi films of the ’70s and ’80s, much like Star Wars (Lucas, 1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981) upgrade the cheap adventure serials of the ’30s and ’40s. Narratively, Ragnorak draws influences, like all Thor films, from Walt Simonson’s definitive run on Thor in the ’80s. It incorporates characters featured prominently in the run, such as Skurge, Surtur and Hela.
The film also adapts many elements from the classic 2006-2007 “Planet Hulk” storyline from Incredible Hulk, written by Greg Pak. That story, which begins with Hulk enslaved on an alien planet and forced to fight in a gladiatorial arena, was frequently suggested by MCU fans as the basis for the next Hulk solo film. With Marvel uninterested in Hulk solo films, it incorporated “Planet Hulk” into Ragnarok.
Marvel began preparing audiences for the irreverent Waititi brand of humour with the two Team Thor shorts released in July 2016 and February 2017. The non-canonical, mockumentary-style shorts, written and directed by Waititi during production of Ragnarok, find Thor (Chris Hemsworth) living in Australia with his roommate Darryl (Daley Pearson), wondering why he was not contacted to participate in Civil War. The humour stems mostly from Thor being a bad roommate, bored with his lack of direction, and hopelessly out-of-touch with ordinary Earth culture. It also features moments like Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, ‘resting’ with a tiny pillow and blanket in a drawer next to Thor’s bed. The awkward, seemingly improvised dialogue, akin to something like The Office, and the cheeky irreverence toward Thor’s character seems like a bit of fun, but actually gives a fairly accurate indication of the humour in Ragnarok.
Although I have enjoyed Thor in comics and films he has never been my favourite Marvel character. Given that, I was pleasantly surprised when Thor: Ragnarok became one of my favourite Marvel films. I absolutely adore it. It’s the funniest film in the MCU, which is staying something. It’s easily the best Thor film, marrying the humour with a trashy sci-fi aesthetic, great action and surprisingly touching character work. It/s shockingly cavalier about the previous Thor films, wasting no time in bypassing lingering plot and character threads, and immediately doing away with any elements the filmmakers deemed unimportant. But the elements that remain are depicted so perfectly, the newly-introduced elements are so entertaining, and the overall film is so incredibly fun that this quickly feels like the version of Thor that should have existed from the beginning.
Hemsworth gets the opportunity to have fun with the character, and he seems to relish every second. I haven’t even mentioned Jeff Goldblum, acting more Jeff Goldblum-y than I’ve ever seen him. Waititi and his collaborators took the MCU’s most uneven lead hero in a completely new direction with such singularity of vision that the film becomes a total delight and one of the best comic book films of all time.
The first 25-minutes of Ragnarok unfold at a breakneck pace. There’s easily enough plot and incident in this section to fill half a film, but the filmmakers seem intent on quickly discarding any elements they deem unnecessary. This gives them ample time to explore the film’s new elements for the rest of the film. Despite the rapid pace, these early scenes never feel rushed. The charismatic cast, light tone, witty writing, and fun surprises make the section an exciting ride.
Case in point, the film opens with Thor in a hanging cage. In voiceover he says, “Oh no, Thor is in a cage! How did this happen?” in a gentle parody of opening most blockbusters in media res. Thor summarizes his recent adventures, saving Earth a couple of times, then looking for the Infinity Stones. When the character last appeared, at the end of Age of Ultron, he was heading into the cosmos to look into the recent emergence of the Infinity Stones. But in one casual line in his opening speech, Thor says that he didn’t find anything and has moved on to investigating the fiery visions he has been experiencing. With that one line, the filmmakers discard any possibility of continuing Thor’s mission at the end of Age of Ultron, or tying into the larger “Infinity Saga”. They have their own story to tell.
Thor is revealed to be talking to a skeleton in the cage with him, and the skeleton’s jaw falls off as Thor finishes his speech. Thor is then wrapped in chains and hoisted before his captor, the fiery giant Surtur (voiced by Clancy Brown). Surtur monologues portentously about his destiny to dip his crown in the Eternal Flame on Thor’s home planet of Asgard and then destroy Asgard in glorious Ragnarok. Thor asks him to pause his threats several times as Thor’s chain slowly spins him around. This is the kind of funny undercutting of serious scenes that Guardians of the Galaxy did so well and Ragnarok takes further.
