Thor: Ragnarok ★★½

By the time the credits rolled on Thor: Ragnarok, I was struggling to wipe a smile off my face. In keeping with the tradition of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ragnarok is more concerned with being fun than anything else. Using that as a measure, Taika Waititi’s debut to the universe is largely a success. Once the film locks into a groove, it’s an absolute blast.

Unfortunately, Ragnarok takes its sweet time finding its groove. The first act is a disaster and left me wondering why everyone I had talked to was so high on the film. The script rushes to either introduce new plot points and characters or resolve loose threads from previous films. It’s too much in far too little time, and I was wholly checked out for fairly long stretches of it.

Additionally, while the MCU has long since left behind the concept of standalone films, Dr. Strange has an extended role to play in Ragnarok. It feels like an afterthought, a studio directive designed to remind the viewer of his existence.

By the time Ragnarok’s villain, Hela, was introduced, I was bored. I just didn’t feel invested–I was excited for a Taika Waititi film, and instead I was given an MCU film. Which, all told, would have been a disappointment. And then… well, and then Ragnarok does a 180 unlike almost any other film I’ve seen.

Almost immediately after the first confrontation, the film settles into a groove. The cast broadens, and suddenly there are a bunch of fun character dynamics at play. Hemsworth shines when he has better performers to work off of: Tom Hiddleston, Tessa Thompson, Jeff Goldblum, and Mark Ruffalo.

The strongest moments of Ragnarok come when the ensemble cast is all together. The Revengers, as they call themselves, are a blast to watch. The MCU’s signature quippy dialogue is out in full force, but with a bit more of an edge than normal. The humor pushes the boundaries at a few points, and it feels more natural than some of the focus-tested banter of past films.

It’s also complemented by deeper character arcs, at least by the MCU’s recent standards. Thor, Loki, Valkyrie, and the Hulk are all allowed the room to grow, and the stagnancy of characters in this universe is mocked more than once. There’s still not quite quite as much room as I would like, however. In large part due to a squandered first act, character arcs and plot points feel like they needed a little more time to be fully realized.

But the adventure is a bit more off beat than normal and injects some much-needed life into a line of films that was starting to feel stale.

This also applies to the visuals. Asgard may not be new, but the vistas are still breathtaking. Much of the film takes place on Sakaar, an incredibly dynamic setting. Regardless of what else is happening, the architecture is fun to look at and feels like an actual place. The same can be said of the character designs–the supporting cast features a number of aliens that break the MCU’s visual mold. These scenes are Kirby-esque, and better for it.

This extends to Hela, who’s costume work is fantastic. Cate Blanchett is fantastic in the role, selling the ruthlessness of the character perfectly. Unfortunately, she never quite gets the screen time she deserves. Her motivations are simple at best and downright boring at worst. Ragnarok, in keeping with tradition, is less about the villain and more about the hero’s development.

At one point, this model was fine. But squandering a talent like Cate Blanchett? That’s a shame, especially because the film hints at a more complex familial relationship between Hela and Thor. Instead, she feels much like Michael Keaton’s Vulture: excellent talent, interesting backstory… both largely wasted by a script that is in no way concerned with them.

But hey, at least Hela is involved in some rad action sequences! Indeed, Ragnarok’s production values are on full display during the battles. Sure, some may not carry a ton of weight, and others feel a little too long. Ultimately, though, I found myself enjoying every one. There’s some primal part of my brain that just responds to Thor kicking the shit out of some monsters while a Led Zeppelin track plays in the background.

For as much as I enjoyed the scene, however, it gets at a significant problem with the film. I don’t mind superhero movies being fun and bombastic–in fact, I prefer it. But the tonal inconsistencies presented by Ragnarok can often be distracting. The stakes are supposed to be daunting and even feel daunting, at times, but all the jokes run counter to the stakes of the film.

In the moment, it’s hard to care. That could be Ragnarok’s tag line, to be honest. It’s a blast to watch, but the more I think about it, the less I like it. The smile it left on my face as I walked out of the theater has only eroded in the days since, which isn’t particularly reassuring.