Thor had always had a tricky place within the MCU. He does not have clearly defined features like Tony Stark or Steve Rogers. Yes, he’s noble and heroic, but he’s also harder to describe, in part because he’s such a bizarre character (he’s a demigod space alien), but also because Marvel landed on a unique performer like Chris Hemsworth. Hemsworth fits the bill physically for the character, but over the years, he shows that he’s a comically gifted actor who shines brightest when he allowed to just be funny. And yet the first two Thor movies aren’t exactly sure how to use him. They give him moments to be humorous, but they seem ambivalent about leaning into the comedy as if that would diminish the seriousness of the situation. Director Taika Waititi had no such reservations with Thor: Ragnarok. Let’s take a look at Ragnarok now that Thor: Love and Thunder is on the horizon. While it’s been nearly five years since Ragnarok first hit theaters, with 12 movies in between them, including the watershed bookend film Avengers: Endgame and the (tangentially related) tv series Loki.
The guiding principle of Thor: Ragnarok is to always go for the joke. There are a few serious themes lying beneath the surface, but more than anything, Ragnarok is a raucous comedy that uses Hemsworth’s humor to full effect. And this willingness to just go for the joke at the cost of everything else shows newfound freedom for the MCU. It would have been easy to let the movie follow up on Thor’s quest for the Infinity Stones, and instead in the first five minutes he casually mentions to a skeleton that he did not find any. His journey has instead taken him towards visions of “Ragnarok”, an apocalyptic event that will wipe out Asgard. That would seem like a fairly dire vision, and yet Thor, and the film, is pretty much all jokes.
Previous Thor movies were predicated on either Thor’s relationship to ruling Asgard or being a fish-out-of-water. Remove both of those aspects, and you see where Waititi has the freedom to basically put his comic voice (which you can clearly see from his previous movies like What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople) into Thor’s mouth. For some, this could easily be jarring. He is now cracking wise and being the butt of slapstick humor, but the question Ragnarok asks within the larger MCU is whether characters must always be confined to what they’ve been before?
On the one hand, I can sympathize with fans of the first two Thor movies. If you like the relationship between Thor and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) as well as the kind of stories those movies are telling about grandiose Asgardian royalty, then Ragnarok is almost a violent reorientation into something completely new. It’s so different from the previous Thor movies it might as well be a reboot of sorts, completely uninterested in what came before and eager to rewrite everything from the characters’ personalities to the history of Asgard.
And yet I would not go so far as to say Waititi is completely uninterested in the past of the MCU. Instead, Ragnarok seems eager to take what works and build upon it while discarding the rest. So, for example, without feeling much connection to the Warriors Three, Waititi does not hesitate to use them as quick cannon fodder for Hela (Cate Blanchett). That may seem cold, but let’s be honest — do we really know anything about them beyond “They’re Thor’s buddies?” They’re defined more by their physical traits than their personalities, so are we feeling the loss because they were rich, interesting characters, or simply because they were familiar? That Thor himself does not take time to mourn them is a bit odd, but it is not too surprising that Waititi has little patience for these supporting characters.
Where Waititi sees potential, he’s happy to double down, like Odin (Anthony Hopkins) being a dubious ruler who made some seriously questionable decisions. If there’s one part where Ragnarok could go even further, it’s in the dark past of Asgard. Showing Hela not just as Odin’s daughter, but as a vital part of history Thor doesn’t know helps reinvent his world into a more morally questionable place and actually has thematic relevance to the real world. When you use history to whitewash our darker deeds, you end up burying a complicated past that can come back and bite you. Although I wish the film did even more with Hela (Blanchett is clearly having a ball, but it feels like they could go further with the character), at least she’s positioned in an interesting way not only by being Thor’s sister, but by being an inconvenient truth about Asgard’s past.
The biggest problem with Ragnarok is that it never wants to dwell on anything too serious. It’s always angling for the joke, and while there’s nothing wrong with making a comedy, there feels like there’s room for Waititi to make a movie that’s both hilarious and surprisingly thoughtful. But because the movie never wants to be too uncomfortable or serious, it quickly moves to the next gag and the next gag and the next gag. It’s not a strike against a movie for it to be entertaining — and Ragnarok is certainly a blast from start to finish — but it always feels like Waititi could go a bit deeper if he wanted to and for whatever reason chooses to put the laugh line as his primary goal.
This seems to be something that Waititi is diving deeper into with Love and Thunder, where we once again see Thor reunite with Jane and take on a more traditional Marvel villain in Gorr the God Butcher. If comic book storylines are to be followed, Love and Thunder is primed to be a movie that tackles much more serious subjects than Ragnarok. That being said, there’s something refreshing about a behemoth studio like Marvel looking at its 17th film and being willing to throw caution to the wind. It would have been easy to make a third Thor film that’s similar to the last two, putting more emphasis on the building towards Avengers: Infinity War, and play it safe. Instead, they took a gamble and Ragnarok became the most successful Thor movie to date. A studio that’s willing to show that kind of nimbleness and heterodoxy when it comes to its franchises is one that has the freedom to move where it needs to. Thor: Ragnarok may not be the deepest Marvel movie, but it’s certainly one of the boldest. And, surprisingly, it would share a thematic bond with the following Marvel movie about what it means to rule.