The MCU has an odd relationship with comedy. When it lands—as it did with Ant-Man—it makes for great entertainment, but when it doesn’t, as with much of Age of Ultron, it comes across as cringeworthy. Thor: Ragnarok manages to have a mixture of both, although it errs more on the side of cringe. To top it all off, the film itself comes across as one bad joke, with Avengers: Infinity War as the punchline.
After vanishing during Age of Ultron Thor is revealed to have been restoring order to the chaotic Nine Realms, which is an adventure that ends upon his return to Asgard. It is his hope that this will prevent Ragnarok- the end of days- but it arrives just the same, along with his sister the Goddess of Death Hela who kicks Thor and Loki halfway across the universe to the wasteland planet of Sakkar. after reuniting with Hulk and making friends with former Asgardian warrior Valkyrie, they escape The Grandmaster’s rule and return to Asgard for one final battle.
Hulk’s presence here may seem odd given his often strenuous relationship with Thor, but it is a matter of contracts. In the late 1990s, Marvel Studios sold the rights to a solo Hulk film to Universal, who promptly released Ang Lee’s Hulk in 2003 before striking a deal with Marvel to release 2008’s The Incredible Hulk as part of the fledgling MCU. The film received mixed reviews, and for that reason or another, there would not be another solo Hulk adventure. Instead, he was used in team-ups, as Marvel still had rights to use the character that way, which led to his appearance in further MCU projects. However, fans of the character clamored for more, specifically adaptations of the Planet Hulk and World War Hulk comic book storylines. The former of these sees Hulk exiled to the distant planet of Sakkar by the Illuminati where he becomes a gladiator and ultimately leads a revolution, whilst the latter deals with the ramifications of Hulk’s return to Earth. With the possibility of a solo Hulk film outwith their grasp, Marvel decided to incorporate Planet Hulk into a buddy movie with Thor. As the only Avenger to frequent other planets, Thor is a perfect match for this story which ultimately ends up being Planet Hulk focussed as opposed to Ragnarok focussed, though that isn’t a bad thing. It would be better if more of that time had been spent with Bruce Banner instead of Hulk, who acts as a comedic sidekick stunned into stupidity by his circumstances instead of an intrigued scientist with 7 PHDs.
A comedic sidekick can work well provided they are working off a less comedic partner. For instance, in Ant-Man, Scott Lang is the funny one reacting to the bizarre scenarios while Hank Pym is the more serious elderly gentleman. In Thor: Ragnarok, everyone is a comedic character. Arguably the least humourous is Valkyrie who often has her alcoholism used as a punchline. It’s quite juvenile, much like the majority of humour. Taika Watiti is an interesting director who can be hilarious, like in What We Do In The Shadows, but it doesn’t feel like he brought his A-Game for this. It feels like he took the Disney-sized paycheck to pay for his independent projects, which is clearly where his heart lies. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Korg.
The character of Korg made his first comic appearance in the Planet Hulk storyline where he was the leader of the rebellion with a tragic backstory. Here, he is portrayed by Taika Watiti, who feels like he improvised every single line resulting in a lot of cringe-worthy humour. Improvisation can be funny, like in Ghostbusters where improvised lines were only kept in if they were funnier than the already funny script. This worked because Ramis, Ackroyd, and Murray still had regular lines which carried the script forward. Korg on the other hand feels like every single line is improvised and none of them carry the plot forward. The character himself could be removed from the plot without affecting it since the revolution is kickstarted by Valkyrie and ultimately led by Loki. It’s unfortunate because Korg could be a fun and important character instead of what feels like a role written specifically for the director.
Perhaps the biggest flaws of Ragnarok‘s stem from the context that surrounds it. The first is Valkyrie, although this is only an issue for those who were present for the film’s initial release. Her actress Tessa Thompson and aforementioned director Taika Watiti both made a big deal about how Valkyrie was going to be the first openly gay character in the MCU, mourning the death of her girlfriend at the hands of Hela many decades ago. This scene was supposedly scripted but never filmed, although her death remains in the final version of the film as she takes a spear for Valkyrie. The other issue is Thor: Ragnarok‘s placing within the MCU. Thor has spent the entire plot desperately attempting to save his people, managing to save a great number of them by boarding them on an escape ship. He has made what will likely be his biggest achievement and lost an entire eye in the process. He can finally be happy. He is immediately greeted by Thanos’ ship because this film leads directly into Avengers: Infinity War. It’s worth noting that this isn’t the fault of the team but the fault of the corporation. Taika made the best film he could despite presumably being told it had to end this way. It makes this film feel like a joke at Thor’s (and Taika’s) expense.
With all that said, Thor: Ragnarok is still highly entertaining. When the performances aren’t bogged down by attempts at humour, they are heartfelt and emotional, particularly with Loki and Thor who are closing their arcs here. The casting of Jeff Goldblum as The Grandmaster can’t be ignored, nor should it be. He oozes his regular Goldblum charm throughout and the screen simply lights up whenever he appears. Cate Blanchett is brilliantly vicious as Hela who feels like a more intimidating version of Rita Repulsa from Power Ranger while Karl Urban as Skurge is a complex character with his own mini-arc. Then there’s the cinematography which is stellar. The Thor films have always been grand in scale, although the first film practically perfected it straight out of the gate. Here it is matched with vibrant colours which make each scene pop like an Andy Warhol painting. Capping it all off is the outstanding score which has a heavy synth base making the whole film feels like an epic 1980s adventure. This culminated in probably one of the best moments in the MCU where Thor, adorned with lightning, jumps onto the Bifrost bridge while The Immigrant Song plays.
Thor: Ragnarok is seemingly the best that could be done given constraints although it is let down by the juvenile humour that had mainly been confined to the first two Avengers films. It closes arcs brilliantly and entertains plenty but it deserved deep exploration. Both the Ragnarok and Planet Hulk storylines deserved their own exploration but as a mash-up, this is pretty good.