If anyone thought that the Marvel comic book movies were getting stale, then Thor: Ragnarok will dispel that illusion. Disney Marvel turned Thor into an action-comedy with heavy emphasis on the comedy, and audiences will laugh and laugh. But while the result is a pleasant surprise and a genuinely fun time in the theater, it also feels gratuitous. Nevertheless, this unexpected twist on the tried and true formula won’t keep audiences away.
After spending some time traveling the different realms, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns home to discover that Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has been put into retirement by Loki (Tom Hiddleston). When the brothers go to retrieve Odin, they discover that they have a sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), who is powerful enough to overcome both Thor and Loki, sending them both to an alien planet where Thor must fight for survival as a gladiator against his onetime ally, Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Meanwhile, Hela returns to Asgard to claim the vacant throne and plan her domination of the universe.
The Marvel films have always had a streak of humor, even in the early days of Iron Man, but the comedy was typically grounded in a character rather than a full-blown comedic bit. It wasn’t until The Avengers with Joss Whedon’s brand of irony that the laughs started to become the focus of attention. However, even then, the Marvel films were still action movies at their core. Stakes felt suitably high and tension felt suitable taut. Not so with Thor: Ragnarok; instead, this film upsets that delicate balance and tips almost completely towards the comedic end. It’s not a bad experience, but some audiences will leave disappointed.
Thor: Ragnarok is constantly subverting expectations. One need only watch any of the promotional spots to see how part of the film’s charm is to constantly surprise audiences. So, moments that should be daunting are welcomed instead. Inspiring speeches that should be rousing fall flat because of unexpected physical comedy. And moments of selfless heroism become some of the funniest scenes. At times, it felt like the heroes were saving the day in spite of themselves, which is fine for a Get Smart or a Paul Blart: Mall Cop. With Thor, audiences expect a little more competence.
The interesting thing about comedy, however, is that it is impossible to feel anything else when you’re laughing. This is why ridicule is so effective against those in power. You can’t fear, respect, admire, or feel any other number of emotions towards something when you’re laughing at it. As a result, scenes that audiences should recognize as being tense are eased because there’s always a joke or a comedy bit to take the tension away. The big action sequences are actually the most boring parts of the film. Audiences are savvy enough to understand that major characters aren’t going to die, especially when the franchise is built around that character. And without the typical emotional tools to distract from this knowledge, what’s left but to watch un-killable characters wade through tides of CGI and stunt men?
And yet, I’m loathe to say that I didn’t have a good time, because I did. I laughed at all of the unexpected ways the film tried to make me laugh. But that’s also my issue with this movie. It was the same satisfaction I got from watching the promotional material of Thor trying to live with a roommate on Earth. The next Thor film could be a feature-length version of that premise, and I would still watch it and probably have a good time. But is that why I watch Thor? Is that why fans watch Thor? I suspect, no.