Thor Ragnarök was a massive departure from the previous two Thor entries, dispensing sobriety and romance for humor and sarcasm, to massive success – both critically and financially. Chris Hemsworth returns for his fifth film (sixth when you count his minor cameo at the end of the credits for Doctor Strange, itself a scene from this film) and all of the comedic elements that existed around his character are taken up several notches due to Taika Waititi taking over from Kenneth Branagh and Alan Taylor. This version of the character is far more entertaining than his previous appearances, with jokes at his expense being a top reason why.
One of the reasons that Loki succeeded where so many other MCU villains failed is that he was a major character first, a villain second. His experiences – emotionally, mentally, and physically – were taken into consideration when dealing with his character. Perhaps it was the charism naturally exuded by Tom Hiddleston, perhaps it was the depth of his ability as an actor, you could always count on Loki to turn in a compelling presence. His return to the franchise in this film, after his supposed death in The Dark World, was never a question, and yet it was still a funny reminder that he was impersonating his own father, Odin (played by Anthony Hopkins), whose absence ties into the main plot.
Before Thor and Loki, Odin had another child – one whose mere existence has faded to myth. That child was Hela, the Goddess of Death, played with enough sass and dry wit to fill a dry martini by Cate Blanchette. While the daughter of Loki in the comic books makes her similar appearance to the character, it is instead hilarious that Thor’s adoptive brother and elder sister share more physical traits with one another than with him. Regardless, Hela plays the main threat in this film, albeit only in the latter portions of it as Thor has an adventure far away from Asgard for the majority of the film. What Cate Blanchette has to work with, though, is terrifying. Her initial threat is heralded by her outright destroying Mjolnir, and then slaughtering her way through most of the named characters from the first two Thor films, including the Warriors Three, whose return is so minor as to be a footnote.
Idris Elba returns to play Heimdall, and, unlike Zachary Levi, Tadanobu Asano, and Ray Stevenson, he is able to do some heavy lifting throughout the film, by protecting the surviving Asgardians while Thor and Loki are off on their wayward adventure courtesy of Hela. The latter three barely have a few seconds of screen time, if that, establishing their comedic repertoire before meeting swift, almost ignominious ends at the hands of Hela. Asano’s Hogun is able to put up some kind of resistance, but the speed and effortlessness with which all of them are dispatched, it was clear that Waititi was cleaning house in favor of focusing on other, newer characters. The only one spared the same fate was Lady Sif (played by Jaime Alexander in the first two Thor films), because she simply didn’t show up. Perhaps her long-running stint on Blindspot saved her from being swept away so much like trash.
Heimdall survived because he had been banished by Loki, who reasoned would be able to sniff out the ruse. This, ironically, works in the heroes favor, as Heimdall is not a known entity to Hela at first, allowing him to slow her plans down to a crawl by stealing the sword which opens the Bifrost.
Thor has been on a journey since his vision in Age of Ultron, wherein he discovered that Asgard was doomed to fall in an event called Ragnarök. He has spent years traveling in the wake of Ultron’s defeat, trying to stop the threat that will bring it about – and recently found that threat in the form of Surtur (played by Taika Waititi via motion capture and Clancy Brown as the voice). He then ventures home, only to confront Loki who has been posing as Odin ever since his ‘death’ in The Dark World. It is here where Luke Hemsworth and Matt Damon have brief cameos, playing Thor and Loki respectively in a play written by Loki.
The meat of the plot takes place on the planet Sakaar, a distant world that Thor and Loki are sent to after the latter calls on Heimdall to bring them home, only for Hela to catch a ride and knock them out of the Bifrost. It is here where we are introduced to the major new characters, such as the Grandmaster (played by Jeff Goldblum) and Valkyrie (played by Tessa Thompson), the former who runs a gladiator-style game in order to pass the time and entertain the masses, the latter of whom is a former denizen of Asgard and the last surviving Valkyrie (who were sent to kill Hela, and all died). One final major supporting character is Korg, played by Taika Waititi himself, who becomes a friend and ally to Thor during his initial captivity on Sakaar. He has been trying to start a revolution, and finally gets the chance when Thor plots his escape. Waititi pulled more than double duty on this film, playing the antagonist Surtur, the ally Korg, one head out of three (alongside Hemsworth) on another character, as well as directing the film.
What has become a more consistent attribute of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is the inclusion of other characters in order to build the world up. Here, we have an extended cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, expanding on a scene from his last film. Doctor Strange is the one who points the way to where Odin has been waiting, as well as shows just how far his magic has come. In one of the most hilarious scenes in the film, Doctor Strange effortlessly captures and traps Loki in a falling loop in some kind of hyperspace dimension, while he talks casually with Thor. In a larger role, however, is Mark Ruffalo’s return as the Hulk. Much like Thor, the Hulk also disappeared near the end of Age of Ultron, taking a quinjet into the distance and apparently ending in deep space far from Earth. He is the Grandmaster’s champion gladiator, and when Thor is captured and thrown into the arena, Thor is ecstatic to have run into a “friend from work.”
Hulk and Dr. Bruce Banner continue their war for control and the determination of which one of them is the true self. It turns out that, for the past two years, Hulk has refused to revert back, effectively stealing Bruce’s life from him. Hulk’s feelings on the matter are that Dr. Banner only allows him out when he needs the Hulk, and that tension continues to escalate throughout the film. Whether one or the other is right is not directly answered, though the implication that the Hulk gives into his fear of Dr. Bruce Banner is there as, by the end, Hulk has not reverted back to Banner – just as Banner had feared.
Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie offers a sarcastic, at times apathetic wit to the franchise, forming a friendship with Thor that builds in future entries. As the last of the Valkyries, her bitterness is understood, though she has taken to drinking in order to dull the pain from that battle against Hela – if it could even be called that. Her disdain for Thor begins to fade throughout the film, as she finds that he is not who she believed he was. Disdain turns to mutual respect, something I was grateful for as there was always a possibility of them contriving a romance between the pair. Their friendship, though, is far more powerful.
On Hela’s side is the Asgardian warrior, Skurge, played by Karl Urban, who was put in Heimdall’s place after his banishment by Loki. His moral bankruptcy and ambition are central to his character arc – how far he is willing to go in order to get what he wants drives him to side with Hela at first, yet he is hesitant to kill a random citizen who won’t answer Hela’s demands. Is he truly a villain? Or is Skurge simply bound to an invisible caste system that Asgard has built up, without many of its denizens truly paying attention to it? How that all works out is not important to the plot of this story, though.
Thor Ragnarök took time to build on its preceding entries, emphasizing the elements that made Thor an interesting character – his comedic timing, oftentimes at the expense of himself being chief among them. It also cut several aspects, primarily the entire human cast – Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis, and Dr. Erik Selvig had major supporting roles in previous entries (with Stellan Skarsgard having a major supporting role in the first Avengers film). While Natalie Portman is on record saying she was unhappy with the direction her character was taken, and at least received a token mention in this film, their absence was rectified throughout the fourth phase of films, with Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings each having major roles.
Once more, the relationship between Thor and Loki is central to the story – though this is the first time where Loki does not actively try to betray his brother, showing marked growth from previous entries. While Thor does not blindingly trust in his brother, he does find that he can rely on Loki when the need arises. Loki, for his part, finds that he cannot simply abandon Thor, especially as the pair come up against Hela. After all, they are the only family that they have left.
At the end of the day, Ragnarök built on the themes and stories introduced in the first Thor film and set the stage for the darker half of Phase Three.