Review by Curt Holman
If you’re an amateur scholar of Norse mythology; if you’re a longtime follower of Marvel comic book continuity; if you’re a fan of the supporting players in the “Thor” feature films – be aware that Thor: Ragnarok might rub you the wrong way.
But if you’re cool with filmmakers taking liberties with source material in the name of humor, excitement and crazy creativity, you’ll have a blast with the third Thor movie. What We Do in the Shadows director Taika Waititi shows more allegiance to laughter than serious themes or narrative consistency, but also delivers a deliriously kitschy space adventure that’s like a jazz riff on comic storylines like Planet Hulk and Ragnarok and Roll.
The dreary Thor: The Dark World left off in 2013 with thunder god Thor (Chris Hemsworth) mourning the death of his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), unaware that the God of Mischief was impersonating their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) as ruler of Asgard. (Note: this review will spoil no significant plot points not already revealed in Ragnarok’s trailers.)
After an exciting — and bracingly funny — cold open with Thor taking on a fiery adversary, Ragnarok wastes no time tying off the last film’s lose ends. Thor exposes Loki’s masquerade and drags his brother to Earth to find Odin (with an unnecessary assist from a certain Sorcerer Supreme). But no sooner has Odin’s mystery been resolved than a new problem rears its antlered head with the arrival of Hela, the long-imprisoned Goddess of Death with a surprisingly valid claim on Asgard’s throne.
Like few other actors playing a Marvel villain, Cate Blanchett revels in the role, making Hela so arrogant and power-hungry, she makes Cersei Lannister look like Kimmy Schmidt. But the film doesn’t always serve the instantly iconic character. An unstoppable fighter, she occasionally turns into a CGI avatar, which doesn’t look good on anyone. And after she invades Asgard, a mishap with the Rainbow Bridge strands Thor on a distant planet, separating Hela from much of the action.
Ragnarok genuinely hits its stride on the junkyard world of Sakaar, where the baroque palaces and colorfully bedecked aliens suggest a team-up of Jack Kirby and Julie Taymor. A swaggering warrior called the Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) captures Thor and sells him to Sakaar’s goofball tyrant The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldbum). Thor eagerly enters the Grandmaster’s gladiatorial games to win his freedom, and is surprised to learn that Sakaar’s undefeated champion is the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), last seen going AWOL in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The centerpiece of Ragnarok’s marketing, the rock ’em-sock ’em Hulk vs. Thor arena fight, lives up to the hype, but even better is the aftermath. To leave the planet, Thor must curry favor with the Hulk, who’s grown more articulate (if no less bellicose) since his last appearance. So Thor has to swear that he likes the green giant more than his alter ego, Bruce Banner — but when the Hulk reverts to Banner, Thor has to swear the exact opposite. In a cast with no weak links, Hemsworth carries Ragnarok’s comedy with aplomb, proving oddly reminiscent of Jason Bateman playing awkward straight man to the Bluth family on Arrested Development.
With Ragnarok, Waiti puts his own spin on the Guardians of the Galaxy films’ blend of space opera, snapper patter and poppy visuals and music. (The techno-strains of Mark Mothersbaugh’s score seem inspired by the opening notes of Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.”) While the plots of many Marvel films too closely follow the familiar superhero formula, Ragnarok constantly zigzags – you never know what monstrous threat or uproarious sight gag will round the next corner. Waititi himself plays (through voice and motion capture) the endearing rock-alien Korg.
The downside is that Ragnarok’s emphasis on jokes makes the film feel a bit frivolous. Not that one expects weighty real-world relevance from a movie about comic book space gods, but Ragnarok underserves most of its themes and relationships while disrespecting the minor members of the Thor ensemble. The script floats ideas about abdicating leadership and accepting responsibility that feel underexplored, keeping Ragnarok from cracking the upper echelon of Marvel movies.
When an alien barber threatens to trim Thor’s flowing blonde locks, he panics hilariously in a scene that both gets a laugh yet feels out of character. With comic book movies, light and breezy usually proves preferable to dark and turgid, and in 2017, Marvel Studios has gone three for three with its delightful adventure-comedies, including Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming. Thor: Ragnarok maybe the funniest of the trio, but its example also suggests that, going forward, maybe everything doesn’t have to be a joke.
Thor: Ragnarok. B+. Directed by Taika Waititi. Written by Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost and Eric Pearson. Stars Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo. Rated PG-13.