It says something when one of a movie’s main attractions is Cate Blanchett slinking around in a slinky black unitard and a halo of horns saying things such as “Kneel before me!” and it doesn’t quite capture your attention. That’s just the kind of ride that Thor: Ragnarok is. This is a “Damn the torpedoes!” operation. One imagines Marvel turning the keys of the studio over to director Taika Waititi, and saying to him, “There’s a couple hundred million on the kitchen counter, have fun. Oh, and make it seem like it’s the last movie we’re ever going to make.”
There’s some arrogance in that, born of having multiple blockbusters many years in a row. But in a risk-averse, panicky film industry, that arrogance also contains a refreshing creative confidence. It allows them to throw in both Jeff Goldblum as a megalomaniacal dictator noodling around behind a DJ booth and a drunken Valkyrie, sometimes in the same scene. It says, sure, we can hire a director best known for a vampire mockumentary starring some goony Kiwis (What We Do in the Dark) and it’ll all work out in the end.
By this point in the Thor mythos, the God of Thunder is not mucking around on Earth that much anymore. Wearing the same cocksure doofiness that works so effectively for Chris Pratt over in the Guardians of the Galaxy part of the Marvelverse, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor has been roaming the galaxies, trying to figure out what’s in store for the Nordic Thomas Kinkade painting known as Asgard.
Nothing good, it turns out. Not long after he’s been reunited with his trickster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, giving a fey, Oscar Wilde twist to his lazy half-villainy), Thor figures out that yep, Ragnarok’s coming. What that means is that he and Loki’s long-lost sister Hela (Blanchett), who got banished a while back and has since become a mega-powerful Goddess of Death, is coming home with a vengeance.
But there’s not much that happens with the battle over Asgard that generates much interest. In part, that’s because the Marvel movie template has long decreed that the villain of the moment be undefeatable for at least the first two-thirds of the narrative. That means that Hela can massacre a full division of Asgardian warriors without breaking a sweat, and that’s before she awakens an army of zombie warriors to do her evil bidding.
The audience is checked out of these battle scenes, knowing that Hela won’t face any real challenge to her power for at least the first hour and a half. But at the same time, they are fully checked into the parallel storyline of Thor and Loki’s excellent adventure on the other side of universe. This section of the movie, set on a planet that is part futuristic skyscraper metropolis and part sprawling garbage heap, is a narrative dead zone. There’s no reason for it to exist other than to kill time while Thor realizes that even though he lost his mighty hammer, he is a still a god. Also, like a Sesame Street skit on cooperation crossed with a sub-Joseph Campbell hero’s journey schematic, he must also achieve the humility to understand that he needs the help of others to be victorious over Hela.
However, the lack of real forward momentum in this segment doesn’t matter at all, since the Waititi packs the screen with all the punchdrunk zeal of a Mardi Gras choreographer who flunked out of improv comedy school for his inability to share the stage. The woozy comedy that reigned over most of the movie since an early cameo by a supremely bored Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is turned up full-tilt in the garbage planet part of the movie. Between the scenes of Thor getting bashed around by a homicidal Hulk in the gladiator arena run by the giggly sadist Grandmaster (Goldblum) and occasionally electroshocked by his captor, the swaggering, booze-swigging, and eye-rolling ex-Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Waititi lines up one deadpan gag after another. The director also voices one of the better comic relief characters, a walking slab of rock with a blithely Zen attitude named Korg who was sentenced to the arena for trying to start a revolution (it failed because he didn’t print enough pamphlets).
The demands of the larger universe and Thor’s heroic arc insist that eventually the shambolic disco comedy of the garbage planet must be discarded for the next great showdown back in Asgard. But that’s not where the true soul of the movie lies. Audiences won’t remember it for the battle on the Bifrost Bridge, even though they’ll appreciate seeing Heimdall (Idris Elba, still getting short shrift from the Thor movies) and figure it’s about time the series got around to using the churning Viking rock of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”.
They will, however, remember Thor: Ragnarok for its willingness to chuck aside most of the comic superhero baggage and play it for all the camp humor possible. At least until the next one comes along, at which point this highly agreeable movie could well end up on the same trash heap that cushioned the God of Thunder’s fall from grace.