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Thor: Ragnarok (2017) Taika Waititi - Movie Review

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) Taika Waititi - Movie Review

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) Directed by: Taika Waititi
Writers: Eric Pearson, Craig KyleChristopher Yost (screenplay by) Stan Lee, Larry LieberJack Kirby (based on the comics by) Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins, Benedict Cumberbatch, Clancy Brown, Taika Waititi, Run Time: 130 min Rated: PG (Canada), PG-13 (MPAA) for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material

Listen here for audio of radio interviews about films from a Christian perspective with Pastors Ted Giese and Todd Wilken on where Christianity meets culture. 

Chuckling at an Apocalypse

With Thor: Ragnarok, the third film in the Thor franchise within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the series receives a Guardians of the Galaxy-style makeover with comedy film and TV director and actor Taika Waititi at the helm. As a result this new film has a dramatically different feel compared to the first Thor film Thor (2011) directed by Kenneth Branagh who brought a decidedly Shakespearian feel to the franchise. While William Shakespeare is known for both tragedies and comedies, Thor: Ragnarok is no Shakespearian comedy.

The story very loosely revolves around the Norse mythological prophesy of Ragnarok—a final battle between the Norse gods and the giants, and other evil pagan gods in the Norse pantheon who apocalyptically destroy their homeland Asgard and all of creation before its rebirth. (Perfect topic for a comedy right?) 

The story begins during a conversation with a giant fire demon, Surtur (Clancy Brown), who for reasons of revenge is bent on destroying Asgard. In their conversation Thor, the god of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth), discovers that his father Odin, the Allfather god (Anthony Hopkins), is not actually on Asgard as Thor had thought. After exposing his adopted brother Loki, the trickster god (Tom Hiddleston), for impersonating their father, they find Odin in Noraway on Midgard (their name for Earth) and discover their lives have been a lie. They have an older sister they didn’t know about, Hela, the goddess of death (Cate Blanchett), who was imprisoned and will only escape if Odin dies—which he does promptly. Hela confronts Thor and Loki, and she destroys Thor's hammer Mjolnir. From there the story breaks into two narratives eventually coming back together for the film’s finale.

In the one narrative Hela invades Asgard claiming it as her own and demanding to rule as Queen while plotting to conquer the whole universe. In this part of the film the comedy falls flat.

In the other narrative Thor and Loki, who failed to stop Hela from making it to Asgard through the Rainbow Bifröst Bridge, are waylaid on the garbage-heap-of-a-planet Sakaar ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) who is mainly interested in gladiatorial sports and frivolous living. Without his hammer and imprisoned in the ranks of the gladiators Thor must find a way out of his predicament and race against time to save the people of Asgard. Along the way he collects three powerful helpers: the Incredible Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) who was likewise trapped on Sakaar and fights as the Grandmaster’s top gladiatorial champion; one of the last surviving Asgardian Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson); and his brother Loki. In the end they must all battle Hela, her giant wolf Fenris, and her army of the undead.

In real Norse mythology Hela, named Hel, is the daughter of Loki and her giant wolf Fenris is her brother, another child of Loki. Hel is much more like Hades the Greek mythological god of the underworld. Both Hel and Hades rule over similar kinds of realms and each shares their name with the realm over which they rule. The repurposing of these Norse mythological characters in the MARVEL comic books, and now in MARVEL’s Thor: Ragnarok, is simply an excuse for telling stories. As these films progress, and the MARVEL Universe meta-narrative continues unfolding, the fidelity of these characters to their mythological source material evaporates rapidly. Viewers can’t really expect to come away from a film like Thor: Ragnarok and assume to know anything more about Norse mythology then they knew going in; this is not a Norse mythology apologetic. No one is defending a Norse mythological worldview and nor is anyone attempting to persuasively teach anyone anything about Norse mythology as a religion. 

Thor (2011) and Thor: The Dark World (2014) revolved around Thor being forced to confront his arrogance and subsequently grow in humility. He had to learn how to function without his powers and then how to use them with humility not for vain glory but for a purpose, in the service of others, for the common good. Thor: Ragnarok continues in this vein and shows the fruits of Thor’s character development. This part of Thor’s narrative in this film primarily focuses on his friendship with the Hulk/Bruce Banner and his reconciliation with his brother Loki. In this way the movie portrays themes of friendship, forgiveness, and valour in serving others. In this part of the film the comedy works better. 

Comedy is often hard to write about because it’s so subjective. And much depends on the viewer’s frame of mind. In fact there are times when a film’s topic doesn’t lend itself to comedy. The Thor films have always included comedic elements; some of its best comedic moments are at Thor’s expense. And while Asgard, its people, and the whole of Norse mythology world are fictional, the apocalyptic destruction of Thor’s home seems like a poor thing to make light of. Christians may want to think in terms of the appropriateness of mixing the “End of the World” with comedy. Granted Ragnarok is not a prophecy about the world as we know it ending, however Christians do have Scriptural promises about The Last Day and the Return of Christ Jesus. Those promises are not something for Christians to fear neither is the topic something to be made light of. Again the Norse mythological Ragnarok is not analogous to the Scriptural doctrine of the Return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead on The Last Day with its final judgment of all people for all time. And Thor: Ragnarok is hardly the first film to make light of the apocalyptic destruction of everything. It may be that films like Seth Rogen’s This Is the End (2013) and Disaster Movie (2008) aren’t actually very funny because the topic just doesn’t lend itself to humour. Some people may have busted a gut at those films but for Christians the idea of having a laugh about something in which they place such hope and comfort seems crass and inappropriate. This is not the initial reaction to Thor: Ragnarok. While watching it, the film is fun, some of the humour lands, and viewers laugh and chuckle. The caution comes after reflecting on the dissonance between the films glib comedic lightheartedness and its more serious epic apocalyptic themes.

One last theological thought: When most films include resurrection, it is usually initiated by evil characters and the resurrected practically without exception act as mindless zombies or an evil hoard. Hela in Thor: Ragnarok resurrects long-dead Asgardian warriors to fight for her, but as in many other cases, like this year’s failed Tom Cruise film The Mummy (2017), Hela’s warriors are nothing more the CGI evil brutes lacking substance or character. This makes some sense since they are fighting for the side of evil and are generally only there to be defeated by the heroes. Nevertheless, it is odd that in popular culture any form of resurrection is predominantly depicted as evil, bad, and ugly while in the Church it is good, virtuous, and beautiful. Is it intentional or is it lazy writing that keeps recycling this same tired trope?

In the long run when placed next to the earlier Thor films this one feels shallow and cheap both in storytelling and production. When compared to the two Guardians of the Galaxy films it comes across as derivative. In the greater MARVEL Universe the film seems to serve as a bridge between the epic and the comedic. At this point the MARVEL Cinematic Universe needs these bridge films as it gets closer to Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and its sequel which will be populated with almost every MARVEL character both epic and comedic. Also the two quirky Guardians of the Galaxy films were very lucrative at the box office. However when considering the story Thor: Ragnarok attempts to tell, the film would have been better served by an epic rather than comedic treatment. Like cotton candy, viewers will enjoy this film in the moment. It’s a fun movie but is “fun” everything? Can’t an audience have more? Do these characters deserve more than fun as their trilogy comes to its conclusion? For some viewers enjoyment while watching will be enough.

Rev. Ted Giese is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; a contributor to The Canadian LutheranReporter and KFUOam; and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGieseCheck out our Movie Review Index!        

You can also find this article featured in the Canadian Lutheran.