Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo, Tessa Thompson, Jeff Goldblum, Idris Elba, Karl Urban, Anthony Hopkins
Director: Taika Waititi
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
The whole concept of superhero movie fatigue at this point is a foolish critique since people have been bemoaning the glut of franchise-building properties for years now. Audiences line up for each entry in the extended Marvel Universe with, if not nerdy anticipation; then at least a knowing embrace of cinematic comfort food. The difference between outright disdain, casual boredom, neutral acceptance, and gleeful enthusiasm for these films is now so blurred that calling the latest long-haired Norseman wielding a mighty hammer picture one of the better entries in the Marvel canon seems arbitrary since it's only vaguely different than all the others while still feeling like more of the same.
However, the extent to which Thor: Ragnarok is vaguely different than the two previous Thor movies, not to mention the rest of the MCU (aside from Guardians of the Galaxy), comes down mainly to director Taika Waititi's deft handling of tone. The film is much more of a goofball comedy than Guardians, and on that level, plays much funnier because it dares to treat the very idea of another bloated Marvel epic as something of a joke to begin with. Instead of Shakespearean grandstanding and muddled mythology, we get off-center zaniness and cartoon slapstick. Instead of forced pathos and brooding heroes, we get an antler-adjacent vamping villain and Jeff Goldblum channeling Jeff Goldblum.
It would have been nice if Waititi and his writers found a way to unshackle themselves completely from the Marvel formula. Nevertheless, there's a streamlined plot here involving brotherly competition, a formidable villain bent on capturing the throne, a home planet in peril, and the inevitable CGI-enhanced finale. Following the formula goes without saying at this juncture in Marvel Studio's mandated house style, but there's still a much looser version of this film trying to burst out. The fact that Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is still dealing with his mischievous brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who had assumed the identity of their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and gained control of planet Asgard, leads one to believe this is all a typical setup for more double crosses and sibling rivalry. Instead, there's a new arch nemesis in town named Hela (Cate Blanchett), a long exiled warrior decked out in Gothic makeup and a crown of antlers. Oh, and she also happens to be Odin's firstborn and nicknamed The Goddess of Death.
Thor: Ragnarok wisely moves away from the A-story of Thor and Loki's dealing with their evil sister and instead pivots into a B-story involving a trash-filled alien planet housing gladiatorial contests. It's here, where Thor is captured and forced to fight inside large stadiums overseen by a diabolical Grandmaster played by Jeff Goldblum, that the film really hits its comedic stride. Playing like a pastiche of the old 60's Batman TV shows and Flash Gordon --with neon disco-imbued set design, campy line readings, and a proggy synth-driven score by Mark Mothersbaugh--the movie transforms itself into a daft parody of superhero franchises while never being condescending toward the beloved characters at its center. The hulk shows up, of course, tossing opponents around like rag dolls, but the more distintive moments involve Mark Ruffalo's shell-shocked confusion as Banner. He even gets to wear a Duran Duran T-shirt. There's also the exciting addition of Tessa Thompson's disillusioned tracker/warrior Valkyrie, who not only trades barbs with Hemsworth's bulky hero, but also gets to engage in a steady slew of ass-kicking.
As Thor: Ragnarok rumbles towards it's predictable climax; i.e. a showdown between a rag tag team of "Revengers" and Hela on the pulsating Asgard rainbow bridge, what keeps it from feeling like just another cog in the Marvel machinery is the way Watititi draws on the comedic strengths of his actors. It's clear Hemsworth, who was threatening to become an action figure parody of his character, relishes the chance to exhibit his flair for physical comedy and verbal wisecracking. Meanwhile, Thompson proves here she can be a compelling dramatic presence (which we already knew via Dear White People and Creed) as well as an effortlessly humorous foil. Blanchett is doing a grand drag queen kind of performance--snarling, sensuous, vampy--making one wish there was more of her. As far as Goldblum, well, he could have looked directly into the camera and given a delayed wink and no one would have complained. His Grandmaster is a kooky creation; machiavellian, puckish, and ready to party.
Thor: Ragnarok is dopey escapist entertainment at its finest, proving Marvel may have listened to their critics calling out Disney's penchant for hiring and then firing idiosyncratic filmmakers from their projects. While it never quite becomes the stand alone triumph it clearly could have been, Waititi's brand of New Zealand quirk is a surprisingly comfortable fit within the Thor universe. Self-aware, retro-futuristic, and boasting more silly pratfalls and sight gags this side of a Looney Tunes cartoon, Thor: Ragnarok invites us to laugh at the spectacular silliness of massive superhero sequels.