The fascinating thing about Marvel, and the true key to their continued success as a studio, is their willingness and capacity to make adjustments, to continue to adapt through each phase of their Cinematic Universe to improve their films. It’s a remarkable ability in this industry, one that has been ruled front to back by marketing research and executive influence, an industry that so often tries to tell audiences what they want rather than sit back and listen to the angry nerd-mob. However, Marvel does listen. After making directorial choices that steadily improved in quality from the first to second phases, they encountered a new problem with their intricately interconnected Universe: homogenization. Safe, cooperative directors who would not rock the boat and stay within the motifs and established rhythms became the norm, best exemplified by the departure of auteur talent Edgar Wright of Shaun of the Dead and Baby Driver from the mostly pretty good and surprisingly charming Ant-Man. While that movie was more fun than it should have been it was also more than a little shy of great and we’ll never know how weird it could have been. But the result of that aforementioned ability to adjust, in the face of a potentially squandered opportunity to bring real, unique vision to their storytelling and flagging enthusiasm towards the superhero genre and Marvel in general, brings us to Thor: Ragnarok, whose Freak Flag is flying from frame one.
The odd thing about the Thor storylines in the MCU is that, logically speaking, they should be the most austere, even classical aspect of the comic book adaptations being technically based on Norse mythology, and while the first in the series absolutely is, with its Shakespearean struggle for a throne between two brothers, one selfish and entitled, the other deceptive and envious, Ragnarok lands so far on the other side of the spectrum that it’s difficult to consolidate all three films. This makes sense considering newcomer and relatively obscure New Zealand indie director Taika Waititi openly decided to ignore the previous films altogether and the Marvel Universe in general in order to focus on making his own movie as awesome as possible. And the result of Marvel letting Waititi completely off the chain is one of the goofiest, most self-aware, and ultimately spectacular entries to date. It’s pure joy from start to finish, it’s so adorable you want to climb up the screen and hug it, and, to recycle an exhausted but appropriate trope, it’s the reason we go to the movies.
To say that the entire cast is hitting on all cylinders is also a bit of a trope but it applies. If I had to lodge a serious complaint about this movie, and the genre as a whole, it’s that the whole green screen approach to making movies genuinely robs the entire experience of a degree of fidelity but, in a film like Ragnarok, the fact that everyone is clearly having so much fun with the material it doesn’t really matter. This is one of those movies that you don’t want to end and, at no point, is there a dull interval or moment wasted. Cate Blanchett as Hela (pronounced like a Northern Californian, as in, “This movie is hella good”) is an absolute joy, Karl Urban is an unexpected but thoroughly enjoyable side-arc, and Jeff Goldblum is distilled down to the purist, weirdest, most Jeff Goldblum-y version of Jeff Goldblum that has ever been committed to celluloid. Ever. At one point, he’s just making facial expressions and, somehow, because it’s him, it just works. Taika Waititi himself is also a great addition in the form of a giant rock alien with a clipped, New Zealand accent who manages to steal every minute he’s onscreen.
So immediately after the screening I texted a friend who was seeing Thor: Ragnarok later in the week and asked them to buy a ticket on my behalf so I could see it again. There are so many quirky exchanges and subtle digs at the rest of the Marvel canon, so many callbacks and wacky deliveries, so much fun being had at the expense of the source material while also managing to be an excellent fantasy action movie that I wanted to rewatch thing immediately. And there’s another thing about Ragnarok and the trailer and Marvel as a whole, lately: they know exactly what they are doing and if you watched the trailer like I did and assumed the film is going to end a certain way, you are wrong. But you’re just going to have to see it to find out what that head-fake was.
Ever since the second Thor film I’ve been reminded incessantly of Heavy Metal magazine. For those not familiar, this magazine was a sort of uber-nerd periodical that featured contributor’s art and stories mainly made up of dragons, boobs, spaceships, elves, scantily clad women with boobs, warriors, aliens, monsters, monsters with boobs, pretty much everything that creepy kid in high school who sat in the back of the class drew on his folders. It was popular in the 70s and 80s and there was even a terrible R-rated animated film that was made at a certain point before American animation had really evolved or caught up with Japanese anime in terms of quality. Anyway, Thor: The Dark World could have jumped right off the pages of Heavy Metal with its Norse Gods battling evil space elves with fighter jets and laser guns. Ragnarok takes that strangeness and geekiness and imagination and doubles down, with action set pieces that tap directly into the part of the viewers brain that goes, “…fuckin’ sweet.”. And above all of that, it also manages to be hilarious. It’s easily the funniest Marvel offering so far and somehow, vaults itself into the top five MCU films of all time, with room to spare. So far, anyway, as much as they continue to impress after 17 films Marvel’s gotta run out of steam at some point. Right?