Review: Thor: Ragnarok (cinema)

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Geyr nú Garmr mjök
fyr Gnípahelli;
festr man slitna,
en freki renna.

This passage from the Old Norse mythological poem Völuspá roughly translates to: ‘aieeeeeeeaaaaaaahhh we come from the land of the ice and snow…’* it perfectly encapsulates the anticipation of the epic drama of the gods’ last stand… and yeah, it’s about bloody time a Thor movie made use of Led Zeppelin. With just the right amount of slo-mo, with just enough of a neon-tinged, synth-backed hat-tipping to the ’80s, woven around the orchestral grandeur of the earlier Thor soundtracks and the Old Norse world as seen through the eyes of nineteenth-century nationalist romantic painters, this sequel managed to convincingly bridge the universes of Guardians of the Galaxy and the early, pre-‘magic’ MCU outings like Iron Man.

The first Thor movie was my unrivalled favourite in the MCU until The Winter Soldier, and it’s still up there, though I don’t remember much about The Dark World and always seem to confuse scenes from it with the far better Hellboy II (both have dark elves, right?). Conversely, Norse mythology is not my favourite part of Norse literature, and perhaps this is why I can’t bring myself to care one bit about whether Loki’s actually Sleipnir’s father in the movies or not, why Sif isn’t blonde, and whether Thor happens to be a woman or a frog in the comics. But nevertheless I’ve always felt that Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki have been more accurate representations of their mythological counterparts than the heroes of most Beowulf movies have been (Grendel Grendel Grendel aside). No change there in Ragnarok, it’s just that now Taika Waititi gets to put his own deadpan New Zealand twist on the jokes whilst gleefully undermining all the glory of the Asgard we’ve seen previously in the MCU.

I’d like to see it again before proclaiming it my new favourite in the MCU, but even though all the killer lines were in the trailer they remained funny in the film. The best shots were there too, though cunningly devoid of some crucial bits of CGI (lightning, fireworks, injuries…) which is a trick I’m very happy for blockbusters to play in their marketing campaigns if it derails some of the endless ott plot speculation that even the most minimal 30 second teaser can now inspire. OK, it’s also true that if you have even the vaguest idea of Norse mythology you’ll know precisely how the ending on Asgard is going to go from one of the trailer shots. But it’s no problem when watching the movie: it’s much more about the journey. And the one-liners.

I love Taika Waititi’s humour. It’s dry and often awkward and embarrassing and surreal, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople has the perfect tone for me in its balance of these things with an absurd yet somewhat  grim, bureaucratic reality. Being honest though, I did occasionally find it a bit jarring in Thor: Ragnarok, not least because Waititi’s voice work as Korg and Rachel House, the actress who plays Topaz, are just so heavily associated with Hunt for the Wilderpeople for me. But you can get used to these things, and it’s only a tiny note of reservation in an otherwise excellent script that has room for all the quips we’ve come to expect from the MCU as well as a decent chunk of character development. And while the lion’s share of that development obviously goes to the Lord of Thunder himself, there’s enough shared round — Loki, Skurge, Valkyrie, Banner and Hulk — that it doesn’t feel like anyone’s been left out. Sure, though I’m sure the essays on every twitch if Hiddleston’s lips are being prepared as I type, I did particularly appreciate the fact that this time the brothers really seemed like brothers, but also that Thor seemed finally to have learnt a trick or two himself when it comes to dealing with the God of Mischief…

I don’t want to make this too spoilery a review, but in general it has to be said that Waititi makes a superhero move that isn’t just great fun but it also smart and self-aware. It doesn’t take much:  non-white faces in all the crowds, women wielding swords in the front lines of the refugees taking their last stand, prominent, meaty roles for Valkyrie and Heimdall (‘hey I Enthuse, isn’t he meant to be the “whitest of God’s”?’ I literally couldn’t give a shit. He’s not even in enough Norse mythology to have anything resembling a personality. Once, he’s a seal. Tbh I’m disappointed when I see fanart of Norse gods and he’s not Idris Elba. Why? Because if he could be Idris Elba why wouldn’t he be?). Mainly though, it’s about a society built on violent conquest and imperial colonialism recognising its past. Hela wants to take it back to what she views as its heyday: she’s unapologetic about celebrating the fact that its wealth came from empire-building and slavery. Thor and Loki are more shocked to learn about their father’s youthful warmongering, despite Odin’s Marcus Aurelius-esque renunciation of this past, and there’s a joyous irony in the way the movie leaves Asgard at the end, a society built on conquest that has been completely turned on its head.

Also effortless in Waititi’s hands, and something I feel a bit bad even having to draw attention to, is the handling of Valkyrie. This is how you do a supporting female character. This is how you do a female badass. She’s not a love-interest or a victim, she’s got her own backstory and her own motivation. She was the main surprise for me, having enjoyed her in the trailer but not realised what a hot mess the character was: when she appeared, swigging from a bottle, and stumbled sideways off her landing ramp, I knew I was in love. She’s a brittle, semi-functioning alcoholic with a tragic past, she’s capable of subduing Loki and is bffs with Hulk. Thor wanted to be a Valkyrie when he was a child, not realising that it was an élite female fighting force. He’s not mocked for this, and he’s proud enough of the fact to tell her about it. He and Valkyrie deal with the spaceships pursuing them by leaping from one to the next, ripping out essential components with their bare hands in a scene that reminded me of the long-shot in Avengers which follows the team as they fight the flying alien troop-carrier beasties. At the end of their efforts, they each leap back into the hold of their own craft and look each other up and down with an impressed smirk. Then they get on with the business of saving Asgard. This stuff shouldn’t feel revolutionary, but too often it still does. I just hope so much that Valkyrie will be returning to the MCU and that she will continue to be written by capable, thoughtful hands.

Hela was great fun as a villain too, with Cate Blanchett on full ham, and Karl Urban brought a by-now familiar level of nuance to Skurge’s array of scowls and pouts. The film did a lovely job of showing how Thor and Banner initially had less of a relationship than Thor and Hulk, but, using the same enthusiasm that initially brought Thor and Jane together, they were able to bond over shared interests, whether gained through 7 PhDs or the fact of being educated as a prince in a technologically advanced society… And there were plenty of moments where I had pause to wonder whether someone involved in the script had in fact brushed up on their Norse mythology: the way in which Dr Strange magically refills Thor’s glass, like the Utgarða-Loki episode; Thor, alone, fighting Surtur’s demons, in Sutur’s hall, the way he so often ends up fighting giants in the Eddic material, and I had to do a double-take as Hela emerged from the sea at one point, thinking for a minute she was riding the Miðgarðsormr. But perhaps he’s being saved for future films.

Finally getting to see Thor: Ragnarok was like unwrapping the Christmas present I’d asked for, longed for, waited patiently for. I knew how awesome it was: I’d asked for it. Maybe I’d accidentally opened a drawer and caught a glimpse of it, shutting it quickly to preserve the suspense. But in essence, I knew what I was getting and I couldn’t wait to get it. My point is: many of the best lines in Thor: Ragnarok are in the trailer, and if you’ve a passing knowledge of Norse mythology and how superhero movies work you can guess from very early on in the movie exactly how things are going to go down. But it’s still awesome.


*It doesn’t. It means something more like ‘Now Garmr howls loudly before Gnípahellir; the wolf will break his bonds and run loose’. And Led Zeppelin wrote the song about themselves going to Iceland for a tour as much as about the Norse discovery of the island. But let’s gloss over that: the riff makes a great hero’s theme.

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