“Thor: Ragnarok” has left those in the hammer-manufacturing business in dire straits. The great hammer-wielding Avenger, the one who dips out to his home planet right before almost every central Earth-based conflict, learns that not even the most powerful hammer in the cosmos is as useful as what’s in your heart.
The God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth) is back in action again, this time partnering with his fan-favorite brother Loki, God of Mischief (the much-beloved and much-missed Tom Hiddleston) in order to fight a new villain — one who wears even more green and black and has an even more unnecessarily elaborate head of horns than her villainous predecessor.
We are reminded that, at their core, the Thor movies are the superhero equivalent to a family drama; this new villain, Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett) is also Thor’s estranged older sister, who has returned to Asgard to reclaim her power and — you guessed it — take over the entire universe.
The introduction of Hela raises a few critical questions, chief among them: Why aren’t Thor and Loki more upset that their sister got to be the deity over something as cool as death, when they’re left with ruling over a singular weather pattern and the toddlers who steal cookies from the cookie jar? We know that Odin (Anthony Hopkins, who spends this movie doing a poor impersonation of Mark Hamill in “The Force Awakens” standing ominously on the edge of a beach) is a poor excuse for a father, but this is next-level favoritism.
But before viewers are treated to the actual showdown between Hela and her brothers, they must sit through an hour of Thor trying to escape the planet of Sakaar, which, for the uninitiated, is basically the same thing as the Island of Misfit Toys from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Ruled by the hedonistic Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) — who wants to force the most powerful beings in the universe to fight in his gladiator-style games — Sakaar is a worthy sub-conflict for Thor to interact with. It’s just allowed to run for far, far too long.
In the same way that many found the lengthy prison capture-then-break sequence in “Guardians of the Galaxy” to drive focus away from the main plot, more time could have been spent on the actual central conflict at hand — which, by the way, isn’t actually even related to Ragnarok, as the title implies.
It’s been the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s instinct as of late to try and differentiate itself from DC with a particular emphasis on levity and humor over emotional gravitas (think “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” and “Deadpool” versus “The Dark Knight” and “Wonder Woman”). The idea is that, because everyone going into a superhero movie already knows that the hero is going to win, it’s more about crafting a fast-paced, action-packed and colorful journey.
“Thor: Ragnarok” certainly does that — our favorite characters play at their peak, the incredible intergalactic locations are beautifully rendered from their comic book versions and no scene goes by without a snappy one-liner. Although the film tries to force in a few moments of solemnity, its heaviest moment is probably watching Hemsworth fake cry when Thor is forced to get a haircut.
While the humor and quips aid the pacing of the film, they completely wreck the emotional stakes. Even Blanchett cannot salvage her own fear factor once it’s been so recklessly undermined by the twinkle in Hemsworth’s mischievous eyes. The subplot with the Asgardian resistance led by Heimdall (Idris Elba) is brilliant, but it barely scratches the surface of what could be accomplished thematically.
The most egregious blow to the film’s seriousness comes from the characterization of the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). One reason Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner was so well-received in “The Avengers” is that his giant green alter ego was, in short, terrifying. In “Thor: Ragnarok,” the Hulk is a joke, like an oversized toddler or a St. Bernard that hasn’t been house trained. The only friendly Green Giant we need is the one that sells frozen peas.
Low stakes aside, “Thor: Ragnarok” is exactly what it set out to be — downright fun. While it will be interesting to see how Marvel will grapple if the crutch of comedy ever collapses, this film commits no fatal errors, only passes over rich opportunities in favor of a clean, easy narrative.
That being said, if anyone can please explain why Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) needed to be in this movie, that’d be extremely helpful.
Shannon O’Hara is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].