Review: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Colonialism, indigenous peoples and refugees in a space fantasy comedy adventure. As Taika does.

Thor: Ragnarok is the collision of two grown and thriving fandoms of mine: the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and director Taika Waititi. Not only were my expectations high, they were confident – a recipe for disaster, and a miracle to have been met at all, much less so satisfyingly.

From the performances he elicited from those in front of the camera (“80% improvised“) to his push for indigenous representation behind the camera, the director’s collaborative approach was well-reported ahead of the film’s release. The resultant film makes these things feel neither tokenistic nor isolated, but rather more symptomatic of an overall mindset – an approach which feels thoroughly baked into the conception, and permeates the result, of the movie on all levels.

What’s perhaps even more unexpected of a Thor film than being a flat-out comedy, is its exploration of colonialism, indigenous peoples and the plight of refugees. Cate Blanchett‘s Hela literally breaks apart the façade of Odin and Asgard as a peaceful, benevolent realm to reveal its true, violent history of colonialism (“Where do you think all this gold comes from?” she asks a disillusioned Thor). As Heimdall (Idris Elba) tells Thor (and as the audience hears for the third time in the film), “Asgard isn’t a place, it’s a people”: learning to understand this that constitutes Thor’s hero’s arc in this film – and makes for a more interesting one than we’ve already seen in this series.

But it’s the Trojan horse itself that makes the messaging contained within such a delight to discover. The star of Thor: Ragnarok is Waititi’s sense of humour, and the zone this creates for everyone involved. Each actor’s performance has its little moments (I was already on board for comedic Chris Hemsworth, and it’s great to see him really let out to play; and the jaw-droppingly amazing Tessa Thompson, the drag-tastic Cate Blanchett? Holy shit); the playfulness informs character and plot (in ways fellow Marvel film Guardians of the Galaxy only thinks it does); the affection for the Jack Kirby-era source material goes above and beyond fan service (and fan service itself gets a cheeky butt-kick or two, and a few easter eggs are teased then promptly passed over).

The fun in this movie feels like the result of every single person involved was entrusted with space and authority to bring their best to the table.

This feels like the opposite of an auteur director micromanaging, domineering or antagonising the cast and crew. Instead, it feels like a director whose vision comprises in large part the fostering of the ideas, personalities and contributions of the people he’s working with. That the potentially terrifying world of Thor: Ragnarok can feel so familial is, I suspect, testament to its palpable spirit of collaboration.

The director breaks down a scene from the film which features a fundamental visual comedy tableau: the fast-talking two-shot.

My one regret: that we knew going in that Hulk was in this. It would have been an incredible surprise – his entrance is epic, there’s no real hint it’s him and, best of all, his arrival, which in another film would have been the finale, is only the beginning of his character’s story here. But I know this would have been impossible to keep out of the marketing – and it says a lot that this is only a minor disappointment. Thor: Ragnarok is so full of so many other great things, it’s tight, it maintains its pace, there are no real dud jokes, there are stakes, there are familiar (and again, familial) character beats, and it’s just a bloody good time.

Further reading

  • In a couple of interesting pieces, The Mary Sue offers interesting takes on the female characters in Thor: Ragnarok – in particular, regarding the significance of Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie.
  • A more detailed, postcolonial reading of the film in The Village Voice.
  • Thor: Ragnarok is only the most recent, though certainly the most cinematic, homage to Jack Kirby, the innovative and profoundly influential comic book artist, who created and helped shape much of the Marvel universe. Watch a wonderful documentary about him here.
  • Wisecrack argues that Thor: Ragnarok is about “how we understand national, social and personal identity in the contexts of our pasts,” and how “only by confronting them directly can we ever really move on.”