Marvel’s hammer-wielding hero goes cosmic…
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been with us for so long that it’s difficult at times to recall there was a time when successful films crafted from superhero comics weren’t a thing.
The unlikely success of 2008’s Iron Man initially kicking things off (although there’s a good argument that 1998 pre-MCU film Blade was the first successful adaptation of a Marvel character to the big screen), the MCU has since delivered over 15 Films set in one ever-expanding continuity – one that’s also extended through a series of TV adaptations such as Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.
Generally, the majority of MCU entries have been polished affairs although more recent outings have been a mixed bag. Much of this is down to problems with crafting effective, convincing villains, such as the lacklustre robot nemesis in 2015’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron. Meanwhile, 2016’s Doctor Strange ran into accusations of whitewashing for one of the supporting characters (although the film also had a troubling narrative that dealt with a ‘white saviour’ motif that felt out of place in contemporary cinema).
Where Marvel films have delivered the most surprising successes is via the most unlikely of sources. Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014) was expected to be a risky gamble as it took its inspiration from an arguably C-List series of characters (including a walking tree and a talking raccoon). Marvel’s first proper space-based outing however managed to gross $773.3 million worldwide (and was also the highest-grossing superhero film of 2014).
The success of Guardians Of The Galaxy has been attributed in part to both its lighter touch and the use of classic pop songs (particularly Blue Swede’s version of ‘Hooked On A Feeling’). The sharp dialogue and chemistry among the lead characters manages to translate the outlandish cosmic background trappings for your average cinema viewer with a profitable result. Considering the often ponderous and weighty drama that much of Marvel’s cosmic output on paper delivered (notwithstanding iconic artist Jack Kirby’s mind-boggling visuals), this is a spectacular achievement.
Keeping that template in mind, director Taika Waititi’s work on Thor: Ragnarok not only completes a trilogy (that began with the somewhat more leaden Thor in 2011), but manages to outdo Guardians in terms of both comedy – and its bonkers visuals. At the same time, the film weaves in a lot of elements from other entries in the MCU catalogue, yet without feeling weighted down by continuity issues.
There’s a lot of moving parts to Ragnarok which could, in lesser hands, present an unwieldy mess. The plot deals with the search for Odin (Anthony Hopkins); the onset of the legendary apocalyptic Ragnarok; the escape from the gladiatorial arena world of Sakaar (overseen by Jeff Goldblum’s deliriously eccentric Grand Master) and resolving the dilemma of Asgard under siege. Somehow, everything slots into place while also serving up a giant legendary wolf and a towering fire demon to top things off.
Much of what makes Ragnarok work is down to the chemistry between the characters. Much of what worked in previous films was the sibling rivalry between Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. But here that dynamic is given more characters to bounce off with the addition of Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). Giving The Hulk a much more verbal role than previous films presents some of the film’s most engaging moments (the initial banter between Thor and The Hulk post-punchup provides some sharp entertainment). Idris Elba also returns as gatekeeper Heimdall, who also gets to flex his muscles more in this outing.
Meanwhile, Cate Blanchett’s Hela presents both a formidable enemy – and also a third angle to Thor’s complicated family life. In fact Blanchett’s performance, which zips between scenery-chewing antics and some razor-sharp wit, helps resolve Marvel’s villain problems.
Thor: Ragnarok also dials the visuals up to 11 with a lot of colourful flourishes that seem to combine Jack Kirby’s most insane designs alongside an 80s synthwave-inspired decor (something that also extends into elements of the soundtrack). Finally (Similar to Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2), the latest Thor outing also weaves in themes of family and the role of fathers, giving the film its heart.
Ultimately, Thor: Ragnarok brings the MCU back on track after some uneven entries in the series. It also sets the scene for The Avengers: Infinity War which will set the galactic villain Thanos against the largest ensemble cast that the MCU has tackled so far.
Thor: Ragnarok is out now on Blu-Ray, DVD and digital outlets.
He writes for outlets such as J-Pop Go, Electronic Sound, All The Anime and The Electricity Club. He ran the Julian Cope-focused Screaming Secrets for many years and also administers Virginia Astley's official website.
He has been featured in a variety of press and media features including the Metro and Japan Update Weekly.
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