Taika Waititi wasn’t the wrong man for Thor: Ragnarok. He’s a formidable filmmaker with all the makings of an auteur, and most of his work reflects that. However, his “quirky” aversion to convention isn’t charming or even really that different within the superhero genre, especially considering the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy perfected a similar “superhero comedy” approach three years ago. His style is best fitted for indie comedies, sure, but shit rains from farther up the ladder here. That being said, Marvel Studios architect Kevin Feige has definitely mismanaged projects in the past, but he still stands as one of the most talented, most influential players in Hollywood. Thor: Ragnarok promises “fun” and absolutely delivers on that front. That’s where its appeal stops. Peel back its paper-thin layers and what is left to see or feel?
Maybe it’s because we’ve been spoiled with great movies from the House of Ideas. Maybe it’s because Marvel has set such a standard that anything of even moderately low quality is seen as a failure. Just last year, Marvel released Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, both of which sported the honesty, earnestness, and heart that now characterize the studio’s most memorable efforts. The latter was vastly superior to the former, but both films furthered Marvel’s corporate aims even as they operated with an autonomy that was as welcome as it was necessary.
Perhaps most glaring is Thor’s miraculous transformation into unrelenting funnyman, a shift that makes little sense in the broader MCU narrative. Hemsworth loses the boots and busts out the clown shoes, becoming something of a joke that Waititi presses into our faces with few scruples. The films lack conceptual symmetry because each of them is communicating on a different wavelength, speaking to a different part of the human condition. That’s fine. Necessary, even. However, not only does Thor: Ragnarok say nothing, it supplants heart with hollowness and relies heavily on comedic beats that serve Waititi’s vision but don’t feel genuine or even tonally appropriate for its characters.
In November 2017, The Verge interviewed Waititi and asked him an array of very good, very intriguing questions. His answers and insights were illuminating, but not nearly enough to save the film from scrutiny.
When pressed about changing up the characters’ personalities and ‘rebooting’ them, the director said,
“We gave these actors the opportunity to reboot their characters. And I think they appreciated that because they’ve become so familiar with what they’ve been doing over the years. For them, it was almost like playing completely new characters now.”
Hold up. Wait. Waititi isn’t known for throwing out nonsensical comments, but my GOD is this silly. Unless Waititi returns to the director’s chair, we’re never going to see Thor, Loki, and company act like this again. The Avengers: Infinity War will completely undo what Waititi strove for here. The fact that this director, widely respected for the masterful What We Do In The Shadows, insisted on changing the essences of established characters for a one-off get-off is beyond me.
Now, it is worth mentioning that the characters’ senses of humor have sharpened and softened with the exit of one director and the entrance of another. Joss Whedon’s The Avengers made each member of the titular team uncharacteristically witty while Joe and Anthony Russo dialed down the humor in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. These differences are slight. The ones present in Ragnarok are not. The transitions were seamless and the characters felt more like themselves in each successive film. However, it’s really not about the changes themselves. It’s about the intention and timing behind them.
It’s the prioritization of humor over theme and emotion that help make the film one of Marvel’s least inspired efforts. In the other Marvel films, the humor complemented the themes. In Ragnarok, the humor contradicts the themes. Everything feels secondary to how funny the film assumes it is. Even Odin’s death is underplayed and underwhelming. Watching the King of Asgard dissolve into a sparkling dust cloud and carry itself away on a seaward wind felt silly and contrived, not powerful. It’s easy to play up that moment mentally and emotionally because it should be an affecting scene for anyone remotely invested in the franchise.
The Warriors Three hold no real significance, so their unceremonious deaths are more appropriate. They didn’t have a place in the MCU’s overarching story, and they were always perfectly disposable. Many of Marvel’s directors just don’t have the gall to kill off tertiary characters. Luckily, there is a boldness to Waititi’s approach that makes such a move possible. The guy gets that the Thor franchise needs new vigor; he just didn’t tackle it with a mindset that is conducive to the advancement of the MCU. Because this is a piece of a larger puzzle, that matters.
On a visual level, Ragnarok is gorgeously rendered and brilliantly executed. The characters, costumes, and concepts are all brought to life with flair and fervor. Hela (Cate Blanchett) is a sleek, sinister baddie who makes looking and sounding evil easy and fun. Fire demon Surtur (Clancy Brown) proves himself worthy backup as savior/destroyer of Asgard, and his purpose within the film actually carries some heft.
The third (and final?) Thor flick lacks the spirit of a good superhero movie but boasts the “I don’t give a flying fuck” attitude that’s typical of passable comedies. The result? A lackluster superhero film that could’ve been so much more.