The unique selling point of superhero cinema is the presentation of superpowers on screen and the exploration of what it means to super and to be a hero. Ever since “X-Men” took advantage of digital effects technology to render eye beams and human-generated lightning bolts, the finest examples of superhero cinema have grabbed hold of this opportunity with both hands to deliver innovative and arresting experiences within an established but flexible formula. After so many films, many of which feature recurring characters, superhero fatigue could be expected with innovation and imagination giving way to repetition and over familiarity. Thor: Ragnarok, however, delivers an eclectic and electrically charged breath of fresh air by injecting a quirky energy that takes established characters and concepts to strange new places.
The innovation and vivacity of Thor: Ragnarok is perhaps not surprising, as Marvel Studios remain leaders of the genre by continually reconfiguring their product. Often this reconfiguration is generic — combining “superhero” features with those of other genres — heist, conspiracy, high school, and significantly for these purposes, space opera. Taika Waititi’s contribution to the Thor series owes more to “Guardians of the Galaxy” than either Kenneth Branagh or Alan Taylor’s previous offerings, but also introduces a distinct type of humor that sometimes prompts askance views while at other times invoking raucous laughter. The film also provides grand scale action sequences as we expect from this franchise, but Waititi includes his particular wit in these sequences as well, which ensures that the action of this film is far more than various super-powered individuals hitting each other.
Picking up after the events of “Thor: The Dark World” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Thor: Ragnarok begins with our titular hero (Chris Hemsworth, “The Huntsman: Winter’s War”) narrating that he has spent time searching the universe for the Infinity Stones, before he encounters a fire demon, Surtur (Clancy Brown, “Stronger”), who predicts the forthcoming demise of Asgard, Ragnarok. Upon returning home, Thor learns that much is rotten in the state of Asgard, as usual due to his mischievous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, “Kong: Skull Island”), and the stage is set for much intrigue, bombast and humor. Unlike the earlier Thor films, Thor: Ragnarok largely avoids Earth, apart from a brief though very enjoyable sequence featuring Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, “Black Mass”). Far more action takes place on Asgard as well as a new planet Sakaar.
Governed by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, “Independence Day: Resurgence”) and inhabited by all manner of reprobates and degenerates, Sakaar is the junk heap of the cosmos where inhabitants are either enslaved or enthralled to gladiatorial contests between the most powerful arrivals. Thor comes to this place after an unfortunate run in with the Goddess of Death Hela (Cate Blanchett, “Cinderella,” chewing the scenery like it’s her divine duty), who is determined to take control of Asgard. Once on Sakaar, Thor meets all manner of colorful characters, many of whom you can imagine the Guardians of the Galaxy having close encounters with. Chief among these are newcomers the Grandmaster, boozy recruiter/kidnapper Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, “Creed”), revolutionary leader-in-waiting Korg (Waititi himself) as well as fellow Avenger Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, “Spotlight”), champion of the arena.
Again like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Thor: Ragnarok is very funny, often playing like a comedy with action rather than action with laughs. The interchanges between Thor and Hulk as well as Strange, Loki and Valkyrie, and those between Hela and her minion Skurge (Karl Urban, “Dredd”), not to mention those between the Grandmaster and everyone, are beautifully timed both in terms of the actors’ delivery and the pace of the editing. Hemsworth has been described as a wooden performer, but the toughest test for any actor is comedy and here he demonstrates his skill in this area with aplomb, while also switching to portentous drama when he needs to.
There is one niggle in the comedic banter, which is that Thor’s dialogue has become far more vernacular than previously, the God of Thunder now sounding more like Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) than the Thor in earlier films. While this works for the film as a whole, there is no explanation for this change and it does jar with the established incarnation of the character. On the other hand, a more articulate Hulk allows for far more characterization than before, with Ruffalo appearing more as Hulk than Banner.
Despite the contrast in Thor’s character, overall, it is the combination of the new and the recognizable that makes Thor: Ragnarok work, as there is much familiar material but also major innovations, especially in relation to superpowers. Hela is a deadly hand-to-hand combatant and also produces weapons seemingly from nowhere, while Thor himself develops new abilities that allow for dazzling displays and visceral thrills. With so much stuff being thrown at the screen including thunder and lightning, zombie armies, a giant wolf and various spacecraft, it is remarkable how much of it actually sticks, resulting in a dizzyingly colorful and enjoyable adventure.
Furthermore, the film is surprisingly radical in its themes and development. Characters are treated in unexpected ways and the ending is genuinely surprising. Through Hela’s impact on Asgard, the film engages with issues of reactionary government and refugees. This last aspect gives added meaning to the somewhat on-the-nose use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” which makes direct reference to Vikings and Thor’s hammer. Rather than being a crude amalgamation of two wildly different references, this song encapsulates the film as a whole, expressing both the joyous energy that Waititi injects into the proceedings and the more sober subject matter of oppression, exile and refugees.
It is tempting to link this political subtext to Waititi’s Maori and Russia Jewish heritage, both peoples who have experienced displacement, and the strong presence of Antipodean talent including Blanchett, Skurge, three Hemsworths and Sam Neill, add weight to this interpretation. But even without such biographical details, that are far from conclusive, the interest in refugees and exile is apparent within the substance of the film, most prominently in the finale that is not only a fitting climax for the action that has preceded it, but also a drastic step for the MCU as a whole. As always, it comes with the promise of more as the credits inform us that “Thor will return,” and there are many directions that this return can take after the joyous and fascinating ride that is “Thor: Radical-rok.”