The first thing you need to know about this movie is that it’s fucking awesome.
I saw it twice this weekend. I’ll be seeing it more times before it leaves the theater. And after several days to collect my thoughts so I can write something more coherent than a high-pitched squeal of delight, I’ve calmed down to the level of OH MY GOD COLORS AND FUNNY AND LOKI AND VALKYRIE AND SO MANY JOKES PLEASE TAIKA WAITITI TAKE MY SOUL IT’S YOURS.
If you’re not familiar with Taika Waititi’s work, it’s time to get right with the world. A great place to start is with What We Do in the Shadows, which is a mockumentary about vampires living in New Zealand–and bonus swearwolves. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is also freaking amazing and easy to find. I first encountered his work in Flight of the Conchords, and was hooked. His sense of humor (heavy on the irony and diminution) and aesthetic sensibility are both right up my alley, so I’d already just about lost my mind when I found out he would be directing Thor: Ragnarok. Finally, I thought, if someone was going to get Loki right as a character, it would be him.
Well, I was right. And so much more. SO MUCH MORE.
The non-spoiler plot summary for Thor: Ragnarok is that Thor’s been having a lot of premonitions about the end of Asgard, so he’s doing his best to stop it. Unfortunately for him, Hela shows up with the intent to ruin everyone’s day and rule Asgard. Thor (and Loki) gets diverted to the colorful garbage-land of Sakaar, ruled by Jeff Goldlum being fabulously Jeff Goldblum, where he meets Valkyrie and gets forced into fighting as a gladiator. It’s up to Thor to put together a team to stop Hela and get them all back to Asgard before it’s too late.
The big thing that doesn’t really show up in the summary is how fucking hilarious this movie is. It just doesn’t stop the entire time, even in the action sequences. And the humor cleverly disguises–and also sharpens–some incredibly fucked up things that the film examines. And between jokes, there are quiet character moments that have more impact because they occur in the ten seconds you aren’t laughing–or you are laughing and then you realize just how important this is to that character and it’s like a punch to the sternum. I’d also recommend this piece about the Maori spin on Waititi’s brand of humor as seen in the movie, though it could be considered spoilery depending on how sensitive you are about that stuff.
It’s a gorgeous, and immensely colorful film. Between that and the humor, it feels like an unsubtle rebuke and mockery of the DCEU’s relentless, desaturated grimness. Like look, here’s an entirely unserious superhero movie that’s a hell of a lot of fun. The MCU movies have often played with genre, and this is definitely their take on the comedy–which makes it a really nice other half to the tragedy that Kenneth Branagh filmed into Thor 1. I also really love the way it was filmed… you get a lot of sweeping, colorful, epic-feeling vistas (particularly on Asgard), contrasted with a lot of close shots that give the important conversations (like when Valkyrie makes some big decisions) feel incredibly intimate.
Oh, and while we’re talking visuals, I have to mention the amazing moments of 1980s pulpy scifi/fantasy movie nostalgia. We already knew we were in for a particular sensibility when we saw the title text for the film, but Waititi keeps it going. Large portions of the score are done on synth and feel like a direct nod back to all the films that made me love fantasy as a child. And the setup of some of the sequences and shots feels like an ode to 80s and early 90s metal band album covers–particularly the sequence with the Valkyries. It’s got nostalgia, but not in a way that excludes those who won’t get that joke–there are plenty of other nods and winks.
I also want to mention that this film has more women (and women of color, at that!) and men of color than any of the other MCU films so far by a long shot. The fact that it’s got a female villain (Hela, played by Cate Blanchett having way too much fun) who doesn’t get shuffled off to the side so she only fights the female hero is immensely fucking cool too, by the way. But it’s even little things like when you look at crowd scenes, particularly on Asgard, there are a significant number of non-white faces you can pick out at all times. This stuff matters.
If you need a happy thing, I think this will provide.
(And now if you’ll forgive me, I need to go on a bit about some SPOILERY stuff, so I’m putting that below the cut.)
