It’s popular for online think-pieces to mine the current wave of comic book movies for purposes of crafting cataclysmic sounding headlines that posit each new installment in the genre portends “superhero fatigue”. First off, I don’t know if I agree with the term, as I don’t see anyone but critics claiming exhaustion, and even then, it’s only the critics who have been heralding “fatigue” since the release of the first Captain America film. Secondly, if such a thing as “superhero fatigue” exists, I don’t think it’s Marvel, who have been putting out critic- and crowdpleasers for the last ten years, who are to blame; any skeptical side-eye should remain firmly locked on the Distinguished Competition. Nobody gets tired of movies that are good, I’m just sayin’. “Fatigue” is unsubstantiated, but as the market is creeping to saturation level, it’s worth examining what exactly Thor: Ragnarok contributes to the whole.
Thirty seconds into Ragnarok and series fans will realize that this is not the Thor franchise as they left it. We open on Thor, with the aid of his sentient hammer, easily dispensing a giant fire demon to the tune of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”. Things get sillier from here on. Thor has always been a difficult character to care about; he’s progression from arrogant prince to humanitarian Avenger took place three movies ago, leaving him to coast along as background noise in the Avengers and its sequel. Director Taika Waititi clearly loves Marvel Comics, this film’s sweeping homages to Jack Kirby era-Marvel provide sufficient evidence that he’s a True Believer, but I’m skeptical that he gives much of a damn about Thor. The elements of Ragnarok relating our hunky hero (his quasi-animosity with his devious brother, Loki; his ascendence to king of Asgard; and even his supporting cast) are all lessened in favor of Waititi’s directorial vision of bouncy, candy colored nonsense; some elements take a backseat, others are shoved in the trunk. Do I wish Ragnarok was a less tangental conclusion to Thor’s story? A little, but I doubt many will be mad that Marvel has traded in a dead-eyed Natalie Portman for the Hulk.
Half an hour into the film, Thor and Loki are unceremoniously exiled from Asgard to a distant planet called Sakaar, a celestial garbage dump where all of the unwanted things in the universe find themselves. Sakaar is absolutely wonderful, it’s like Mos Eisely crossed with Las Vegas, full of scavengers, thieves, and general lowlifes and home to a gladiatorial competition where Thor faces the reigning champion: his old Avengers teammate, the Hulk. The second act is the best part of the movie, sandwiched between a rote first act that exists only for set up and an obligatory third act in which Thor returns to fight Hela, the film’s villainess, whom he barely knows and the movie barely cares about, but it’s also an hour-long plot cul-de-sac; there’s no substantial reason for this hour-long diversion except to introduce the Hulk into the narrative. It says something about the strength of a film when being dragged back to the main plot elicits a beleaguered sigh from the audience.
Basically, this movie needed more Sakaar and less Asgard. Taika Waititi knows how to make a cohesive film, I’ve seen him do it. The man was obviously passionate about making a different movie than Marvel needed, something along the lines of a 48 Hours-style buddy comedy with Hulk and Thor stuck on this gladiator planet. I want to see that movie and not a truncated version of it that fits into one act. That one act is awesome, but Ragnarok is only half-awesome.
Ragnarok has an excellent cast to work with and manages not to waste most of them like previous installments in the Marvel machine have (Sir Ben Kingsley and John C. Reilly, please stand up). Mark Ruffalo finally gets to do some acting as the green goliath, since Banner is trapped in Hulk mode for most of the movie. In addition to his strength, Hulk now possesses the demeanor of a tantrum-ing four-year-old, and I loved it. Jeff Goldblum puts in a brief but memorable performance as The Grandmaster, the flamboyant despot of Sakaar, but by his side is the real champion of the film: new edition Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, a scavenger with a haunted past, a wry attitude, and an ever-present beer in her hand. If Hemsworth ever decides to retire as Thor, they should give his franchise to Valkyrie. Unfortunately, Cate Blanchett (playing Hela) does not fare well, due largely to her limited screen time of about ten minutes.
So what does Thor: Ragnarok contribute to the whole? First, we must define the whole. If we’re talking about the whole of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, not much. Ragnarok is a rare Marvel film that stands on its own, not labored with setting up the next film in the franchise or a cameo from Robert Downey, Jr. and, honestly, I think there’s respectability in that alone. For all its faults, Ragnarok accomplishes what the previous Thor films did not: it feels like the result of someone’s vision and not like an obligatory corporate product that’s only in theaters because it’s step 34 in Marvel’s master plan and was slated to be released this year (although that’s probably the case as well). Marvel is a business, one of the many heads on the Disney hydra and if you’re old enough to be watching this movie you should be old enough to know that when Mickey Mouse prays, he prays to Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin. The fact that they’re bothering to include some level of artistic merit in their products when the broader spectrum of blockbusters has proven they don’t have to deserves a certain amount of applause.
Now, as to what it contributes to the whole of cinema? It’s time to get serious. Let’s talk about The Cheesecake Factory.
A slice of The Original—untopped, the most basic cheesecake one can order—clocks in at 800 calories, but Ragnarok errs on the side of decadence, so we’ll compare it to something mid-level: a slice of the Craig’s Crazy Carrot Cake Cheesecake, coming in calorically at 1,110 a slice (love yourself, don’t eat at The Cheesecake Factory). Now, should you be begrudged enjoying a piece of 1,110 calorie cake? No, absolutely not. And if you maintain a healthy lifestyle balancing diet and exercise I’d argue you shouldn’t even feel guilty about the occasional slice. But regardless of lifestyle, you should accept that by eating highly caloric, fat-engulfed, very tasty cheesecake you walk away having gained nothing… except weight, but that messes up the metaphor. Thor: Ragnarok is that cheesecake. I would never belittle someone for enjoying it—I did, to an extent—but if you intend to watch it, especially multiple times, then you have a cultural duty to ingest something more meaningful next time you go to the cinema.
The film is bright, fast-paced, occasionally hilarious, and full of moments designed to get die-hard Marvel fans pumping their fists in the air. Hulk fights Thor? Oh yeah. Hulk fights a giant wolf? Hell yeah. Hulk punches a giant fire demon in the face? FUC—well, you get the idea. But for all the much appreciated fanboy pandering there is very little substance to Thor: Ragnarok. It’s empty calories, a zero-sum game; the only one who really wins here is Marvel as they gleefully pocket our money. And while there’s nothing morally or intrinsically wrong with thoroughly enjoying a movie that elicits two hours of unabashed whooping, anyone looking for something beyond a standard popcorn film is going to leave the theater not unhappy, but perhaps a little deflated. It’s not a bad Marvel movie, it’s just another one: full of potential, light on follow-through.
Verdict: This is irrelevant, let them eat cheesecake.