I've had my doubts about the third Thor movie ever since the first trailer came out. The soundtrack, the look and the overall feel of the whole thing just screamed Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 to me, and considering my less than stellar opinion of Volume 2 earlier this year, that wasn't a good sign for me. As time went on, I realized that a decent chunk of my trepidation for Thor: Ragnarok came from the fact that I enjoyed both Thor and Thor: The Dark World and didn't see the need for a tonal change whatsoever. The entire rest of the planet seemed to disagree with me on that, so they changed it anyway.
I remember writing a post last year about how with the casting of Cate Blanchett as Hela and Karl Urban as Skurge, it felt like Marvel Studios was mining the Lord of the Rings cast members to make a play at an Oscar-worthy Thor movie. Alas, after watching Ragnarok I can safely say that there was no attempt made whatsoever to win an Academy Award with this movie and if it were to be nominated in the Golden Globes for any reason it would be under the "Motion Picture Musical or Comedy" heading without question.
That being said......it was good. Surprisingly good.
Let's address the humor aspect first and foremost. It's there and it's all over the movie. No one will ever mistake Thor: Ragnarok for being anything close to a drama or thriller. Whatever jokes and comedic timing the first two Thor films had, this one doubles and yet it still avoided being too much, in my opinion. There was enough balance of the serious and more emotional moments and story beats in this movie to not allow the comedy to overtake it. I'm sure plenty of others will disagree, but I think there were a few things here that kept the movie from devolving into a pure joke fest.
The plot is pretty straightforward. Thor has been roaming the galaxy since the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron in search of the Infinity Stones and while he hasn't found any more, he has discovered that forces outside of Asgard are plotting its demise, most notably Hela the Goddess of Death, the first female villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, played by Cate Blanchett. She gets the upper hand on Thor and Asgard and while banished to another planet ruled by Jeff Goldblum's Grandmaster, the God of Thunder must fight his way to freedom so that he can save Asgard from Hela's destructive tyranny.
The plot itself and all of the machinations surrounding it help keep the comedy at bay at different points in the movie. The situation that Thor and his people find themselves in is serious and in some cases brutal enough to give us all pause even at times when a joke is cracked by someone. The thing is, most of the humor really works in Ragnarok because it's not overly crass, it's not force fed to us as though we are being told that we need to laugh at a certain point after something has happened, and for the most part it doesn't kneecap major emotional or dramatic moments in the movie. There are few that don't survive a badly timed quip here and there, but a lot of it really stems from the structure or humor that the Thor movies have already established, starting with the chemistry between Chris Hemsworth's God of Thunder and Tom Hiddleston's God of Mischief, Loki.
The funniest jokes in the movie to me were the ones that either came from the banter and dialogue between Loki and Thor, or the ones that came from references to past MCU movies. It should also be noted here that Ragnarok might just take the top crown of "MCU movie with the most past references in it." Seriously, it might be even more than Captain America: Civil War. There are story and character beats, plot developments and certain humor that you simply won't understand at all unless you have seen certain MCU movies to this point, most notably Avengers: Age of Ultron. Because that was the last MCU movie that Thor fully appeared in, Ragnarok serves a function as a weird de-facto sequel to that movie since it is so well connected to it. In fact you could probably watch Age of Ultron, skip Ant-Man, Civil War, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming and be completely fine continuing on to Ragnarok in terms of linear progression.
You might notice that I didn't say skip Doctor Strange, and that is of course because he makes an appearance in this movie pretty early on. Benedict Cumberbatch is solid in showing us just how not a novice Stephen Strange is to his use of magic anymore and you get the feeling that his interaction with the sons of Odin will certainly setup some interesting interaction in Avengers: Infinity War next year. He is certainly more than capable of dealing with demigods from Asgard at this point.
So the humor was actually funny and it wasn't overdone. That particular worry about MCU movies was put to rest for me, but what about the franchise's classic "villain problem?" Well, it's better than what we have come to expect from MCU movies, but it's not what it could have been. Blanchett is solid and legitimately ruthless when she is on screen and she gives the role her full power. We just don't see enough of it for full character development, though. It's far superior to Thor's previous villain Malekith the Accursed played by Christopher Eccleston, but it falls way short of being as strong as Spider-Man: Homecoming's Adrian Toomes AKA The Vulture, played by Michael Keaton. They could have dove into so much more of Hela's backstory and motivations with her connection to Asgard and her plans for the nine realms, but they don't give her a good balance between her story and Thor's on the planet Sakaar, where he is dealing with the Grandmaster and others involved primarily in the second act of the movie. At the end of the day, I would put Blanchett's Hela on the same level as Hugo Weaving's Red Skull from Captain America: The First Avenger as villains that were not merely plot devices, but were still a few steps below being truly dynamic through no fault of the terrific acting, but of a script that sorely underdeveloped them.
Sadly, there's also not much to say about Karl Urban's Skurge other than to say that for such a solid actor, he was given more to do in The Chronicles of Riddick than he was in Ragnarok. Sad, but it is what it is.
As for our supporting cast largely on Sakaar, Tessa Thompson is very strong as Valkyrie. She is arguably the most flawed and complicated character in the entire film that we haven't met in a previous MCU movie. They gave her a great arc, she wasn't underused and she was a character that could absolutely hold her own at any point in the movie without needing Thor or the others to rescue her. Refreshing to say the least when it comes to a major female character in an action movie like this. The complete opposite of this is Goldblum's Grandmaster which is just Goldblum playing himself and that's about it. Granted, that's largely what he does in just about every movie he is cast in and it does work to a degree with the tone and setting of this movie, but it's still a little disappointing to see.
The return of Hulk though is anything but disappointing and for what amounts to only his fourth full appearance in an MCU movie, it's definitely the grandest and most comprehensive performance we have seen from the character. In fact we see more of the big green guy than we do Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner, who does come into the picture at a crucial time in the movie and serves the second and third acts well with his performance. If this is the closest we are ever going to get to a solo Hulk movie in the MCU, I can live with that. I won't be totally happy, but I'll at least have Ragnarok.
Finally, I will talk about what surprised me with this movie and that is the consequences of the events that occur in it. I've said before that one of the reasons I consider Captain America: The Winter Soldier to be the best MCU movie to date is because by the end of the movie, seismic events have happened that ripple through the entire franchise, most notably the obliteration of S.H.I.E.L.D. Thor: Ragnarok has similar consequences to it and while I still think Winter Soldier is a better overall film, this Thor movie should get some credit for not being afraid to radically change the narrative of the story to this point, now 17 films in. What happens in Ragnarok will undoubtedly have major impact on Infinity War and the entire MCU going forward and there is really no escaping it, just like there was no escaping the events of Winter Soldier. It was a far more mature move for a Marvel Studios movie to make here in Phase 3 and that was also refreshing to see.
The bottom line is that I went into Thor: Ragnarok cautiously optimistic and I left the theater confident in feeling that as far as this year's Phase 3 movies go, it's not as good as Homecoming but it's miles better than GOTGV2, in my opinion. While I don't agree with critics about it being the best MCU movie to date, I do think it is the best Thor movie to date which might be the really big surprise for me considering how worried I was that the tonal change from the first two movies would sink it. They managed to retain enough of what was important from the previous Thor movies and his character development to keep Ragnarok grounded and solid while changing its tone and feel for the most part, which was a relief for me. I won't give Marvel Studios an "attaboy" for this one like I did Homecoming, but I will give them a thumbs up for a solid conclusion to Thor's trilogy.
Thor: Ragnarok - 4 out of 5 - In theaters November 3, 2017