We’d pretty much seen it all when it came to Thor. His origin movie saw Odinson stripped of his powers in order to find his true altruism and thus the source of his (Norse) godly power. Then, as the lightning-wielding powerhouse of Marvel’s Avengers, he saved the world from his brother and an alien Army. The lacklustre Thor: The Dark World did its best to add something to the character, but only succeeded in slanting Asgard’s mysticism to sci-fi. Even the exploration of Thor and Loki’s sibling rivalry was woefully brief. Avengers: Age of Ultron seemed like the perfect opportunity for Thor to remind us just how mighty he was, but he was sidelined until it came time to create Vision. Just what else could be left to do?
“Let’s put him, metaphorically, back in a cave with a box of scraps…” was Kevin Feige’s answer when it came to the same problem with Iron Man 3. Return him to his origins.
In the off-kilter hands of director Taika Waititi, that’s exactly what Marvel set out to do with Thor: Ragnarok. Except Thor never had a cave. He had Midgard, but everything else in the MCU seemed to be happening there. Marvel audiences had become pretty accustomed to space following Guardians of the Galaxy, so that could do for the cave. If Tony’s tool was his ingenuity, Thor’s must be Mjolnir, but that wouldn’t be quite enough for this reinvention…
It’s easy to take the opening of Thor: Ragnarok as little more than the introduction of the tonal-shift from Shakespeare in the park to Guardian’s good humour. However, if you take a Heimdall stare at it next time, there’s more than meets the eye. Firstly, there’s no Odin history lesson in the first moments offering context of what will soon follow. Instead we see Thor at the height of his powers. Gobbing off to Demon King Surtur, Thor blithely dispatches the cave dwelling minions. Taika Waititi demonstrates a clever slight of hand the the action-packed opener. While there’s the fiery echo of the first battle against the ice giants in Thor’s first instalment, we’re blinded by the inventive new moves he’s come up with and distracted by the quips enough to realise the point it’s making; there’s a devastating synergy to the man and his hammer. Which makes it all the more shattering (literally and metaphorically) when Cate Blanchett’s Hela crushes it after only 25 minutes into the running time.
Once he crash lands on Sakaar and a gang of alien marauders threaten to eat him, do we realise the full extent of the first act’s trickery? Thor reaches out for Mjolnir…and the stark realisation hits us too; he’s not only found his cave, but it took landing alone, on a garbage planet, to find his scraps.
If you remove the original Thor and Thor: Ragnarok from the rest of the noisy Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s a joyful two-parter in terms of his journey. Granted, without the sinew of the other Marvel appearances, Thor is much more of a goof here and the change of character would be jolting, but there is something of a journey akin the Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade. While it may not be quite as coherent, it’s as much an evolution as it is a departure from the original. The only connective tissue Thor: The Dark World really offers is the brother’s team up and betrayal, which could easily be handled in a Marvel One-Shot.
Waititi makes sure that against all the odds of a colourful new world, brand new characters, old friends and a scene-stealing Jeff Goldblum, Ragnarok remains Thor’s story. After all, if you’re going to take all the effort in the first act to break the character down and dump him on a trash planet with no friends and no hope, the least you can do is kick him while he’s down. Enter The Hulk. The moment of realisation was sadly stolen from us in trailer, but the second Hulk bursts into frame with his terminal savagery there’s an uneasy familiarity. This could be the team-up we’ve been waiting for. What the trailer gladly didn’t steal from us was not only was this not going to be the romper-stomping reuniting of Marvel’s powerhouses, but Thor would yet again be broken (again, literally and figuratively) in a way we’d rather not see. The defeat in the arena doesn’t just make us sympathetic to Odinson’s plight, but it galvanises us in his desperation. We’re with him no matter what he needs to do, how goofy he gets or how much his ego embarrasses him. Thankfully, with Banner/Hulk in toe, the set-up and knock-down of their interaction fits with the characters.
In amongst its bright bombast and [Jack] Kirby-Kitsch, there’s a carefully crafting hand at work. The visual shifting has to be abrupt enough for us to feel as far from home as Thor does, but the reinforcement of Mark Motherbaugh’s score takes the symphonic heroism of strings and brass and slowly pumps up the volume on thudding electronica until it fits as much with the tone as it does the aesthetic. There’s also an attempt to create a new visual signature as strong as any theme tune. The swirling light within the Hela/Valkyrie flashback is reminiscent of epic oil paintings. Look out for adversaries charging at each other from either side of the screen or even Thor’s overhead attack vault from the right of frame when taking on crowds of enemies. There’s a subtle telegraphing of anticipation the last visual cue sets up.
As formidable as Blanchett’s Hela is, the longest lasting legacy of Stan “The Man” Lee’s characterisation is the enemy within. However you feel about the strongest avenger’s first outing, the most powerful moment is when Thor strides through the streets to stare down the metallic Destroyer. Willing to give the ultimate sacrifice to save those around him. Ragnarok’s Thor May not be as altruistic, but all he’s been through would be enough to give Captain America pause. Stripped of his totem, exiled, shackled, shamed and thrashed has all been leading up to one glorious moment… “What were you the god of again?” How could Hela ask? You may not have heard them when the surging “Imagrant’s Song” kicked in and our hero launched his signature attack, but we answered.
4* – Ragnarok’n’Roll