In spite of its overwhelming success, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been criticised in the past for not providing its directors with much room to express themselves personally: I myself have vocalised concerns about this, most recently in my review for Jon Watts’ underwhelming Spider-Man: Homecoming.
However, I am very pleased to report that MCU president Kevin Feige has seemingly turned over a new leaf, taking a step back to allow What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt For The Wilderpeople director Taika Waititi to shine through in Marvel’s latest superhero flick, Thor: Ragnarok.
The third film in the Thor series, Ragnarok picks up from Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) last appearance in Avengers: Age of Ultron, giving us a taste of his adventures outside of Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man’s (Robert Downey Jr.) dispute in Civil War. To avoid spoilers, I’ll merely surmise that, following his apocalyptic premonitions in the aforementioned Avengers sequel, Thor is on the hunt for the cause, placing him on a collision course with his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and the troublesome tyrant that is Hela (Cate Blanchett), goddess of death. As a result of this conflict, through circumstances that you’ll come to discover, Thor ends up in the clutches of quirky, ostentatious ruler The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), mingling in the process with mysterious individuals such as the washed out bounty hunter Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), as well as more familiar faces that include the reclusive Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).
What may seem like a jumbled and overpopulated synopsis doesn’t really do justice to Waititi’s undertaking here. Flitting between characters and situations like a carefully choreographed yo-yo, the director never takes his foot off the gas, always embracing the opportunity to flesh a character out here, or accentuate the insane architecture of Thor’s surroundings there. The narrative cleverly integrates a great many faces into the mix and implicates them in a satisfyingly light-hearted way: Hulk, for example, being the awe-inspiringly strong creation that he is, fits so seamlessly yet hilariously into the role of an angst-ridden mass of spoilt muscle, fighting in The Grandmaster’s arena and always vying for the position of ‘strongest Avenger’. Props to script and story convenors Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost in this regard. Rather than inundate us with unnecessary cameos and exposition, they cleverly build the narrative up to suit the needs of the characters’ arcs: having Loki in a privileged position later on just serves Hiddleston a chance to slime and sneak his way around The Grandmaster’s joint in a way that only the appropriately named God of Mischief could pull off. And it all falls back to Waititi, who’s so elaborately managed such narrative insanity in his films before. There is a transparency to his filmmaking evolution here, as his technique, made so popular with the aforementioned What We Do In The Shadows, has transitioned smoothly to this abundant universe, with both films tackling a plethora of characters and storylines in a comic and ironic manner, yet always so naturally befitting to their personalities and developments.
This tongue-in-cheek tone is also highlighted by some fantastic performances, with particular attention aimed at Hemsworth, Thompson and Goldblum. Hemsworth, who has seemingly been asked once too often to take his character’s godly, narcissistic exclamations seriously, has all but abandoned this severity. Instead, he’s having a blast, perfecting his character by playing him as the loveable, naïve rogue, desperate to do what’s right, but always accompanied by a smirk or a smile. Similarly, Tessa Thompson could have played her drunken warrior as a sombre sulker. Instead, she’s a sassy yet strong sidekick, threatening to steal Hemsworth’s limelight on a number of occasions. And finally, there’s Goldblum. A supreme example of pitch perfect casting, Goldblum’s own brand of eccentric mumbling and gesticulation fits seamlessly into Waititi’s colourful creation: it’s a shame that he has such limited screen time, because whenever he inhabits a scene, you will not be able to hide your giddy grin.
Mark Mothersbaugh’s score also induces Ragnarok’s Waititian effect, recalling something of a retro cyberpunk vibe that palpitates with energy throughout the film, providing each scene with deliciously oddball nourishment. As Hemsworth and co. rattle off their lines on a conveyor belt of quick-fire hilarity, Mothersbaugh’s music lifts the atmosphere, with electronic riffs and the occasional foray into orchestral anthem fleshing out the film, and its world, as its own character.
Ultimately, Waititi’s in his element and his sardonically comedic stamp is all over this film and its many technical aspects. However, with Waititi’s confidence in humour, comes a lack thereof in relation to the action, something he has yet to tackle in his body of work. Alongside cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, I found that Waititi relied a little too heavily on uninspired and overblown spectacle, particularly towards its final act. I understand the need for CGI: there’s Asgard, there’s a giant talking green rage monster, there’s aliens and spaceships, so computer-generated effects are basically your only option. But none of the action sequences really hit the ground running for me: I was hoping for some crackling camera angles and insane edits to match the flow of the madcap dialogue, but I was left wanting, with the film relying on the same superhero movie routine, including the third act epic showdown which doesn’t excite anymore. Whenever the comedy hits the screen, Ragnarok demands thunderous applause. On the reverse side, minus the much-advertised arena fight between Thor and Hulk, Ragnarok’s action gets a little numbing and doesn’t pack the extraordinary punch of Waititi’s witticisms. While Waititi maintains a steady equilibrium of action, drama and comedy throughout, the action doesn’t live up to these latter categories.
Yet in spite of the underwhelming action – in addition to a confusingly limited role for Blanchett, who’s effectively an extended cameo in the film – Thor: Ragnarok has reinstated my respect for the Marvel label. With a great many of these comic book adaptations invading our screens, it’s refreshing to find one with a unique vision that’s less about sequel bait and franchise building, and more about defining a relationship with the audience through script ingenuity and a style that so distinctly belongs to the director. Juggling so many characters and plot points, yet defining each in their own right, the New Zealand director has delivered something of a storytelling and comedic tour de force, delicately balancing it’s aesthetic, performative and narrative values into a brilliantly bonkers blend. Rather than simply refine the Shakespearean silliness of Kenneth Branagh and Alan Taylor’s previous entries, Waititi has imbued his own zany, self-reflexive tone into the grandiose themes of Norse mythology that have permeated throughout Thor’s narrative arc and settings. Waititi just refuses to take it all seriously, and we should thank him for it. It’s Marvel’s brand, but it’s Waititi’s movie.