Surtur reveals that he will carry out his plan because Odin (Anthony Hopkins), Thor’s father, is not on Asgard. This is news to Thor. Thor then says a snappy one-liner as he summons Mjolnir, his magic hammer, but the hammer is delayed for a few seconds. When it arrives, Thor begins fighting Surtur and his minions while “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin provides the soundtrack. How has this incredible classic rock song about viking pillagers and its mention of “the hammer of the gods” not appeared in a Thor film before? Waiti used the song in the “sizzle reel” he created as an audition for the directing job, and it’s perfect.
Thor defeats Surtur and takes his giant crown, then calls on Heimdall (Idris Elba) to beam him back to Asgard through the Bifrost. We see that Heimdall is no longer in charge of the Bifrost, however, and that Skurge (Karl Urban) has replaced him. Skurge is initially distracted from Thor’s call as he shows off the merchandise he has stolen from Earth through the Bifrost, from assault rifles to a Shake Weight, to a pair of Asgardian women.
When Thor finally arrives on Asgard, he finds a giant statue of his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and a performance of a play glorifying Loki’s death in The Dark World. Actors portray Loki (Matt Damon), Thor (Luke Hemsworth, brother of Chris) and Odin (Sam Neill), while a choir performs Brian Tyler’s score from that film. It’s rare to see a sequel parody the preceding film, but Ragnarok is fairly unconventional. The Dark World ended with the revelation that Loki had faked his death and impersonated Odin to take over the throne of Asgard. This was a fantastic cliffhanger that fans waited four years to be resolved. This satirical play and Hopkins’ hammy performance of Loki impersonating Odin make it clear that Ragnarok was not going to match expectations of The Dark World.
Thor quickly forces Loki to reveal himself, and they return to Earth in search of Odin. Yet another plot thread discarded. Unfortunately, Loki left him under a spell in a New York retirement home, and that building has been demolished. As Thor and Loki converse, it’s revealed that Thor’s romantic interest from the previous films, Jane, has broken up with him. Another element discarded.
Then Loki disappears through a sparking portal, and Thor is directed to the sanctum of Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Strange, clearly more advanced in the magical arts since Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange (2016). He questions why Thor would bring someone as dangerous as Loki to Earth. Strange helps Thor and Loki find Odin. There are a lot of jokes in this section, from Strange magically shuttling Thor around the Sanctum to Strange finally releasing Loki from the portal. (“I have been falling for thirty minutes!”) He sends the brothers to Norway, ending Dr. Strange’s brief appearance in Ragnarok. That he appears at all is one of the fun products of the shared cinematic universe. He’s merely a plot device used to move things along quickly, but his scenes are great fun.
Thor and Loki find Odin in Norway, staring off a cliff. This is the only scene in the opening section that things slow down a bit, providing for genuine moments of emotion and drama. Odin talks about his deceased wife, Frigga, calling to him. At first Thor thinks this is part of Loki’s spells, but it’s not. Odin is simply reflecting on his life and his love as he feels death approaching. He casually refers to Thor and Loki as his sons, shocking Loki who previously felt undervalued for being adopted.
The scene effectively calls back to Loki’s angry confusion over his adoption in Thor and Frigga’s death in The Dark World, demonstrating that the filmmakers didn’t discard previous films entirely — they only discarded the elements that didn’t work for their story. Odin reveals that his death will free Hela (Cate Blanchett), goddess of death and Odin’s first-born, from captivity. Then Odin turns into glowing dust and floats off the cliff. The scene is bittersweet and poignant, given added weight by the absence of humour.
Thor blames Loki’s schemes for Odin’s death, and the brothers square off to fight before a portal opens to release Hela. Thor throws Mjolnir at her, which she catches with one hand and shatters (discarded). Loki and Thor attempt to escape to Asgard in the Bifrost, but Hela attacks them and throws them out into the cosmos. Once on Asgard, Hela immediately kills Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) and Fandral (Zachary Levi), with the latter not even uttering a word in the film (discarded).
