Of all the characters to clog up screens during Marvel Studios’ reign of box office dominance, Thor has always been the trickiest to get right. The last two ‘Thor’ movies were among Marvel’s worst, so it comes as a relief that ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ is possibly the studio’s funniest film. Oddball indie comedy specialist Taika Waititi was actually allowed to have some fun with the property, even if it tends to sag anytime the director is forced to head back to Asgard and finish up some plot threads nobody ever cared about.
The movie kicks off with a goofily self-aware announcement of its silly style. Thor is dangling on a chain about to fend off a demon. Despite his posturing and formal speech, everything goes wrong, and even that fire-breathing foe has some awkward quips. That’s where this movie is going. Just like how Waititi turned a gang of immortal vampires in ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ into bickering flatmates bogged down with incidental nonsense, ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ is a massive fantasy epic where characters spend inordinate amounts of time worrying that the pants in their stylized costumes are too tight.
After Thor finally takes out big bad numero uno, he’s whisked back to Asgard to clean up the dangling storylines from the little-loved ‘Thor: The Dark World’. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is still masquerading as Oden (Anthony Hopkins), which Waititi uses as an excuse to slip in some amusing cameos and let Hopkins have some fun mugging before the ruse is revealed and the new villain is introduced.
That big baddie takes the form of Cate Blanchett’s Hela, the goddess of death. She’s Thor and Loki’s sister, as revealed by Hopkins in some poppy Shakespearean-lite dialogue before disappearing. She quickly destroys Thor’s hammer, dispatches her brothers, and takes control of Asgard.
So far, aside from the delightfully off-kilter comedy and neon acid trip production design, the whole thing feels like yet another token tapdance through dull ‘Thor’ mythology. Then things get interesting. Thor lands in the trash-covered planet of Sakaar. He’s saved from cannibalistic death by a drunken warrior with a secret, played by a delightful Tessa Thompson, and introduced to the planet’s leader. That would be Jeff Golblum playing the deranged Grandmaster as only he can, quickly entering Thor into a gladiatorial combat that he uses to entertain his people. To escape, Thor must beat the undefeated champion. Trailers have spoiled what would have been the movie’s greatest surprise when it turns out that champion is the incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Thor’s got a pretty good chance of escaping Sakaar and saving Asgard, especially since Loki is kicking around the place as well.
It took a full two paragraphs just to summarize the setup of ‘Thor: Ragnarok’, so it goes without saying that this superhero spectacle is a little convoluted and overlong. It very much feels like the familial Cate Blanchet storyline was the initial plot for ‘Thor 3’ in Marvel’s grand plan, and the slapstick sci-fi Sakaar plot was developed to salvage the franchise and revitalize it in the ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ mold. Essentially, Waititi was brought in to squeeze out two ‘Thor’ movies for the price of one, and in the process hopefully revive the character in a more colorfully comedic sci-fi adventure that will be easier to sell in later sequels. Thankfully, it worked. Waititi has just the right playfully sardonic style to laugh off all of the fantasy excesses burdening this franchise, while also diving fully into the playful ’70s sci-fi surrealism that James Gunn brought to ‘Guardians’. At times, ‘Ragnarok’ can feel overstuffed and undercooked, but it also has more than enough jokes and set-pieces to smooth over the rough patches.
It helps that the Sakaar section is so damn good that it could sustain another spinoff. Jeff Goldblum shoves his established weirdo persona into the Marvel universe with enough hysterical line readings to steal the whole movie away, Tessa Thompson introduces a new wise-cracking badass worth repeating, and even Waititi himself steals some scenes as a polite and enthusiastic rock monster/gladiator moderately interested in revolution. The whole thing is goofy and exciting and filled with stunningly bizarre imagery. It also lets the comedic pairing of Thor and the Hulk stretch out into something more meaningful and hilarious than previous throwaway gags, with Ruffalo and Hemsworth clearly relishing all their time together. Toss in the always welcome Hiddleston stealing scenes with mere smiles and you have a sci-fi romp spinoff so damn good that it deserves to be played on repeat.
Unfortunately, we still have all the Asgard stuff to clear up. It helps that genuinely great actors like Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba and Karl Urban are involved to elevate truncated plotting and characterization into something resembling epic action tragedy. This material all feels tacked-on and rooted in a ‘Thor’ past that Marvel is clearly anxious to ditch. (Natalie Portman’s entire two-film arc is kicked out of continuity with a single snide gag.) However, the material works as the fantasy set-piece delivery system ‘Ragnarok’ needs in order to land on an epic climax, and Waititi has a ball assembling the MCU’s studio army to weave together gorgeously-mounted punching, kicking and explosions synced up to Led Zepplin’s “Immigrant Song” (which is used twice in the film in addition to backing the trailer, because Disney wanted its money’s worth for forking over the massive licensing fee). Cutting this section down to the bone means that we only get the best of the flawed ‘Thor’ universe in bite-sized morsels, while Waititi and crew reinvent what this corner of the MCU will be in future movies.
It goes without saying that ‘Ragnarok’ is the best ‘Thor’ movie to date. It’s fleet and hilarious and visually stunning and provides the illusion of confounding expectations while still finishing up a three-movie narrative arc that no one really cared about for the first two thirds. That’s kind of a miracle. If it means that the movie is overlong, lopsided, and awkwardly structured for the sake of reinventing the ‘Thor’ series while also concluding it… well, those are just superficial pills worth swallowing.
Against all odds, ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ is somehow the funniest Marvel movie to date. If Waititi can infuse this much of his personality into the worst MCU series and save it from itself, the guy could do some real magic on Hollywood’s dime with complete freedom. Whether he gets the chance remains to be seen. This could be a blockbuster blip before returning to indies or the beginning of a long relationship with Marvel. Regardless, ‘Ragnarok’ is a ‘Thor’ movie for people who hate ‘Thor’ movies and proof that the decision to shove this entire universe into the James Gunn’s sarcastically absurdist spin on classic Jack Kirby freakout Marvel sci-fi was the best possible choice for the studio. Bring on ‘Infinity War’. We’re ready.