The problem with these demigod-level super heroes is that you only have so many directions you can take them that “make sense.” They don’t really work doing the sort of stuff normal super heroes do. They aren’t busting up small time crime the way Spider-Man or Batman would. They don’t really work as some sort of government agent, like Captain America, since why would they serve like that? You can have them roaming the Earth due to some sort of penance or heroic quest, and they just happen to team up with more “conventional” super heroes in their “Earth in peril” sorts of adventures, but that makes them a supporting character in something like The Avengers. When a “god,” in the loose comic book sense of the word, is on his own, the character has to do “godly” things, or the fact that said character is a “god” is kinda meaningless. We need grand adventures, planet/galaxy/universe/dimension hopping, and mythological sorts of stuffs.
Either that, or we need a story that deliberately takes the piss out of the fact that the character is “godly,” and intentionally brings them down a few pegs to show that said “godliness” is inconsequential.
Thor: Ragnarok pretty much does both of these things.
It’s taken them three movies to get that first part right. The first Thor was a typical super hero origin movie with some mythological window dressing. There were a few cool nods to the origin of the Marvel super hero by means of 50s horror and sci-fi, since a good chunk of the movie plays like one of those “in the desert” military industrial complex as the savior sci-fi flicks where a monster is on the loose and has to be destroyed before it reaches civilization. The Destroyer is very much a Marvel comic monster, which is to say it’s a monster in the vein of the monsters of those 50s sci-fi movies, which were birthed from the Universal monster movies of the 30s and 40s. That stuff kinda worked, and it makes sense since Thor had his comic origins not long after this sort of thing was the Marvel standard, but it really clashes with the modern post-Lord of the Rings fantasy elements they try to run with when dealing with Asgard. They didn’t do a good job of synthesizing the trends the way those old Marvel comics did in the 60s, and it ends up being a half-hearted, poorly conceived mess.
And The Dark World doesn’t even really have any of this, instead opting for more of that badly executed fantasy stuff while having the big gimmick basically be ripped off from those Portal video games. It’s a godawful movie with nothing neat or clever to rescue it from being the worst of the Marvel movies to date.
Ragnarok works by borrowing from the elements of fantasy that were popular during one of the character’s most influential runs. They really got Thor “right” back in the 80s when Walt Simonson was working on it. It mixed in the mythological elements that birthed the character along with the weirder, cosmic elements of Marvel’s greater mythos. Ragnarok deals with a lot of similar things, having him start in Surter’s hellish world before jumping to Asgard, detouring to the alien junk world Sakaar, before returning to Asgard to destroy it in the titular Ragnarok. We spend little time on mundane Earth/Midgard, and what little time is spent there deals with Dr. Strange being a dick while helping to find Odin, Odin’s death, and Hela’s return from Odin’s imprisonment. Earth doesn’t serve as the thing Thor needs to save, it’s just another waypoint on his quest. Ragnarok is about that larger universe and how there are more things that need to be saved– and how it isn’t always worlds that need saving. Or better yet, world does not necessarily mean place, like it so often does when it comes to world in peril stories. Also, it captures the vibe of a certain brand of mid-80s pop culture– those low rent sword and sandals, post-Beastmaster/post-Star Wars joints made for a dime in the desert someplace by Italian directors and whatnot. It’s all bizarre costumes and synth scores and the sort of stuff you’d see painted on the side of a van owned by your best friend’s older brother who smokes pot and listens to hair metal. It’s all very reminiscent of a specific 80s mode– filtered through nostalgia, of course, but very much in the spirit of it and trying to create something new rather than just replicating and reminding you that this stuff existed at one point.
If Winter Soldier was All The President’s Men, Ragnarok is The New Barbarians.
With all that going down, where Thor’s given a more character-appropriate story (Hela is revealed to be he and Loki’s long-lost sister, she’s super evil and wants to kill stuff, they try to stop her, get diverted to space man gladiatorial combat and hook up with some peeps, then go back and realize they have to kill Asgard to save its people), the movie also does its best to pretty much show just how silly all of this is when you get down to it. Outside of a couple of throwaway lines about Thor being turned into a frog, this isn’t an exercise in metafiction or anything like that. We aren’t getting all the winks and nods to history and canon and the way we think about and perceive the super hero genre, we just get a whole lot of situational comedy that shows just how “goofy” Thor and all of this cosmic sci-fi heroics is on the surface.
The opening scene has Thor dangling from a chain, a prisoner of Surter. Given the hellish landscape, Surter’s demonic appearance, and the dire situation Thor finds himself in, this could easily be played as a straight-up drama/thriller scenario– he fights for his life to defeat Surter, discovering his plans, and all that. While we get all of that, the scene cuts it all down by emphasizing its absurdity. We get a “you wouldn’t believe how I got here” monologue from Thor as he talks to a skeleton in his cage. As Thor dangles from his chains and Surter gives his own monologue, Thor jokingly tells him to stop as he spins around and loses sight of his captor. The fight is played for laughs as well, as Thor is unable to escape via The Bi-Frost since its current keeper is trying to impress some Asgardian women with the machine guns he picked up in “Tex-Ass.” This is how the entire movie plays out– it never lets the comedy slip to the side to go for some sentimental moment like the similarly toned Guardians of the Galaxy movies. The movie isn’t trying to “elevate” the silly material by injecting what it perceives to be “deeper” character moments, it undercuts what are assumed to be said deep moments with comedy and never lets go of its comedic intentions.
It’s a comedy and nothing else, and this is what the Marvel movies needed most at this moment in time. We need real levity that pokes fun at how serious most of these movies have been up to this point. The closest we’ve gotten to this sort of thing is Ant-Man, where the stakes were small and the finale literally turned things into action figures duking it out in a kid’s bedroom. Even with the stakes being the destruction of Asgard in a legitimate apocalyptic scenario, the movie never takes anything that seriously. Marvel needs a little bit of that, and Thor especially needed a heavy dose of that sort of de-escalation.
They do this a lot in the comics. Right before a major storyline, a lot of times they’ll do a one-off issue where characters have fun, do something goofy, or just do something “normal” like go shopping or play sports or whatever. You can’t have an entire movie where the plot is “The Avengers play pick-up basketball at the park,” but you can weave that overall tone into a movie that, on the surface, appears to be the same old end of the world scenario.
That’s a perfect way to approach that sort of “break.”
Also: Jeff Goldblum is pretty fun. I hope all these cosmic level dudes like his Grand Master and Benicio Del Toro’s Collector get to hang out sometime.
Also Also: Why didn’t Howard the Duck appear on Sakaar? He’d have fit in there even more than in his Guardians cameos. Worst movie ever for that omission. An even worse mistake than not really giving Cate Blanchett much to do as Hela.