It's amazing that Thor: Ragnarok was greenlit by Marvel Studios. While the rampant success of Deadpool proves that superhero movies with a deliberate comedic focus can actually work, there's a world of difference between its relatively low-budget execution of concept and the pressure of hundreds of millions of dollars going into one of the summer's superhero outings. Levity has always worked in Marvel's favor, sure, but that mostly ties into how situational humor and banter break up two hours of buildup toward tentpole action sequences. When What We Do In the Shadows' actor and director Taika Waititi jumped into the pilot seat for the third entry in the Thor universe, the requisite musings emerged as to whether he'd accomplish something similar to what the Russo brothers did with Captain America: Winter Soldier: whether he'd simply mold his sensibilities into the framework and restraints of straightforward blockbuster expectations. Turns out, Waititi has a blast with the end of the world, excelling because of how persistently this Marvel outing doesn't take itself seriously.
As with other superhero films, Thor: Ragnarok underwent some changes throughout development, but the concept of the Norse realm of Asgard being threatened by prophecies of its destruction -- said "ragnarok" -- has stuck around since the beginning. Several years have passed since the events of Thor: The Dark World and Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has embarked on a search for the powerful Infinity Stones, which has made him unaware of the details of what's happened at his homeland. It's revealed that his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), no longer resides there, and that his absence could open Asgard up to being destroyed by fire and cataclysm. Another warning sign of the apocalypse arrives in the form of Hela (Cate Blanchett), Thor's powerful and sinister sister. A cosmic battle ensues between them, which sends the Son of Asgard careening through the universe and onto a faraway, somewhat lawless planet focused on a gladiator-style arena and lorded over by a Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Thor finds himself in a situation where he must battle in this arena, against a familiarly green opponent, to get off the planet and save Asgard.
Beyond her familiar backstory and the way Cate Blanchett rocks that skin-tight suit and elaborate-horned helm while intimidating Asgardians, there isn't very much to Hela's depth and motivations as a villain, hinged on domination and birthright. She possesses just enough of a daunting presence for the intentions of Thor: Ragnarok, though, ensuring that any place or legion of people pose almost no threat, heightened by Blanchett's piercing confidence and embodiment of a family member scorned. This visceral intimidation factor is crucial since so much of the film transpires outside her reach, while glimpses at her progress in Asgard -- and at her influence over Karl Urban's Skurge -- are dropped in between Thor's adventures on a different planet. It's a unique setup: Hela's the villain of the story, yet the superhero's interactions with her and her forces are uniquely sparse throughout the course of the film. Instead, Ragnarok relies on Thor's momentum to get off his current planet and eventually square off with his rival, and her seemingly unconquerable prowess does compelling things with the film's stakes.
It'd be pretty effortless for the magnitude of Hela's power and the seemingly fated collapse of Asgard to be taken seriously, providing yet another end-of-the-world scenario for one of Marvel's films, but the absurd and expansive perils of the situation end up also being ideal for wall-to-wall humor. Where The Dark World lacked the jovial aspects of what made the first film such a hit, Taika Waititi ensures that there's a punchline every stop along the way in Ragnarok, not unlike Hec and Ricky's suspenseful expedition through the Australian forest in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. As Thor wrangles with locals on this new crazy planet and once again interacts with his scheming brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the dialogue -- apparently over three-quarters improvised -- bends and molds around Chris Hemsworth's innate charisma as he arrogantly collides with the obstacles in his way. The humor has the consistency of a straight-up comedy, and Waititi runs into similar benefits and challenges fitting movies with that slant, with some -- most -- jokes landing and others falling flat while trying too hard.
The action in Thor: Ragnarok emerges in what could've been complicated, too-defined blocks separated by this obvious humor, but the tightly-edited vigor of Waititi's somewhat cheesy, 80s-twinged craftsmanship give it enough of a flow so that it's a cohesive twist on the "hero's journey". The trials undertaken by Thor eventually toss him into the gladiatorial pit against a foe whom would've made for a brilliant surprise reveal, had Marvel decided to keep it under wraps: Hulk, in all his green and oversized glory. Despite the promo materials basically functioning like boxing posters announcing their brawl, it's a bold, dazzling fusion of computer-generated and practical work that holds onto numerous surprises, and leads well into an extension of the rapport between the two that made their moments from the Avengers films such crowd-pleasing displays. Knowledge that they'll be teaming up sets Ragnarok up for certain expectations, and Waititi both delivers on those and subverts em, playing with concepts from the comics -- Planet Hulk! -- while scurrying around under the quirky authority of a sassy Jeff Goldblum.
Amid those jesterly intentions and structured action, Ragnarok also manages to deepen and deconstruct the lore surrounding Thor and his homeland, introducing the concept of female-warrior Valkyries, hidden chambers of slumbering minions, and the long-foreseen inevitability of Asgard's collapse. Director Waititi funnels new and old characters -- the boozy badass played by Tessa Thompson; Idris Elba's sagely sentinel Heimdall -- into a chaotic, high-stakes finale that smartly blends all these components, in which the heroes' powers both get a jolt of enhancement and grasp their limitations against superior foes. Driven by repeat use of "The Immigrant Song", a fusion of visual techniques that create dreamlike flashbacks, and an unrelenting desire to turn just about everything into a punchline, Thor: Ragnarok ends up feeling like something truly different -- and needed -- from the Marvel creative machine, capitalizing on the risks taken to make such an outlandish, blatantly comical diversion from the norm. Other Marvel movies probably shouldn't emulate it, else it'd become overkill, but it's hard not to get a charge out of this one.
