By the end of Thor: Ragnarok the God of Thunder’s third solo adventure reveals itself to be something of the finale to a first semester of college, a young mind’s valiant return home from winter break after having been blown and expanded over the fall months. Thor: Ragnarok is a process of revealing and undercutting the status quo both for the titular character and the audience.
For the Thor franchise that status quo has been the giant golden pipe organ castle of Asgard, a Mario Kart level that debuted in 2011 as a spectacular departure from the earthbound adventures of Iron Man and Incredible Hulk but has since become increasingly less interesting compared to the exploits of Thor’s other coworkers. In Ragnarok, that tired, shallow, golden city becomes the world of half-truths and easy answers built up around a child, a straw house destined to be blown down when confronted with even the slightest shift in perspective.
Played by Cate Blanchett, the Goddess of Death is that change in perspective, that freshman seminar with a charismatic professor who antagonizes the way you think the world works so that returning home becomes more than a matter of geographic distance. Hela is Asgard’s past, the receipt for that lavish golden pipe organ than Thor never thought to look at.
Thor vs. Hela is not so much a beat ‘em up as it is a young suburban white kid’s first encounter with the film Twelve Years a Slave.
After his initial confrontation with Hela, Thor is removed from his own status quo and tossed into a different patriarchy, one in which he is not the favored son but the disregarded other. His perspective is challenged intellectually and then literally as he finds himself thrown below the heel of someone else’s lavish kingdom. Like that suburban freshman tasked for the first time with checking their privilege, Thor lashes out fists first, confused, agitated and uncertain, but before long he finds himself hanging out in a dorm room with a roommate, intellectually and emotionally grappling with Hela and all she represents.
Along for the grappling is Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, the ideal companion for Thor’s journey through the first semester of freshman year. Where the events of Ragnarok change and rewrite everything Thor has ever known about himself and his history, they only reinforce Valkyrie’s understanding of the world. Thor is trying to wrap his head around Memento and Valkyrie shows up deftly dissecting Orson Welles’ F For Fake. Valkyrie doesn’t have to come to terms with Hela the way Thor does because for Valkyrie the Goddess of Death isn’t an idea or a concept but memory and experience.
Nothing is safe from being upended. Just as Hela disrupts Thor’s perception of the status quo, Ragnarok’s relentless, virtuoso pratfalls undermine the film itself and often Marvel Studios’ past films as well. Even Mark Mothersbaugh’s score, for my money the best of any of Marvel’s 17 films, presented at first with the noble orchestral flair one would expend from a grand superhero odyssey, morphs into what can only be described as aggressive synthesizer.
Every facet of Thor: Ragnarok is concerned with highlighting and then undermining the status quo, be it by speaking truth to authority through humor and smartassery or by subverting the cool of its own protagonists.
Director Taika Waititi has unlocked Thor in a way no previous director has, be it in the characters solo outings or with the rest of the Avengers. He ties Thor’s powers, arguably his most alienating characteristic, to an institution, Asgard, than rips that institution away. Presented with uncertainty, challenged with the revelation of his own privilege and that privilege’s cost, Thor has never been more compelling.
Did I mention this is also a straight-up comedy? And that Jeff Goldblum gives the performance by which all performances will be judged for the rest of time?
Ragnarok is one of Marvel’s best movies and easily the best Thor movie. It’s got action, humor, heart and an intelligence that doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. It’s all the fun of watching a college freshman get woke without having to sit through a pretentious holiday dinner with an actual college freshman.