With that the incredibly fast-paced opening section of Thor: Ragnarok comes to a close. By this point, the film has discarded Thor’s previous love interest (Jane), two of his companions (Volstagg and Fandral), his father (Odin), and his signature weapon (Mjolnir), as well as the cliffhanger of Thor: The Dark World and Thor’s mission from the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Although a few more elements will be discarded as the film progresses (Hogun, Thor’s cape, Thor’s hair, Thor’s right eye, the entirety of Asgard), the rest of Ragnarok is mostly devoted to rebuilding the world with its fresh approach: new cast, new tone, new style and, above all, comedy. The opening section moves quickly because Waititi seems much more interested in where Thor spends the middle of the story, and he allows that portion of the film more time to breathe. But before we follow Thor, I will examine the state of Hela on Asgard.
Hela is the true heir to the throne of Asgard. She and Odin brutally conquered the Nine Realms in Asgard’s name long ago, before Odin decided to live in peace. He imprisoned the bloodthirsty Hela and rewrote Asgard’s history to exclude her. Upon her return, Hela wants to lead Asgard’s army to conquer the rest of the cosmos, just like the old days. She wants to Make Asgard Great Again. The cowardly Skurge follows Hela, but the army, led by Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), refuses. Hela proceeds to destroy the army of Asgard single-handedly, generating an endless supply of sharp weapons out of her own body.
Hela is a longtime character from Thor comics, but her design in the film comes from the epic Thor run by Jason Aaron that began in 2014. Her powers are taken from another villain in the same run. Hela resurrects her long-dead army and giant wolf from deep in Asgard’s vaults, and prepares to invade the galaxy. She finds that Heimdall has prevented her from leaving Asgard, however, and Heimdall proceeds to secretly evacuate the main city. These Asgard scenes invoke Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film series (2001-2003), perhaps because Cate Blanchett and Karl Urban appeared in that trilogy. Blanchett doesn’t have many scenes in Ragnarok, but she owns every second of her screen time with a delicious villain performance. Her voice becomes more regal, her makeup cleaner and her hair smoother as she gathers her power, while the opposite happens as she grows angry or violent. This story plays out in several cutaways from Thor’s storyline to keep Hela in the minds of viewers before the climax.
The real centrepiece of the film, however, where the filmmakers invest most of their time and attention, is the planet Sakaar. Sakaar lies at the bottom of countless wormholes like a giant galactic trash heap. Thor lands there after being thrown from the Bifrost and is attacked by scavengers, who rip off his cape. They’re dispersed by Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson), who swaggers into the story full of presence, chugging a bottle of booze and falling off her ship. Thor soon finds himself strapped to a chair, moving through a psychedelic tunnel of lights. While “Pure Imagination” from Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) plays, a narrator explains that Sakaar is ruled by the Grandmaster. The ride moves faster, and Thor lets out a high-pitched scream until he’s out of the tunnel and finds himself face-to-face with the Grandmaster (Goldblum).
Goldblum is in rare form in the film. He’s jovial, eccentric, distracted, condescending and menacing. When Thor fails to summon lightning to free himself, the Grandmaster nicknames him “sparkles” and pronounces his home planet “Ass-guard”. He takes Thor on a tour of his quarters, where he liquifies his traitorous cousin and breaks out a keyboard solo. Overall, though, the Grandmaster is excited by the arrival of Thor. Scrapper 142 previously found the Grandmaster’s “beloved” gladiatorial champion in the trash heap, and now she brings a possible contender. Grandmaster claims that Thor can fight the champion in the arena to earn his freedom. The Sakaar section borrows heavily from the Planet Hulk comic storyline which, itself, borrowed elements from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000).
Thor is thrown in the dungeon with other gladiators like Korg (Taika Waititi), a large rock creature with a soft New Zealand accent and offbeat humour. Korg tells Thor that he should not be afraid of a rock creature unless he is made of scissors. He was imprisoned because he attempted to start a revolution, but failed because he didn’t print enough pamphlets. Thor attempts to explain the loss of Mjolnir to Korg, which he misunderstands as a euphemism for masturbation. Korg is hilarious.
Loki, who somehow landed on Sakaar weeks earlier, has manipulated his way into the Grandmaster’s court and intends to usurp him. He offers to help Thor, but Thor is fed up with Loki’s scheming. This is another refreshing turn for the series, with larger events overshadowing Loki’s predictable manipulations. The film actually uses this development to grow Loki as a character. With Thor no longer opposing his schemes, he begins to consider a different path.
