“Fun” isn’t a word that’s spent a lot of time around the Thor movies thus far. Oh sure, the first two are both a good time; Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings, and Stellan Skarsgard are great as the human supporting cast, there are some rock solid Coulson scenes in the first one and they both sprint right along. But, for all the Shakespearean majesty of the characters and the romantic doom and gloom of Viking myth and dynastic intrigue, the first two Thor films still feel a little lightweight at times.
Thor: Ragnarok changes things up quite a bit, but the biggest change is its approach to humour, and wholehearted embrace of fun. This is possibly the funniest movie Marvel has ever produced—but it’s also shot through with a welcome dash of pragmatism, compassion, and some moments of genuine heart and depth.
[Note: this is a non-spoiler review, and does not discuss major plot points, although there may be spoilers in the comment section.]
Whether you come to the movie as longtime fan or just a casual viewer, this is the best take on the character of Thor to date. The largely improvised dialogue allows Chris Hemsworth to really cut loose and invest Thor with an immensely likable combination of arrogance and sweetness. He’s been tempered by his experiences but is still, at heart, an Asgardian King and kind of a dudebro, to the manner born. The movie makes that clear, then takes it all away, and explores what happens on his journey to get it all back. This narrative finally gives Thor the emotional depth that Tony Stark and Steve Rogers achieved over the course of their core trilogies, and positions him as a major player in the next stage of the universe.
It’s also an extraordinarily well-balanced movie. Mark Ruffalo is fantastic both as a newly articulate Hulk and a shell-shocked Bruce Banner and his arc here is an expertly executed mix of acceptance, courage, and total panic. Ruffalo has talked a lot about how Hulk’s story over the next three movies begins here, and if this is going where it seems to be, it’s going to give both Banner and The Other Guy room to explore the pathos, humour, and complicated relationship they richly deserve.
Elsewhere, the cast is just as impressive. Jeff Goldblum is magnificently sleazy as the Grandmaster and his recurring inability to say Thor’s correct title is one of my favorite running jokes. Cate Blanchett is equally great as Hela and, unlike the previous villains of the series, is allowed actual depth and context for her character and actions.
Hela and Thor end up on very different sides of possibly the most interesting conflict in the MCU. A vast amount of this film is about myth, both personal and societal, and what happens when the lies that underlie and sustain myths are exposed. Hela is a terrifying antagonist (and the action sequences are extraordinarily good), but she’s also a function of a story. The central struggle of the film is whether Thor, and Asgard, will follow in her footsteps or break from the prison of tradition and expectation. This struggle is expressed in terms of colossal wolves, fire demons, and vast amounts of brutal swordplay, but the ideological dimension is very much there and gives the film weight when you least expect it to.
Best of all, though, are Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie and Taika Waititi as Korg. Thompson gets one of the best introductions in the entire franchise’s history and plays the role with tangible relish. Valkyrie’s background ties effortlessly into the overall plot, and both her arc, and how it relates to Thor’s own, are vastly satisfying. Plus Thompson is really funny here. She’s always been a rock solid comic actress, and the film also gives her plenty of dramatic moments and some of its very best lines, making Valkyrie the most instantly charming lead character these movies have had in a long time.
If anyone steals the movie, then, it’s Valkyrie. If anyone taps the audience on the shoulder and politely asks whether the movie wants to come along with them, though, it’s Korg. A colossal, softly-spoken alien played by director Waititi, Korg is completely sweet, has no filter whatsoever, and is massive fun to watch, especially as Waititi’s laconic, off-kilter timing shines through. It seems weird to say that an eight-foot-tall rock-based alien is the most sensible person in the room most of the time but…well…he is.
The cast is rounded out by a great turn from Karl Urban, a surprising and very effective subplot for Idris Elba’s Heimdall, a couple of very fun surprise guests, at least two members of the Hunt for the Wilderpeople cast (Wilderpeople is Waititi’s previous movie, and is an absolute must-see) and Sir Anthony Hopkins actually showing up for work and showing some life for the first time in this franchise. Each character is well-served, each one has a clear, distinct voice, and the way their plots wrap around one another allow the film to finally achieve the scope and cosmic stakes the previous two tried for and never quite reached.
And, somehow, the movie manages to do all this while simultaneously being three different films at once. It’s a fantastic standalone adventure. It’s a great capstone to an uneven trilogy. It’s also the sound of massive gears moving and clanging as the MCU is changed forever in some truly major ways and Infinity War begins to barrel towards us in earnest. It would have been so easy for the film to fall on any of these fronts—instead, it soars, crammed full of character, humor, action, and sweetness. The end of the world has rarely, if ever, been this much fun.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.