While his two appearances with the Avengers have seen the God of Thunder function seamlessly as part of that superhero team, within the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe he is the one character whose solo films have always stuck out like a Thor thumb, the godlike natural charm and charisma of Chris Hemsworth swamped by the dour tone and leaden pomposity of his origin story and its gloomy sequel, The Dark World.
The seventeenth film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, concluding Phase Three and paving the way for next year’s Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, Ragnarok is the third headline out for Thor and his fifth appearance overall, not counting his mid-credit cameo appearance in Doctor Strange, atypically included here as part of a larger scene, but it is to the breakout success of Guardians of the Galaxy that it owes the largest debt.
Both Thor and The Dark World closely tied in their principally Earthly settings and with a largely superfluous supporting cast, Natalie Portman in particular wasted with a pointless half-character beneath her talent, Ragnarok jettisons excess all that baggage and reveals Thor unleashed, though for the opening scene he is in fact in chains in the underworld of the fire demon Surtur.
Still listing his many victories without any sense that he is boasting, nothing more than a matter of record, nor is there any sense that Thor takes his captivity seriously, simply a means to an end in order to extract information from Surtur, who, in the manner of all supervillains, simply cannot help but overshare.
While Thor learns what he needs to know about the immediate situation, confirming his already present suspicions, Surtur tells him far more than expected, about the rise of Hela, the coming of Ragnarök and the fall of Asgard, and with faithful Mjolnir at his side he sets out to prevent the prophecy, once again confident in his coming victory.
Directed by What We Do in the Shadows‘ Taika Waititi, he has taken the same approach as did James Gunn with his two volumes of Guardians of the Galaxy, that anything goes and the emphasis should be firmly on the fun, that above all else a Marvel film is to be enjoyed, and as ever it is easy to enjoy the company of Hemsworth and his cohort.
Reunited with adopted brother Loki, Tom Hiddleston showing another side to the trickster god and for once not required to twirl a villainous moustache, Mark Ruffalo returns in the dual roles of the long-absent Bruce Banner and the Hulk, last heard from out of control and off course following the Ultron incident, while new to the team are bounty hunter Scrapper 142 (Westworld‘s Tessa Thompson) and the rock gladiator Korg (Waititi himself providing voice and motion capture).
Arrayed against them are Independence Day: Resurgence‘s Jeff Goldblum indulging himself in a verbose and whimsical performance as the Grandmaster of the planet Sakaar who oversees the gladiatorial games and The Lord of the Rings‘ Cate Blanchett as the regal goddess of death Hela, intent on making revenge a family affair, assisted by Star Trek Beyond‘s Karl Urban as her executioner Skurge, his appearance recalling his time as Lord Siberius Vaako of the Necromongers but playing the part largely for comedy.
Written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost, with extensive Marvel experience across television and comics, Thor: Ragnarok takes joy in confounding expectations built in the previous films and is unfettered by the lack of imagination which held back Thor’s previous excursions, revelling in the realms of the gods with soaring architecture, design and lighting lifted straight from the madness of the comic pages and narrative leaps more associated with the work of Douglas Adams than traditional Marvel structure.
The majestic Blanchett immediately making herself at home in the Marvel universe and on the throne of Asgard while the arena of the Grandmaster brings all the spectacle lacking in similar scenes in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, unlike so many other films where the major smackdown setpieces involve entirely digital combatants Waititi never loses sight of the characters who carry the story.
Strangely, despite the wholesale death and destruction of both the attacks on New York City and Sokovia, Ragnarok actually feels more violent than either of the Avengers films with the battles conducted up close with bladed weapons, raising the stakes as the inevitable confrontation between Thor and Hela approaches.
A truly cosmic adventure which never pauses for a moment as it constantly shifts mood and tone, with a focused core cast and central concept the Marvel films have never been as fantastical as with Thor: Ragnarok, an evolution which serves it well and places it far ahead as easily the best of their three feature films released this year.
Thor: Ragnarok is currently on general release and also screening in 3D IMAX