‘Thor’ fun but forgettable

I imagine most people reading this have seen a Marvel movie — how could anyone have missed one by now? Marvel films and television programs dominate our cultural space, creating a monopoly of spandex and superheroes, and with that monopoly comes a familiarization with the now obvious formula that Marvel uses for its films.

While Marvel has gotten better in recent years about letting their directors express themselves within that formula, that expression has only revealed itself through tone and not structure. “Thor: Ragnarok” is no exception to this trend, and while director Taika Waititi makes serious strides in individualizing this entry into the Marvel machine, it still struggles with the same setbacks that have hindered Marvel films all along.

“Thor: Ragnarok” is the third Thor film and seventeenth in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so it’s easy to imagine the narrative baggage this film carries in reference to its place within the Marvel franchise. However, one of Ragnarok’s greatest strengths is its ability to carve out its own niche in this massive universe through its unique and colorful tone. Marvel films have often been (rightly) criticized for their bland visuals and dull soundtracks. “Thor: Ragnarok” happily reverses this trend thanks to its bright and candy-coated aesthetic combined with a retro soundtrack that harkens back to old 80s sci-fi comedies. (Does this sound familiar? It’s the same trick Guardians of the Galaxy pulled back in 2014).

In addition, Waititi infuses almost every scene with his singular comedic touch, letting characters rattle off funny quip after funny quip to one another. It’s almost a complete reinvention for the character of Thor as he evolves from regal and reluctant god to a much lighter and nimbler player. Waititi’s sensibilities can be felt from the first frame of the movie, shedding preconceived notions of what Thor means to modern audiences.  Above all, this is a very funny film, and easily the funniest of the Marvel films.

It helps that Chris Hemsworth has the comedic chops and timing to pull off most of these jokes, coupled with the surrounding cast that supports him. Everyone from Jeff Goldblum playing the Grandmaster to Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Hela is stellar. These veteran actors chew scenery and dialogue like they’re pieces of candy, relishing in the eccentric roles they were given. Mark Ruffalo returns as the frazzled and mercurial Hulk, while Tom Hiddleston reprises his role as the mischievous Loki. In addition, newcomer Tessa Thompson joins this rowdy cast as Valkyrie, an Asgardian warrior with a personal link to Hela. The real miracle here is the comedic chemistry every actor brings to the table, spinning dialogue and acts of physical comedy into a spool of cotton-candy that the audience can easily devour.

Yet, for all of its accolades, Ragnarok can’t seem to rectify the flaws plaguing Marvel films in general: the under-developed villain, a severe lack of dramatic tension, a plot that exists only as a stepping-stone to a larger idea. These persistent problems are partially the film’s fault and partially because of its existence in tangent with the larger universe, but whatever their origin, they hamper the film just the same. Hela’s arrival and sudden departure feels ultimately meaningless — Marvel films in general (after this many) begin to feel less like films and more like episodes of a superhero show that tackles a new antagonist every week. The Hulk’s character arc is flimsy and inconsequential, resolving in such a way to undermine any character development that may have happened over the previous two hours. The film’s plot is standard superhero fare and it can’t hide the fact that its true motivations lie in putting characters in place for the next Avengers film. Unfortunately, it seems that these problems just come with the Marvel territory.

What’s surprised me the most in my time since seeing Ragnarok is how little I’ve thought about it since. Walking out of the theater, I felt like a child walking around an amusement park with a large strand of cotton-candy wrapped around a sugary stick. Now I’m that same kid, hours later, wondering where all of that confectionery went, my eyes glazed over from sugar, my stomach upset and I’m still hungry.