As someone who has never written an overall negative review for any of the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (that’s 17 movies and counting, though there were a few “meh” entries), my approval of “Thor: Ragnarok” may not mean much to those on the fence about seeing the third solo adventure of the guy who shoots lightning bolts out of an oversized hammer.
“Thor: Ragnarok” is objectively different though, and I would guess even Marvel-haters would say it’s better than the past two “Thor” movies. Credit director Taika Waititi, the kooky New Zealander behind the hilarious vampire mockumentary, “What We Do in the Shadows,” as well as last year’s equally endearing coming-of-age adventure, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” Because “Ragnarok” is both a solid superhero adventure and one of the funniest movies of the year.
At face value, the director of a couple of absurd little indies doesn’t seem like the best fit for a Disney multi-billion dollar franchise. But “Ragnarok,” especially in its centerpiece middle act, feels much more like a Waititi film than the usual Marvel adventure. It’s strange, colorful and overstuffed with humor that manages to deflate the main character’s inherent stuffiness.
Waititi also knows how to best unleash the magnetic comic charisma of star Chris Hemsworth. Thor has always been an instrument of comic relief in his own movies and “The Avengers” team-ups. The God of Thunder has a bit of an inflated ego, and Hemsworth shows a willingness to expose an underlying social ineptitude alongside the character’s apparent royal superiority.
In “Ragnarok,” Thor’s confidence is undercut even more. The loss of his magical hammer, for example, gives Hemsworth the opportunity to play flustered and unconfident. It doesn’t help having a planetary overlord (played with delight by Jeff Goldblum) constantly referring to him as the “Lord of Thunder” with the sparkle hands.
Much like the other “Thor” films, the plot of “Ragnarok” leans hard into palace intrigue and royal sibling rivalry, with Tom Hiddleston’s take on Loki once again stealing the spotlight. The major conflict arrives in the form of Cate Blanchett as Thor and Loki’s long lost sister, Hela, aka the Goddess of Death (welp). She wants to rule Asgard, but Thor worries his recurring apocalyptic dreams about his home realm may be related to Hela’s power play.
Waititi, alongside screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost, inject enough low key charm into the storyline to rescue the more pedestrian bookends of “Ragnarok.” The middle portion, where Thor and Loki are exiled to a garbage-filled planet ruled by Goldblum’s Grandmaster, is an absolute blast.
The film’s advertising reveals its major secret weapon — Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk/Bruce Banner is also imprisoned on the planet, and Thor first encounters the big green monster in a boisterous arena battle.
The Hulk in “Ragnarok” is a bit different than the raging smasher we’ve seen in past movies. Unable to easily turn back into his human form, the Hulk talks a bit more here… and bickers hilariously with Thor, who can’t stop himself from arguing about which Avenger reigns supreme in battle. Hulk’s responses are brief but cutting: “Hulk smash Thor.”
Every character in “Ragnarok” makes an impression, including Waititi earning big laughs voicing a soft-spoken rock monster/fellow gladiator named Korg. But of all the supporting players, Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, a former Asgardian and current hard-drinking bounty hunter, gives the film’s most complete and compelling performance. The “Creed” star makes for an intriguing foil to Thor without the character ever feeling like a romantic distraction. She’s fierce and funny, and she outshines the likes of A-list supporting players like Idris Elba and Anthony Hopkins.
While the middle and best section of “Ragnarok” has very little to do with the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe, it does provide a lighthearted comic book vibe that too often gets suffocated in the genre by end-of-the-world plots and lazy CGI boss battles. “Ragnarok” has a little bit of that forgettable stuff too, but it never once loses its sense of fun.
With next year’s “Avengers: Infinity War” potentially setting the stage for the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it, at least “Thor: Ragnarok” proves big screen comic book antics can endure outside of the big names as long as the right creative minds can play freely in the sandbox.
So if Thor and Hulk don’t survive the Infinity War, there’s at least one moviegoer ready for the Waititi-helmed Valkyrie/Korg team-up adventure.
Tyler Wilson can be reached at twilson@ cdapress.com