Movie series of any kind face the dim prospect of eventually steering into a narrative rut from which there is little escape, which helps to explain why so many film franchises get progressively worse with each new installment. Marvel surely felt that challenge with Thor: Ragnarok, and so went all in with an installment that didn’t just post a new narrative direction for everyone’s second favorite Asgardian, but a new direction in tone, style and outcome. This is, after all, a movie named after the end of all things. The end result is a wildly entertaining spectacle that signals something important: that nobody and nothing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (including the audience) is safe from traumatic change.
The story takes place two years after the Battle of Sokovia, and Thor has been spending his time trying to restore order over a suddenly chaotic Nine Realms. After defeating the fire giant Surtur and presumably stopping the long-prophesied destruction of Asgard, and unveiling a little scam Loki has been running back home, Thor brings Loki to Earth to locate their missing father, Odin. They arrive just as Odin dies, thereby releasing his savage and unstoppable first-born daughter, Hela. Outmatched, Thor and Loki attempt to flee back to Asgard, but Hela intercepts them and leaves them stranded them on the bizarre gladiatorial garbage-world of Sakaar. Delivered into slavery while Hela takes over Asgard, Thor must take stock of his fate and figure out how to come back from the first time he has been well and truly defeated. His journey will be his hardest yet, being deprived of his magic hammer, his allies and his freedom. But along the way he reunite with old friends, come to peace with his family history, and learn what it really means to be the God of Thunder.
Now, while that synopsis is accurate, it also only tells half the story. Because Thor: Ragnarok is not just a by-the-numbers Asgardian adventure. Superbly directed by comic mastermind Taika Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok manages to hit so many narrative and thematic highs and lows that the emotional spectrum of this film resembles a mid-earthquake seismograph. And while that might seem like a wildly unlikeable film, it’s quite the opposite. Reveling in Thor’s long-untapped humorous potential as well as the wonky details of the MCU’s galactic side, Ragnarok is replete with all kinds of visual cues going back to its earliest sources, including more than a little Jack Kirby fan service. The result is a movie that puts its heroes and their world and the audience through the wringer, but delivers so much laughter and delightful earned moments that the bright primary palette of the scenery never feels like window dressing. It’s a kind of thematic mission statement that somehow, when the right story with the right characters is in the right hands, even bearing witness to the apocalypse can be a whole lot of fun.
But Waititi’s thematic deftness would achieve nothing without a compelling story to drive it, and here is where Thor: Ragnarok truly shines. This tale features a deep cast of alien weirdos and monsters, sure, but they all have a pretty deep sense of relatable humanity. Hela’s not wrong about her father’s unjust hypocrisy, and on some level, we get why she’s so ticked off. Banner’s entrapment within the Hulk speaks to how there really is such a thing as too much power, and how terrifying it is to be one’s own worst enemy. The Valkyrie’s cowardice is more than it first appears, and it isn’t without its reasons. And Loki’s endless treachery might, for once, be the right solution in a treacherous world.a development that’s got even the Lord of Mischief scratching his head.
As fun as these character inversions are, they succeed most as the context for Thor’s own reversals of fortune that force a guy who has never truly known humiliation or despair to get a crash course in both. And while we get no pleasure in seeing such a proud hero laid low, we do get immense pleasure from seeing, at long last, what this guy is really made of. And what a payoff it is when we learn that it’s the same thing that drives every other hero worthy of the name: a commitment to protect others and an ability to accept one’s own worst shortcomings with honesty and humility. Thor’s journey has been defined as a need to discover his own worthiness. Here, at the end of times both for his old self as well as for his homeland, we get to see him understand that there are different kinds of worthiness. This time, the challenge is to finally become worthy of being his most true self.
But lest we fool ourselves into thinking that this movie is a lot of Asgardian navel-gazing, we cannot overlook Thor: Ragnarok’s signature use of music to create what is simply the most badass superhero introduction that has ever been filmed to date. The MCU doesn’t license known music so as to not upstage itself. But for all things, an exception. And as we watch Thor ride the lightning to the tune of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” we are treated to a union of sight and sound that delivers a most rare kind of superheroic euphoria. (Given how hard it is to get Robert Plant and Jimmy Page to allow their songs to be so used, to merely see this scene unfold is to know they gave it their rarely obtained stamp of approval. What’s not to love?)
It all speaks to us so deeply that when Odin gives us our moment of truth—that a nation is in its people’s hearts and not locked in its places—we cannot help but agree. Forevermore, whenever we hear those iconic opening measures, we will see Thor alight with fulmination, and we will know that once again, we are home.