Following 2013’s entirely unmemorable Thor: The Dark World sequel, Marvel Studios decided to perform a hard reset on their overtly drab corner of their shared cinematic universe by handing over the reigns to New Zealand director/actor Taika Waititi, best known for his low-budget deadpan comedies What We Do in the Shadows and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople. The result of that unexpected collaboration is Thor: Ragnarok, the first flat-out comedy that Marvel Studios has ever produced.
While the Guardians of the Galaxy films are steeped in laughs, they serve to lighten up what are first and foremost epic action films. With Thor: Ragnarok, that system is flipped on its head — here, the superhero plot beats seem like an after-thought to the continuous barrage of jokes, which makes for a highly entertaining film, even if it often pushes the plot aside.
What little story there is rests on a family feud between the Norse gods. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is forced to team-up with his evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to face off against their powerful and evil sister Hela (the wonderful Cate Blanchett), who is attempting to bring about “Ragnarok,” the destruction of their home world of Asgard. Along the way the brothers end up on the planet Sakaar, where a Hugh Heffner-esque leader known as Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) presides over a deadly gladiatorial challenge, whose champion just happens to be Thor’s fellow Avenger Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).
While Thor and Hulk face off, there is also a mutiny brewing amongst Sakaar’s prisoners, which includes a hilariously dry mountain of blue rocks with an inexplicable New Zealand accent (voiced by Waititi). Thrown in this mix is the hard-drinking Valkyrie, a former Asgardian warrior now serving as an enforcer on Sakaar.
While that sounds like a like of plot, it is hardly the focus of Ragnarok. In fact, Hela vanishes for almost a third of the film, and her disappearance barely registers amidst the stream of one-liners and sight gags (including the first — and hopefully last — on-screen appearance of Hulk’s bare buttocks).
Much of the film plays out like a typical 80’s buddy action movie, albeit with a much-larger cast. Thor and Hulk make for a great comic pairing, and the duo get to bounce off the petulant Loki and the guarded Valkyrie as they try to break free from Sakaar (plot details comic fans will recognize as tweaked from the Planet Hulk storyline).
Jeff Goldblum is at his utmost Goldblumian self here as the sleazy planetary overlord, and he fully embraces every awkward pause and vocal tick in only the way he can. Sadly, things don’t fare so well for the rest of the (great) supporting cast. Idris Elba is completely underused here as Heimdall, Thor’s inside man in Asgard, who grumbles his way through the few tidbits of dialogue he’s given. As mentioned earlier, even Hela, the prime villain of the film is given less screen time than the wacky Goldblum side-villain, which just goes to show what Waititi is really interested in here.
Placing Waititi’s specific comedic sensibilities over a huge Marvel Studios tent pole film was a risky and inspired choice, and breathes some much-needed new life into Thor’s corner of the Marvel Universe. All the jokes land and feel loose and improvisational, not hammered out by a roomful of writers. Hemsworth has always had a comic spark in him (especially in the Ghostbusters reboot), but he is a full comic star in this entry. Thor is often the butt of the joke here, and though his new portrayal as a bumbling goofball may not jive with how he’s been portrayed in the Marvel films so far (or in the comics for that matter), it definitely works within the context of this crazy movie.
Thor: Ragnarok is one of the truest visual expressions of classic comic book-style art ever put to screen, and fully embraces Thor co-creator Jack Kirby’s wildly manic art style. Thor’s kaleidoscopic entry into the planet Sakkar looks just like a classic Kirby panel come to life, and fully embraces the eye-popping possibilities of 3D.
You can also chuck your Guardians of the Galaxy mix-tapes right out of your Walkman — Thor: Ragnarok features the best score of any Marvel film to date, with Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh (!) delivering a synth-heavy score that features the perfect amount of bombast and schlocky sci-fun that a film like this needs.
While the last few Marvel movies have been a bit underwhelming in their drab sameness, the utter looseness and fun of Thor: Ragnarok is completely refreshing, and bodes well for the future of the Marvel universe if they continue taking such big swings.