Finally, Thor learns that Scrapper 142 is actually a member of the Valkyrie, female Asgardian warriors. Thor rambles through a condescending speech about the value of female warriors, but she insists on drinking away her life on Sakaar rather than helping him. The Sakaar scenes are uniformly excellent. Grandmaster, Korg and Valkyrie are fun new characters, while Thor and Loki develop in interesting ways. Sakaar has a cheap, trashy ’70s sci-fi aesthetic making Ragnarok feel like a film that would air on television late on a Friday night. But the advanced design and effects, the crisp writing, the humour, and the credible character emotions give the film a sheen of top-quality while retaining its low-brow fun.
Thor is prepared for his arena fight by getting a painful looking haircut from Stan Lee. He enters the massive arena as an enormous hologram of the Grandmaster announces the fight against his beloved champion. Thor dons a helmet with wings that approaches the look of his classic comic book helmet and prepares to face his foe. Suddently, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) bursts out of the other doorway. Had this been a surprise, rather than revealed in the earliest trailer for the film, Hulk’s entrance would have been one of the most surprising events in the MCU. It’s a great moment regardless.
Thor’s apprehension turns to joy as he shouts “Yes! We know each other! He’s a friend from work.” Despite Thor’s excitement and friendliness, Hulk insists on fighting. Thor surprises the crowd by matching his strength. Thor tries to calm Hulk by misquoting a mantra from Age of Ultron (“the sun’s getting real low”), then he’s smashed around like a rag doll, homaging a classic scene with Loki in The Avengers. Thor gets angry (“You’re embarrassing me! I told them we were friends!”), and he channels his lightning powers without the assistance of Mjolnir. But the Grandmaster stuns Thor through an “obedience disk” affixed to Thor’s neck, allowing Hulk to win. This follows in the classic comic book tradition of two super-strong heroes fighting, but the fight ending unresolved so as to not confirm which hero is stronger.
Thor wakes up in Hulk’s well-adorned room, finding Hulk in a hot tub. Hulk emerges from the tub (naked, much to Thor’s chagrin) to explain that his Avengers jet was sucked through a wormhole at the end of Age of Ultron and he landed here. Hulk enjoys his life as a champion, and has no interest in helping Thor escape. This is all explained through the rudimentary, toddler-like vocabulary that Hulk has developed. Waititi imagined Hulk as a three-year old: simple-minded, prone to emotional outbursts, fond of small pleasures. This is the best version of the Hulk depicted on screen up to this point, pairing his angry strength with the sweet, child-like mind.
Thor and Hulk argue and hurt each other’s feelings until Thor approaches Hulk like a parent talking to a child. As the current parent of a three-year-old, I relate so much to these scenes. Hulk helps Thor talk to Valkyrie, who reveals that she and the Valkyries were defeated when trying to prevent Hela’s escape years ago. She refuses to help, but Thor steals the controller to his obedience disk from her and escapes to the Avengers jet. Hulk attempts to stop him, but Thor accidentally pulls up a video of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) from Age of Ultron. This calms Hulk enough for him to transform back into Bruce Banner for the first time in two years.
Ruffalo’s Banner has always been fun to watch, but in Ragnarok he takes the character to new neurotic heights. He’s shocked to be on another planet, full of alien sights and sounds, and begins to have an anxiety attack. He’s horrified that he has been stuck as the Hulk so long, and worries that he will lose himself if he transforms into Hulk again. He feels betrayed when it becomes clear that Thor wants the Hulk, not Banner, to help him defeat Hela. Meanwhile, the Grandmaster blames Loki and Valkyrie for Thor’s escape, and demands he be found.
Valkyrie finds Thor, but she’s confused by the presence of a stressed-out human following him around. Regardless, she agrees to team up with Thor against Hela. Thor uncreatively dubs them the “Revengers”. Valkyrie offers up Loki to the team, but Banner and Thor don’t know if they can trust him. In a hilarious speech, improvised by Hemsworth, Thor recounts a story from his childhood with Loki: “There was one time when we were children, he transformed himself into a snake, and he knows that I love snakes. So, I went to pick up the snake to admire it and he transformed back into himself and he was like, ‘Blergh, it’s me!’ And he stabbed me.” Loki joins the Revengers.
