It should be said that you are going to enjoy every moment crafted for the third installment of Thor. It has the snark, delivers on the action, wraps threads from The Dark World and Age of Ultron, all while forging a stronger identity that should last beyond this film. Letting the fun elements that were always present in this series shine was a great decision. Doing so allowed it to easily become the best of Thor’s trilogy. However, in milking the comedic gold and richness, did we lose something else with our favorite Asgardian?
Becoming The God of Thunder
As funny as many moments of this film come off (and we’ll get to those in a moment), it still felt like a Thor movie. I know plenty of people want to compare this film to Guardians of the Galaxy and I completely understand that criticism. However I can’t deny that Hemsworth still felt like the Asgardian we’ve grown to love the past 4 films. The strongest moments were this play out are between Odin and Thor. Odin (Anthony Hopkins) had been pushing Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to accept the mantle of ruler since the first movie and it sneakily became the crux of this film, albeit we got there a little differently that we would have imagined. Thor’s brash nature as presented in his total 4 films (Thor, Dark World, Avengers 1 & 2) showed him as one of the more capable Avengers, but also that he was constantly getting in his own way. Apparently, he was even holding his own power back as he continued to believe his hammer was the key to his power. Ragnarok, through it’s whimsical nature and joy ride secretly answers this. It leaves us with a character who is much wiser from this trouble despite the comedic ride we took to get there. Whereas the Thor in his initial outing and Dark World still shied away from the throne, this one is fully capable of taking on that mantle and then some.
With Thor experiencing so much character development this go around, why would I be so concerned about the comedy? Well, for starters, there are some darker moments that don’t play well with the lighter elements director Taiki Waititi put together. Hela’s initial onslaught into Asgard left a few key characters from the franchise dead and there was barely a word said about them. If they have been that critical since the beginning of the series, why was there no mention of their passing? It’s nearly as bad as Barb’s death and the deafening silence in Stranger Things season one (though kudos to the Duffer brothers for using that misstep as emotional fuel in season two). That’s odd enough, but there were way too many dramatic moments in the film cut down by the comedy. Marvel films were already guilty of overusing bathos, which means “a ludicrous change from an exalted place to a commonplace, or anticlimax. There have already been great video essays explaining this effect in Marvel films which I’ll link to below, but here’s the short gist for our purposes. If you build up to a climatic moment and suddenly shift the scene tonally, you throw your audience for a ride they didn’t intend to take. It’s why in most dramas, they will tonally stay the same. A film like Wind River isn’t going to bust into a song and dance at the climax as it is antithetical to the whole production. However in a film like Guardians of the Galaxy or Deadpool, whose characters intentionally subvert the genre, the use of bathos can be warranted and even enjoyable.
With Ragnarok, it’s unfortunate this usage wasn’t reigned in a bit more as there were some solid moments between characters, particularly Thor and Loki, (Tom Hiddleston,) that are under-served just to reach the next laugh and joke. There’s a version of this movie in my mind that makes these elements weave together better, but we have what we have. I shouldn’t expect large and lofty themes to carry through in a Marvel so this isn’t the time to start. But it can still be disappointing at moments to see such great potential wasted.
The Other Asgardians
I found myself wanting to see more of Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie character. While the amount was appropriate for the story, her character could be a fine addition to Thor’s main storyline. Her interactions with Thor, and particularly with Mark Ruffalo’s Banner towards the end were absolutely fantastic. I doubt she’ll make an appearance in the already stuffed Infinity Wars films, but I think many wouldn’t mind her taking a bigger role somewhere else. Loki’s journey was pretty interesting this time and I’m glad it wasn’t a major focal point as it had been in the original Thor, Avengers, or The Dark World. Ragnarok really allowed the previously established quirks of Thor and Loki’s relationship to shine while also trying to resolve the mess Loki started in The Dark World. It was probably the most balanced approach to his character thus far, though it remains to be seen how his recent development will fair. Ruffalo hits the nail again as Bruce Banner / Hulk, helping us understand what happened to him after Age of Ultron. While the buddy cop predictions were a bit off regarding this film, it is exciting to see two of the Avengers attempting to work together despite their “hotheadedness”. I kind of didn’t care for how Thor was coaxing Banner to return to his Hulk after being informed he could get stuck that way. It’s certainly another thread that gets lost in the comedic shuffle, but kind of digs too deep into the more disliked parts of Thor’s persona.
I’m actually pretty torn on Cate Blanchett’s Hela and Karl Urban’s Executioner. While they served their purpose well for the film, I don’t think there’s honestly anything amazing to write home about. Blanchett’s performance may be one of Marvel’s best after I get time away from this film, but she also doesn’t have much going on other than being another scorned child of Odin. Since we’ve already seen how that played out with Loki in multiple films, it felt a bit tired to see that anger brought up again but with a new character. I almost wanted to shout out during the screening “Boo hoo, join the club. At this point, who has Odin not screwed over?” If it were being redone, I would do more to differentiate her issues with Odin so it’s stands in contrast to Loki. The reasons are mentioned and can certainly be found, but I believe making that effort would serve to make her characterization more distinct. Even having a reformed Loki challenging her assumptions after what he’s gone through might have done the trick. Regarding Karl Urban’s Executioner, it was a small delight seeing him on scene but there was nothing outstanding here about what he brought to the table. That probably has more to say about what was written for him as we’ve seen Urban do much more.
Jeff Goldblum was a joy as the Grandmaster and though his moments were pretty short, they were very well done for what they were. He played more of a foil to the main quest than actually being ramped up as the film’s big baddie. This allowed him an avenue to toy with Thor, Hulk, and others in ways that made sense to the plot, but also delivered solid laughs to the audience. There’s also some secret cameos I won’t give away that occur early in the film and let’s just say it may be the best one Marvel has ever put together.
Conclusion: Is Comicbook Comedy Bad?
Depends on who you ask. I think we forget that comics tend to have super fun entries interspersed with the grim and serious arcs. Look at any long run of your favorite character and you can easily find fun one-off adventures that may place them in funnier situations than the main continuity. Since this is the only cinematic Thor we’ve known, that may be why the comedic shift feels so foreign. While it may be difficult to imagine such a change after having a serious tone for two movies, I’m not going to condemn Ragnarok for taking a chance and ultimately knocking it out of the park. I would have preferred a more serious tone with a dash of this comedy, but the final result is a very slick film. I can’t argue that it flows well, delivers high on the enjoyment scales, and surprisingly moves our character forward along the path. Yes, it indeed fits or exceeds the mold for Marvel’s ballooning blockbuster engine and if that’s what you like, jump into this one with open arms.
If you interested in how the concept of bathos or particularly “comedic undermining” has been happening in the Marvel universe, check out this fantastic video essay from the crew at Just Write. And if you really liked it, consider supporting their Patreon page so they can keep producing excellent content: https://www.patreon.com/justwrite
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