The last couple of times a Marvel “MCU” movie came out I was surprised to see people talk about how all of Marvel’s films were “the same” and how they were tired of them having “too many cameos” and that they felt the films were acting as advertisements for each other. Every time I saw a reaction like that I couldn’t help but think “where were you guys when I felt that way.” While I generally gave a pass to most of their movies I definitely thought they were lame all through “phase one” and on and off again into “phase two.” But Marvel is actually on something of a winning streak right now. Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Spider-Man: Homecoming were all winners, each probably better than the last. Granted, even the best MCU movies aren’t “great” and at times I worry that I grade them on something of a curve but I didn’t have much in the way of major complaints about any of them. If there’s one movie that I worried would derail this string of success it was almost certainly Thor: Ragnarok, which would be a follow-up to the MCU’s low-point: Thor: The Dark World. That second Thor movie was a disaster; it’s probably the one MCU movie that I’d say was outright bad, a movie that seems to basically only exist because it was on their schedule to make another Thor movie at that point and which did little but tread water for two hours. Still, I don’t see myself ever skipping an MCU movie in theaters so I was willing to give it a shot anyway.
The film picks up a few months after the ending of The Avengers: Age of Ultron and depicts what Thor (Chris Hemsworth) was up to while the people back on earth were going through the events of Captain America: Civil War. It begins with him on one of many unsuccessful attempts to find infinity stones after his epiphany at the cave in that rather strange scene in Age of Ultron. This particular adventure found him defeating an ancient force which claims that it will bring the Ragnarok apocalypse upon the Asgard. For all his prophetic talk the guy is actually pretty easily defeated and his crown collected. Thor then returns to Asgard with the crown and uncovers within minutes that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is impersonating Odin (Anthony Hopkins) as was set up in the cliffhanger of the last Thor solo movie. Thor demands that Loki show him where their father is and the two go to Earth, where Odin has been hanging out and contemplating his life. Soon he dies, seemingly of old age or something, and leaves them a parting warning of the looming Ragnarok. Shortly thereafter Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death, shows up and sends them off to a strange prison-like planet run by a guy called the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) while she goes to conquer Asgard. Thor must thus escape the odd prison he finds himself in in order to have a shot of saving his people.
The last three MCU films have been a bit disconnected from the wider Avengers storyline. Doctor Strange had an infinity stone in it but was ultimately mostly about establishing a new character, Spider-Man: Homecoming was all about how Spider-Man wasn’t prepared to handle Avengers-caliber foes, and the Guardians of the Galaxy movies are kind of off in their own corner of the galaxy disconnected from what the other Marvel characters are up to. As such it seems that Thor: Ragnarok was in the position of having to pick up a lot of the burden of setting things up for the Avengers movie that’s coming in less than six months. This becomes quickly apparent when we get an extended (and ultimately rather pointless) cameo by Dr. Strange, many references to previous films including Black Widow stock footage, and (as anyone whose seen the trailer has had spoiled for them) a fairly large part for The Incredible Hulk. That would seem like a recipe for disaster but somehow some way the movie gets away with it. Thor: Ragnarok is a movie that seemingly makes every mistake that an MCU movie can make and yet still works in spite of itself.
Most Marvel movies tend to have large and frankly over-qualified casts and this one is particularly impressive in that regard. We have all the returning actors from the Thor series like Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, and Idris Elba but also some newcomers like Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, and Jeff Goldblume. Blanchett is obviously someone who’s “above” doing a movie like this in many ways and could have easily done this villainess role in her sleep, but she does seem to have brought her A-game or at least her B+ game just the same and is almost unrecognizable here. Jeff Goldblume is also fun even if he’s largely doing a riff on his usual persona and Tessa Thompson is a solid addition as well who seems likely to play a role in the series going forward. As with previous Marvel movies including the original Thor there’s a lot of comedy to be found here, like, A LOT. The movie seems to be following the lead of Guardians of the Galaxy is practically being a straight-up comedy at times but does wisely find a slightly different approach. The film was directed by the New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi, an associate of the comedy duo Flight of the Conchords who sort of shares a certain dry sense of humor with them.
Where most movies have comic relief one could almost call this a comedic movie with moments of dramatic relief. At times this feels like a bit of a crutch to conceal some screenplay problems (like the immense coincidence of Thor and The Hulk finding themselves stranded on the same remote planet) and sometimes this abundance of yucks can lead to some odd dissonance, like the fact that it more or less forgives Loki for the many many murders he committed in previous movies just because it’s fun to treat him like a lovable rogue. For the most part though the movie actually does a surprisingly good job of keeping the stakes of the story in place while subverting them at every chance. Part of it is the film’s bisected structure in which the antics on the Grandmaster’s planet are separated from the slightly more serious peril going on in Asgard. This format would probably lead to a tonal disaster if the plight of the Asgard felt just a little more grim or the escape from the Grandmaster was just a little lower stakes, but the balance does seem to work out just right so that the two parts can support each other rather than detract from each other.
Thor: Ragnarok is a movie I want to be careful not to over-rate but also avoid under-appreciating. If the most you want out of a movie is to be entertained for two hours then this is definitely a movie that will leave you satisfied, but I also don’t consider it to be particularly special in any way. It’s basically doing nothing that other MCU movies haven’t already done and it also isn’t the MCU movie I’d send anyone to if they haven’t already bought into what Marvel does. I definitely think less of it than I do of some of Marvel’s other recent triumphs like Spider-Man: Homecoming or Doctor Strange which were better able to tell self-contained stories or Captain America: Civil War which managed to deliver even more in terms of fan service. It is, however still part of a fairly triumphant string of Marvel films and is notably better than some of the more mediocre films they were putting out earlier including the first and second Thor movies.