Thor: Ragnarok is “the best Marvel movie of all time.”
That’s something you might have heard the past few weeks. And this ultimate claim of pre-eminence isn’t something I’m going to outright dispute, though I’m not sure if Thor: Ragnarok is that much better than Spider-Man: Homecoming. Even if you’re of this dominant sliver of the population that gobbles up superhero stuff like Chris Hemsworth does protein shakes, this “the best Marvel movie” claim may depend on your age–if you grew of movie-going age (13-17) in the age of Iron Man and Whedon’s Avengers or in the Captain America: Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy era.
Enough quibbling, though, because in a lot ways, Thor: Ragnarok is different. It’s widely beloved across generations and demographics. It feints at the self-serious of previous Thor films with “Ragnarok”–a very real, canical event in Norse mythology (and Jack Kirby’s definitive take on the end of the gods.) But Thor: Ragnarok really ends up being different by being delightfully inessential. The film strains when it has to play “MCU” with Dr. Strange in New York and Banner’s realization that “I’ve been Hulk for two years!?” The film is more interested in Korg’s gladiator revolution–“but didn’t print enough pamphlets so hardly anyone turned up”–on a planet ruled by Jeff Goldblum. This here is the definitive–okay, time to kick back the recliner moment, this is gonna be fun.
“My name is Korg. I’m kind of like the leader in here. I’m made of rocks, as you can see, but don’t let that intimidate you. You don’t need to be afraid, unless you’re made of scissors! Just a little Rock, Paper, Scissors joke for you.”
Thor: Ragnarok is a rock-em, sock-em odyssey through this colorful, lucrative fictional universe. It’s got Chris Hemsworth, unleashed. And Tessa Thompson!
You’re having such a great time (it’s hard to tell if Thor: Ragnarok is 90 or 140 minutes), that in the end, you don’t see the end of Asgard coming. And you end of wondering, did we just watch the “Marvel formula” change before our eyes? Or did we just witness it work for Thor/Hemsworth for the first time?
Marvel’s vibe has been bright and fun vs. the dark, gritty Batman growling “I’m Batman” of DC. It’s actually less Marvel vs. DC, and more Marvel and DC are running a marathon and DC missed its alarm and showed up four hours late.
The MCU built itself on interconnectivity–like the Tree of Life Thor shows Jane (Natalie Portman) in the first Thor. You had to see Thor so that The Avengers would make sense. In those early days (Phase I), this connectivity from film to film, branch to branch was thrilling. In the opening scene from Captain America: First Avenger, Red Skull is searching for the tesseract (blue cube, very powerful) and struts over to the Tree of Life, where the infinity stone (Thanos wants em all for his special glove, it’s like, the whole point of the saga) is hidden. We know that tree. Thor told us about it!
Ant-Man was kind of a proto-Ragnarok back in 2015, a film charming in that it relied more on Paul Rudd than Nick Fury or Thanos/Josh Brolin strutting in to connect us to the rest of Marvel continuity. With respect to Director Fury, he at least sits up in his chair once in awhile. Both Thor: Ragnarok and Ant-Man are thankfully tangential to the great web of Marvel stories we have to track and care about.
The Marvel formula is this mix of star-as-superhero persona, plain but clean visual palette (there are a few obvious exceptions), a self-awareness that’s half shrug, half wink, and whatever the heck (signature tone or pathos) the director can bringing to it. Marvel has the creative infrastructure to pluck someone like Taika Waititi or Jon Watts (Spider-Man: Homecoming) from mainstream obscurity and confidently set them up with some of the most important IP in the biz.
Waikiti’s sensibilities obviously worked with Hemsworth. The “other” Chris has proven an agile comedic actor in Ghostbusters and Vacation but had been forced to play Thor like a stiff. But Waikiti and Hemsworth shear off that persona and his locks with lines like “Because that’s what heroes do” and “We know each other. We’re friends from work!”
The visual palette takes a page from the Guardian’s guide to intergalactic space romps. But that’s more in step with Marvel creative infrastructure. Per a New York Times profile, “Waititi was surrounded, the Marvel executive producer Brad Winderbaum noted, with experienced, talented technicians.”
“He’s never going to feel out at sea, wondering how he’s going to achieve this,” Winderbaum said, and then with a shrug offered a fittingly superhuman claim of omnipotence: “We know how to achieve everything.”
Sure seems like a variation of Marvel’s tried and true formula. But you can joke that Marvel films like Spider-Man: Homecoming (teen romp! John Hughes!), Captain America: Winter Soldier (political thriller! All the President’s Men!), have genre-fare dressing. It’s thrown in there to spice things up. That’s not the case in Thor: Ragnarok, which revels in its “other-worldness” in this Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s an all together different bird. It’s a delight.