Korg and the gladiators from the dungeon start a revolution as a diversion while the Revengers steal a ship. They plan to fly the ship through the largest wormhole on Sakaar, dubbed the “Devil’s Anus”, to return to Asgard. This section is B-movie action of the highest order. Thor and Loki fight side-by-side, shooting laser weapons as they discuss their relationship. Thor insists he doesn’t care about Loki’s schemes, and supports his decision to stay on Sakaar. He then suggests doing “get help” when they reach the ship area, which Loki refuses. Cut to the elevator opening, Thor holding a wounded-looking Loki and shouting “Get help!” to distract the security guards. Thor then throws Loki at the guards, pleased with his classic scheme.
Loki tries to betray Thor but, after so many similar betrayals, Thor expects it and electrocutes Loki. Meanwhile, the Grandmaster is occupied with the slave revolution. But he’s uncomfortable with the word “slave”, much preferring “prisoners with jobs”. Thor steals the Grandmaster’s party ship, and he and Valkyrie take out the pursuing ships by hand as they approach the Anus. In early drafts of the script, Thor and Valkyrie developed a romantic relationship, as expected in this kind of film. Refreshingly, this was changed for the final film, and the two simply develop a mutual platonic respect. Thor, Valkyrie and Banner fly through the Anus, while Loki takes over Korg’s revolution on Sakaar.
This ends the inventive, impossibly entertaining Sakaar section, bringing Thor back into conflict with Hela for the climax. The film doesn’t lose any of its fun or momentum in this final section, but it feels a bit more conventional. Heimdall attempts to lead the Asgardians down the rainbow bridge to escape Asgard, but they’re blocked on both sides by Hela’s forces. Thor sends Banner and Valkyrie to help while he distracts Hela in the throne room. Valkyrie tries to hold off the army, but Hela’s giant wolf attacks. Banner then makes the selfless choice to turn back into the Hulk, even though he may never become human again. He dives out of the ship heroically, but then painfully, hilariously, thunks onto the bridge. Only after that injurious landing does he turn into the Hulk and fight the wolf. The Asgardians are still overwhelmed, however, until Loki and Korg arrive in a large ship to transport everyone away.
In the throne room, Thor admits that he never wanted to rule Asgard. Even so, he cannot let Hela take the throne because she’s “the worst”. They fight, and Hela slices out Thor’s right eye, which matches Odin’s lost eye. As she tries to kill Thor, he mentally communes with Odin. Thor claims he can’t defeat Hela because he lost his hammer. Odin replies, “Are you Thor, god of hammers?” He reveals that Mjolnir was created to channel Thor’s mighty lightning power, not create it. He also explains to Thor that Asgard is a people, not a place, giving Thor the inspiration he needs.
What follows is an unabashed huge blockbuster moment, made all the more powerful by the lack of humourous undercutting. Thor summons his full lightning powers through his body, striking Hela with a massive lightning bolt. “Immigrant Song” reprises as he soars towards the rainbow bridge. He comes down on Hela’s army in slow motion, accented by lightning in a gorgeous, painting-like composition. Thor attacks the troops alongside Valkyrie, Heimdall, Loki and Korg, while Hulk defeats the giant wolf. All of this happens with Led Zeppelin blaring. It’s tremendous fun.
Hela attacks again and Thor must make a desperate play to defeat her. Hela draws her power from Asgard and, since its citizens have evacuated onto Korg’s ship, Asgard must be destroyed. Thor sends Loki to the vaults to place Surtur’s crown into the Eternal Flame, resurrecting Surtur and allowing him to carry out his prophesied destruction of Asgard. As Loki carries out the plan, he pauses to consider the Tesseract in the vault. Meanwhile, Thor and Valkyrie hold off Hela on the bridge. Hela’s army threatens to overwhelm Korg’s ship until Skurge leaps out to mow them down with his assault rifles. This is an homage to the classic moment in Thor #362 (December 1985) when Skurge, a longtime villain, heroically sacrifices his life to cover the escape of Asgardians from Hela. The comic is a classic, but the moment in the film is mostly an afterthought.
As Surtur starts to destroy Asgard, Hela fights him. Hulk tries to join in, eager to fight a giant fire monster, but Thor orders him back into the ship. As they fly away, Asgard falls to ruins while Thor and his companions watch. Korg says, hopefully, that its foundations are strong, and that it can be rebuilt as a haven for people throughout the cosmos. Then Asgard is vapourized, and Korg says “Nevermind, the foundations are gone.” Even the destruction of Asgard, Ragnarok itself, is undercut with comedy in this film.
