Uneven "Thor: Ragnarok" Keeps Director Taika Waititi In Check

“Thor: Ragnarok” arrives as the third film in the “Thor” series and the seventeenth in the nearly decade-old Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The bulk of the MCU’s offerings to date have been confectionary treats, dealing in pop iconography both ubiquitous and obscure. Nevertheless, creases have begun to appear, most notably in last year’s torpid “Doctor Strange.”

“Ragnarok” also arrives as writer-director Taika Waititi’s third film in as many years. The previous two – “What We Do In The Shadows” and “Hunt For The Wilderpeople” – came in under the radar but weren’t there for long, doing solid indie comedy business and rightfully winning over millions of fans on home video.

A union between Disney-owned Marvel and Waititi should be a match made in Valhalla, akin to James Gunn’s outside-the-box success with the formerly arcane Guardians Of The Galaxy comic books. But Gunn had toiled in Hollywood for decades. Waititi has never made a studio picture before. Accordingly, “Ragnarok” proves a peculiar tug of war between an indie comedian and a multinational conglomerate, one unprepared to indulge a man whose most successful film required a Kickstarter campaign just to secure a platform release in the United States.

Even without a writing credit though, Waititi steals the show in a small cameo as a sociable rock monster named Korg. With respect to Chris Hemworth’s best performance yet as Thor and Jeff Goldbum’s delirious turn as an intergalactic dictator called Grandmaster, it’s Korg and his five minutes of screen time that abscond with the lion’s share of the film’s laughs; five minutes that allow Waititi to indulge his sharpest comedic instincts.

The rest of “Thor: Ragnarok” is agonizingly uneven terrain.

We pick up two years after the events of “Avengers: Age Of Ultron.” Odin (Anthony Hopkins), former king of Asgard, is dying. In a scene marred by some sinfully ugly green screen work, Odin’s sons Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) locate him overlooking a seaside cliff in Norway. He informs his children that his imminent death will result in the release of Hela, the Asgardian goddess of death. Her reprisal will be swift and complete, potentially resulting in the end of Asgard as they know it.

This is exactly what happens. Hela (Cate Blanchett) appears, destroys Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, and casts Thor and Loki into space where they remain until an inevitable last-minute attempt to save their homeland from its new leader and her army of ancient dead warriors. In the meantime, Thor crash lands on Grandmaster’s planet of Sakaar, forced to fight to the death with an undefeated warrior who turns out to be co-Avenger Hulk aka Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).

Sakaar is where nearly all of the film’s fun goes down. Goldblum is a walking party, Tessa Thompson (“Creed“) turns in a slick supporting performance as an Asgardian bounty hunter named Valkyrie, the aforementioned Korg appears, and Thor fights his long-lost green frenemy. It’s all undoubtedly satisfying, Hemsworth finally slotting into the title role like he was birthed to play it.

And yet, the pacing is deadly throughout.

Thor’s time on Sakaar is drawn out beyond reason (the character’s station as a fish-out-of-water is sorely missed) while Blanchett’s corner of the film calls to mind the last time she played a villain in a big-budget film. Every time we’re jerked back to Asgard, every time a heavily computer-generated Hela delivers another ominous monologue, the weight of the Disney-approved screenplay hangs heavy. How James Gunn pulled off $200 million hangout movie “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2” seems all the more impossible with the generic plot machinations at work here, Waititi going about his duties as a hired gun with only occasional spikes of excitement.

The trippy visuals are agreeable but don’t bring much to the table that Kenneth Branagh didn’t already do in his origination of the “Thor” series in 2011. (His film remains vastly underrated.) Only Mark Motherbaugh’s score stands out among the cacophony of audiovisual pomp, coming out as one of the few memorable musical experiences in the MCU.

Perhaps Taika Waititi will have the opportunity to make the next “Thor” film in his own image, but years from now “Ragnarok” will be remembered for what it isn’t rather than what it is: it isn’t much of a Taika Waititi film. Credit to the filmmaker for getting his star to expand on the comedic muscles he most noticeably flexed in “Ghostbusters” and for the brilliance that is Korg’s screentime. But the rest of the project exudes filmmaking-by-committee anonymity – a potential death sentence for a franchise approaching its twentieth movie.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: November 3, 2017
Studio: Want Disney Pictures, Marvel Studios
Director: Taika Waititi
Screenwriters: Christopher Yost, Craig Kyle, Stephany Folsom
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Taika Waititi
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material)