The 4K Blu-ray:
Thor: Ragnarok lands on the home-media format in a fairly standard 4K/Blu-ray combo package from Marvel (Disney), sporting colorfully green artwork featuring the side profile of Chris Hemsworth post-makeover. Underneath a glossy slipcover duplicating the front and back artwork, a black case holds the 4K UltraHD disc -- which has genuine artwork! -- and a standard, blue-topped Blu-ray as Disc Two. A Digital Copy slip has also been included, for the service "Movies Anywhere".
Video and Audio:
Marvel's films typically don't lack for visual interest, but Thor: Ragnarok has a remarkably high amount of compelling, vibrant things to look at, especially with the brimstone shade of fiery lairs, the bizarreness of the "trash planet" and arena atmosphere, and the high-contrast complexity of the dream sequences. That translates to a mesmerizing experience in 4K, in which lush shades of green, blistering yellows and oranges of fire, and all sorts of wild shades surrounding the Grandmaster possess a ton of impact, elevated by the disc's HDR capabilities in strengthening color gradation and contrast potency. The flashiness of the brawl between Thor and Hulk may be a particularly active and hard-hitting sequence, yet it's other moments involving the green-tinged dustiness and flaming clouds amid Asgardian battle that stand out. Detail remains flawless from start to finish: the transfer relishes fine elements in face-paint and facial hair, scattering of particles during combat, and stone textures throughout, while the subtleties of contours in Hela's helmet and Hulk's muscular physique are clean and free from issues. Marvel's second foray into 4K ends up being a visual delight.
Gonna be honest, though: the Dolby Atmos track didn't do as much for me as I would've liked. The activity is persistent throughout the track, and it makes generous use of the object-based surround stage, ranging from shattered stone and glass to magic sparks and futuristic weapons firing off. Dialogue has plenty of highpoint and midrange strength, latching onto both Hemsworth's heavier delivery and Goldblum's thin, softer-spoken cadence. The points where the track slumps can be found with heavier effects that should possess lower-end resonance, whether it's explosions and collisions or the high-impact fierceness of the brawl between Thor and Hulk. The thud of punches and slam of bodies has some punch to em, but it's much more restricted and flat than anticipated, rarely filling the room in those instances where fire rages and hearty objects have impact. For the most part, Hulk's deeper dialogue reaches into the lower-frequency channel, and a few subtler thumps -- such as a heavy ball bouncing against a wall -- hold their own. There's just something missing in the more aggressive action-film moments that should've been chest-rattling.
Just like most of the other 4K UltraHD discs out there, most of the extras for Thor: Ragnarok can be found on the included Blu-ray disc, yet there's one that does appear on both: the Audio Commentary with Taika Waititi. The positive is that you've got the option of listening to the track on either 4K or standard HD; however, the drawback is that Waititi's commentary is a very mixed bag. The director ends up trying too hard to crack jokes throughout, especially in the first 15-20 minutes. Luckily, after about half an hour, Waititi seems to realize that he's got to deliver more actual substance, because he starts working "anecdotes" into the conversation. And that's a good thing, because he's clearly a comic-book fan and isn't shy about pointing out the many references found throughout, from artwork inspired by -- and literally taken from -- Jack Kirby, what storytelling threads come from Thor comics and what comes from Planet Hulk, and why certain outfits and accessories are different than their comic counterparts. It's just a struggle to get through the other parts that connect joke after joke, and yeah, he brings his young child into the conversation about the Thor-Hulk battle, which is both cute and lackluster.
A string of Featurettes (34:24, 16x9 HD) drop into the special features, and they're a fun, insightful arrangement of press-kit-like pieces stitches together. They shine a light on Chris Hemsworth as the driving force behind the film's metamorphosis of this project; the prowess of the female characters in the film; how Taika Waititi's direction injected a new energy into the MCU and brought new elements out of his actors; how the planet of Sakaar came to fruition through conceptualization and a desire for "fun"; and, of course, more insights into how Thor: Ragnarok interweaves with the established comics through both storytelling and visual imagery, especially in relation to Jack Kirby. They've crammed a lot into a little over half an hour, but the tone of the interviews, the arrangement of the clips, and the inclusion of snippets from the comics create a satisfying glimpse into the creative process behind the film's construction.
Marvel have also included a brief Gag Reel (2:18, 16x9 HD) and a run of five Deleted Scenes (16x9 HD), a skit entitled Team Darryl (6:08, 16x9 HD) starring Jeff Goldblum's Grandmaster in a modern setting, two videogame-esque 8-Bit Sequences (:58, 2:17; 16x9 HD) which may or may not have actually been used to pre-visualize scenes from the film, and a fairly fluffy piece about The First Ten Years of Marvel Studios (5:23, 16x9 HD).
Chris Hemsworth mentioned in an interview that he had grown somewhat "bored" after playing Thor in the same way a handful of times, so he and the folks at Marvel used Ragnarok as a way of overhauling the character and going in a different direction. After The Dark World's more stoic, Shakespearean vision that wasn't as well-received as the others, a natural assumption would be that they'd go in a lighter, more effortlessly enjoyable direction, but one might not expect how relentlessly humorous and well, polar opposite that Taika Waititi's film plays out. Despite the grim intentions of end-of-the-world prophecy and legitimately scorned family members out for power and murder, the story deliberately skews toward amusement and whimsy, telegraphing just as much -- if not more -- comedy as it does action. A handful of punchlines are duds and the film does try too hard to get laughs on the regular, but Thor: Ragnarok still ends up being a blast of a time and a worthwhile evolution of the Norse god for a more contemporary perspective on his character. Marvel's 4K release looks great and sounds, well, good enough, and the extras include a peculiar commentary from Waititi, a half-hour of solid featurettes, and a cluster of other goodies. Highly Recommended.