The first teaser for Ragnarok, released in April, featured Thor (Chris Hemsworth), shorn of his blonde locks, thrust into a gladiator-style arena to fight the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), where all he could do was cheer at the sight of his “friend from work.” A movie’s marketing doesn’t always line up with the final product, of course, and that tease could have been one of few lighthearted moments. However, it’s a pleasant surprise that Ragnarok does mostly reflect a cheeky style in the same vein as James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films, standing as far apart from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as possible.
The setup for Thor: Ragnarok would seem to be as high-stakes as anything in the original Thor, directed by Kenneth Branagh, or Thor: The Dark World. Here, after Thor uncovers his brother Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) scheme to fool Asgard by pretending to be their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), the two brothers are attacked by the Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), who seeks to take over their home planet as well as all other realms within her grasp. But Thor (and later Loki) finds himself cast out in a strange planet, Sakaar, where he ends up tussling with the Hulk, a frequently inebriated ex-Asgardian called Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), and the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) — the hedonistic ruler of Sakaar — all before he can try to save his home.
The sequences on Sakaar make up the single best stretch of Thor: Ragnarok, as Thor is forced to fend for himself without his precious hammer Mjolnir, his fame (Goldblum’s character is prone to dubbing him the “Lord” of Thunder or “Sparkles”), and his old hairdo. It’s on Sakaar that Thor (a very game and sly Hemsworth) reunites with the Hulk/Bruce Banner, and eventually is able to get a team together to go back to Asgard and stop Hela. The third act of the film, even with its more distinctively weird images (such as Hela’s multi-pronged crown), feels more in line with the Marvel movies of old. However, the spirit of the film, directed with brio by Taika Waititi lies in Sakaar.
In these scenes, more than others, Ragnarok feels like an extension of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. Even though Thor is clearly a more powerful being than Peter Quill/Star-Lord, the way that Hemsworth portrays the Norse God is more like the kinds of bumbling movie heroes from the 1980s that Quill idolized before being taken away from Earth as a child, like Jack Burton from Big Trouble in Little China or even Indiana Jones circa Raiders of the Lost Ark.
After Thor’s arena battle with the Hulk, the two Avengers find themselves bantering much in the same way that Quill/Star-Lord does in the Guardians films with Drax the Destroyer and Groot. There’s even a little tonal similarity between Thor and Thompson’s Valkyrie, who’s as tough as our hero is if not a bit drunker, and Star-Lord and Gamora.
This similarity, to be clear, does work in favor of Thor: Ragnarok. There is some natural build-up for Thor and the Hulk to return to the fold with Tony Stark and the other Avengers in next year’s Infinity War, but if anything, it’s better to have a good memory of what happened to Thor in his previous two films, and how Loki managed to hide in plain sight in The Dark World.
Those plot strands aside, Thor: Ragnarok feels like a major reset for Thor as a character. When he’s forced to have his hair cut by a “creepy old man” (Stan Lee, in his requisite cameo), Thor first forcefully demands that he not have his hair cut, until he sees that Lee’s right hand is a series of fearsome-looking blades. “Please don’t cut my hair,” Thor responds squeamishly, in a gag that defines the entire reset, from grandiose to goofy.
Thor, as a character, has gotten much looser over time. In 2011, as brought to life by Hemsworth and director Branagh, Thor felt like an offshoot of a Shakespearean tragic hero, just one who was blessed with superpowers. Now, he’s gotten a dry sense of humor — the movie begins with him cracking wise with a skeleton, for God’s sake — and a similarly funny movie to boot. Thor: Ragnarok does not quite measure up to either of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy movies, not as able to thread the needle between silly and emotional in the last act, but it’s a vastly better film because it takes its cue from Gunn’s anarchic, self-aware version of the standard superhero fare.