The Loki Fangirling You Knew Had to Happen
Okay, so I already mentioned I loved Loki in the film, I think. But let me just say again… Loki finally got handed to a director that really understand the character. And a director who was able to–using rather meta jokes!–give Loki a way to develop out of the plot corner he got put into by Avengers and The Dark World. I was getting pretty annoyed with dark and angsty wannabe chaotic-evil Loki. Give me my chaotic neutral trickster with poor impulse control, please. You know, the one where if something goes wrong, you blame him first, and if it’s not actually his fault, then you go to him for help even knowing he’ll make it hilariously worse before solving the problem.
Well, Taika Waititi did it. And it’s even better because he put the solution in the hands of Thor. Thor gets to point out that the regularity of Loki’s betrayals have basically become a bad, too often repeated joke. Loki’s become predictable–and let’s face it, he has. There isn’t any interest or suspense in the question of if he’ll betray Thor if he literally does it at every opportunity. I think that’s the key to Loki reversing his stance and deciding to come back to Asgard as a savior–and follow through on it. He actually does save the people of Asgard, and does stand at his brother’s side through the end of the film. (And oh my god, “I’d hug you if you were here.” “I am here.” JUST RIP OUT MY HEART. See, small moments are incredibly important.)
This is the Loki I always wanted. It was worth waiting through two other movies to get him. I just hope the next director doesn’t fuck it up. Also, I love that in the end, it is Loki who causes Ragnarok… at the behest of his brother, because it’s the only way to stop Hela. And yeah, we all know he’s got to have the Tesseract in his pocket, because he is my favorite trickster with poor impulse control. Like he could walk past that without picking it up, even if he doesn’t intend to do anything shitty to Thor with it. It’s a great set up for Infinity War.
Also, I fucking loved Anthony Hopkins doing his impression of Tom Hiddleston pretending to be Anthony Hopkins. I mean, everyone in this movie looked like they were having so much damn fun.
The other thing I want to really walk about for the plot is the underlying theme of the whole film, which gets wrapped up in a lot of humor so you don’t realize just how immensely fucked up it is until you take a moment to think about it. The whole point of Hela’s invasion of Asgard is that she is Odin’s firstborn (keeping up with the pattern of all Thor movies being kicked off by Odin’s A++ parenting) and was at his side during Asgard’s days of extreme imperialism. She even points out to Thor, “Where do you think all this gold came from?” So it becomes very explicit that Asgard is an imperial power that subjugated the nine realms until Odin decided to paper over that past and recast himself as a benevolent protector of the realms he’d laid waste to. Not like anyone was in a position to call bullshit on him at that point.
Gosh, doesn’t feel like a pointed commentary on any countries we could name, huh.
The theme of wealth and power coming on the backs of the disenfranchised gets doubled down with the world of Sakaar as well. We see the Jeff Goldblum-tastic Grandmaster living an opulent party life on the backs of slaves–sorry, he doesn’t like the s-word. “Prisoners with jobs.” (Nice jab at the prison-industrial complex.) He goes with the bread and circuses method of keeping his people in line, which falls down on him when the slaves lead a revolt.
In effect, the engine of the film’s conflict is Asgard’s willfully forgotten imperial past coming back to directly bite it in the ass–and that past ultimately destroyed Asgard. Or rather, Asgard’s new ruler (who hopefully at least now has some second thoughts about being the designated top-down peace keeper for the nine realms) chooses to sacrifice his entire world in order to basically wipe the slate clean. Hela (as a stand-in for historical imperialism) causes Asgard to be torn apart, and Asgard’s remaining people become refugees, headed to Earth.
Thor’s choice is made as he accepts the truth that people are more important than land; even if Asgard is destroyed, as long as the people survive, Asgard will continue in some way. That coming from an indigenous filmmaker is incredibly powerful.
So basically: this film is funny as hell, and it also doesn’t pull its punches even if you might not notice them at first around all the bright color.
Can’t wait to see it again.