Have the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe got progressively lazier over time? After bailing on the franchise after Captain America: Civil War, a film where the largest action sequence was robbed of any stakes due to characters reminding each other they were still friends, I’ve returned to the fold for Thor: Ragnarok. Well, more specifically, I’ve returned to the fold because of director Taika Waititi, whose specific brand of dry and slyly surreal comedy threatened to rejuvenate the tired Marvel formula with a newfound offbeat comedic rhythm. However, those that have claimed this is a film very distinctive of the director’s style may be mistaken – this is the first film the director hasn’t had a screenwriting credit on, with Marvel opting to instead hire three screenwriters to deliver a watered down, significantly broader iteration of his superior comedic approach.
Thor: Ragnarok never feels like a Taika Waititi film. This is the same generic Marvel movie that the studio puts out consistently, where cringeworthy humour is prioritised over narrative coherency. It’s also, somewhat remarkably, the rare film that goes out of its way to sideline its central narrative (ignoring it for 30 minute stretches at a time), in order for intergalactic adventures that don’t amount to anything consequential.
As a comedy director, who has recently stressed he doesn’t want to make dramatic films, it makes sense why there is more of a focus on the laughs – but why hire him to make a film with a dramatic arc about Thor’s sister (played by an overqualified Cate Blanchett), that he very evidently isn’t interested in making the sole focus? Waititi’s desire to make comedy features clashes with the inclusion of an Asgardian narrative arc that, on paper, should deepen the exploration of Thor’s family dynamics. You could say that the film is caught between a Ragna-rock and a hard place, and you’d be exactly right.
Which isn’t to say the film is without simple pleasures. A recurring cameo from Jeff Goldblum (and don’t be fooled by the marketing, he’s in the 130 minute long film for roughly 10 minutes in total) feels like it has been beamed in from a far superior film. Goldblum’s oddball dialogue readings are well served by Waititi’s direction, and left me wishing that I was watching an original ensemble comedy from the director that managed to incorporate Goldblum’s strengths as well as he does here.
It’s hard to tell how much of the strangeness is due to the director’s approach to comedy, or Goldblum’s gleefully oddball aura, but the pair are perfect fits for each other’s style. As reliable as the ensemble cast are, they largely are pitching their performances to the broadest possible audience; only Goldblum is doing anything remotely interesting with the material.
Thor: Ragnarok is overlong, uninspired and most criminally, wastes a talented director and cast who could have been using their time and talents much better elsewhere. It’s an oddly soulless mechanical exercise, that seems to exist mostly as a mandatory Marvel cash-in (the opening 20 minutes contain a pointless cameo from Doctor Strange), with sheer indifference to the self-contained narrative the film should be putting its full focus on. The first two Thor films were mediocre, forgettable affairs, but the most talented director to be given the keys to this incessantly underwhelming franchise-within-a-franchise has managed to make the biggest disappointment of them all. It’s completely and utterly Thor-ful.