Thor fits himself with an eyepatch, reconciles with Loki, and then takes the throne of Asgard — the people not the place. This ascension to king has been coming since the early scenes of Thor, and Waititi quotes Patrick Doyle’s theme from that film as a nice nod. Thor and his ship of refugees sets a course for Earth.
Thor: Ragnarok created a bold new direction for the Thor series. It was arguably the first film in the series to make the character universally appealing, discarding stuffy high fantasy and hazy mythology for trashy, hilarious sci-fi adventure. The filmmakers discard a number of established elements with shocking casualness, stripping Thor down to his core. They then develop the remaining elements and introduce new ones with great heart and humour to create a fantastic new status quo. In the process, Thor becomes more relatable and enjoyable as a character and as a film series.
The film is primarily remembered for Waititi’s particular brand of offbeat, irreverent humour. But it succeeds because Waititi also commits to strong characters and includes poignant emotional undercurrents, which is a feature of his best films. This is one of my favourite Marvel films and could even be considered amongst the best superhero films of all time. I wouldn’t designate it as such because of its cultural relevance or perfection of the genre, like Superman: The Movie (Donner, 1978) or The Avengers. And not for approaching its subject with seriousness and maturity, like Spider-Man 2 (Raimi, 2004), The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008) or Logan (Mangold, 2017). Ragnarok is one of the best superhero films because it so perfectly captures the excitement, the colour, the fun, the utter joy of a great, wacky comic book yarn.
Admittedly, the humour in this film is not for all tastes and there are certainly die-hard Thor fans who decry the character’s depiction. They were, however, the minority. Thor: Ragnarok earned $315 million in North America, an increase of 38% in ticket sales from Thor: The Dark World. Worldwide it earned $854 million, a 32% increase over its predecessor. Clearly mainstream audiences endorsed this version of Thor. To give some context, Ragnarok was released two weeks before Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2017), the DCEU version of The Avengers, teaming the greatest heroes of DC Comics on the big screen for the first time ever. That film should have been at least as commercially successful as The Avengers. Instead, due to poor quality and the overall mishandling of the DCEU by Warner Bros, Justice League became the lowest-grossing DCEU film up to that point, and earned far less than Ragnarok.
For a film about Thor to earn significantly more than the first on-screen team-up of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg is ridiculous unless you consider the importance of quality. Thor: Ragnarok is a fantastic film. Audiences recognized that and flocked to the theatre. Marvel Studios was so pleased with it, in fact, that it began developing a fourth Thor film, the forthcoming Thor: Love and Thunder (Waititi, 2021). Neither Iron Man nor Captain America have earned a fourth film in their respective series (yet), but Marvel realized that it had finally cracked the code to producing good Thor films. All the studio needed to do was destroy everything about Thor, first.
Stan Lee Cameo Corner: Lee appears as the “creepy old man” who relishes cutting Thor’s hair. That is 31 cameos in 46 films.
• In the mid-credits scene, Loki worries about how Earth will react to his return. Thor insists that everything will work out fine, but then Thanos’ ship appears.
• After the credits, we return to the Grandmaster on Sakaar. He praises the revolution as a huge success for everyone, including himself, because you cannot have a revolution without someone to revolt against. He merrily declares it a tie. Incidentally, the Ragnarok blu-ray includes the third segment in the Team Thor series featuring the Grandmaster moving in with Thor’s old roommate, Darryl.
• Director Taika Waititi returns to voice Korg in Avengers: Endgame (Russo Brothers, 2019) before writing and directing Thor: Love and Thunder,
• Tessa Thompson returns as Valkyrie in Avengers: Endgame and, presumably, subsequent films,
Marvel Cinematic Universe Viewing Order: Ragnarok takes place two years after Age of Ultron, and the mid-credits scene ends moments before Avengers: Infinity War. This puts it late in Phase 3:
1. Iron Man
2. Iron Man 2
4. The Incredible Hulk
5. Captain America: The First Avenger
6. The Avengers
7. Iron Man 3
8. Thor: The Dark World
9. Guardians of the Galaxy
10. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
11. Avengers: Age of Ultron
13. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
14. Captain America: Civil War
16. Doctor Strange
17. Spider-Man: Homecoming
18. Thor: Ragnarok
Next Time: Black Panther taps into the zeitgeist and becomes a legitimate cultural phenomenon.