It’s ironic that Paul Feig’s decidedly unfunny Ghostbusters reboot is partially responsible for Marvel’s uproarious Thor: Ragnarok. Feig’s encouragement of endless improvisation obviously helped Chris Hemsworth develop confidence in his comedic timing. These newfound comedy chops, along with Taika Waititi’s assured direction and a delightfully irreverent script make Thor: Ragnarok one of the best action-comedies in years.
You can’t ask much more from a humble comic book movie than what Thor: Ragnarok delivers. The relentless pacing, delicate character moments, and sublime interplay provide endless opportunities for fun. While it shares a similarly anarchic spirit to the Guardians of the Galaxy formula perfected by James Gunn, there’s an extra layer of cheese that bypasses the self-aware smugness and reconnects with an almost childlike naiveté.
For the first time in three tries for this awkwardly earnest franchise, Marvel finally gets it right with Thor: Ragnarok, eliminating the usual mythos and overly-dramatic platitudes in favor of ribald action and a healthy dose of goofiness. Characters are free to ponder the physics of flying into a wormhole called The Devil’s Anus, while Thor and Hulk debate which of them is considered “The Stupid Avenger”. Indeed, to list all of the barbs and sight gags that land solidly would require far more space than this review allows.
The plot, such as it is, exists merely as an excuse to bounce headstrong characters off one another (literally). Loki (Tom Hiddleston), you’ll recall from 2013’s fitfully amusing Thor: The Dark World, has deposed Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and ascended to the throne of Asgard. Surprisingly, Loki’s abuse of power seems limited to the Arts, where he commissions an unimaginably tacky statue of his likeness, as well as a vainglorious theatrical tribute featuring cameos from several Hollywood luminaries.
Loki isn’t the only mischievous god who covets the throne. His previously-unknown sister Hela (Cate Blanchett transforming into a Goth princess) wants a piece of the action and she’s willing to kill anyone, including brothers Loki and Thor, to get it. It’s a juicy setup for some Shakespearean backstabbing, but the breakneck pacing in Thor: Ragnarok preempts most of the salacious family dynamics. Again, who screwed whom and why doesn’t matter to director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, 2014, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, 2016) and his screenwriters. They do everything in their power to prevent plot from interfering with our good time.
That includes introducing lots of eccentric and/or new characters into this otherwise insulated world of gods and transgressors. Of course, we have the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo taking a backseat to his CGI alter ego), enslaved and forced to fight gladiatorial battles on a distant planet. The explanation for Hulk’s departure from Earth doesn’t entirely make sense but again, these are just the pesky details that enable Hulk to entertain us with his violently bratty temper tantrums. Indeed, Hulk’s personality is more consistent with a petulant toddler than a murderous monster.
Filling out the secondary cast are Skurge (Karl Urban), a shifty Asgardian “Executioner” with twin machine guns named ‘Des’ and ‘Troy,’ and a sexy bounty hunter with a mysterious past named Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). After an encounter with Hela reduces his mighty hammer to a pile of peanut brittle, the devastated Thor is delivered by Valkyrie to the fantastical wasteland of Sakaar; “a collection point for lost and unwanted things.”
Ah, Sakaar. Where to begin with this thoroughly original and meticulously realized world? Most of Thor: Ragnarok takes place on this pseudo garbage dump where myriad wormholes deposit an unending stream of space debris. Not content to create a simple holding cell for Thor, Waititi paints a world of swirling visual detail and ridiculous characters. Even Thor’s stony cellmate, Korg (hilariously voiced by Waititi), is given a rich backstory of failed rebellions and unrealized freedom.
The crowning gem of Sakaar, however, is its ruler and DJ-in-Chief, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Goldblum is at his Goldblumiest, ruling Sakaar with equal parts smarm and charm, occasionally zipping around town in his ‘orgy spaceship’ or busting out some beats on his galactic turntable. Waititi seems determined to rectify the criminal oversight of excluding Goldblum from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, allowing him to steal every scene. Over 40 years after his first onscreen appearance, Goldblum remains one of cinema’s most enigmatic and compulsively watchable personalities.
Even when the action starts (which is almost immediately), the characters refuse to fade into the background. All of the propulsive action set pieces are thrillingly staged and seamlessly rendered, with each character getting a moment to shine both physically and comedically. Characters grow and change through their actions, not intrusive exposition. Perhaps the closest comparison would be to Whedon’s original The Avengers, but the banter here feels less clever and more organic.
The real gem of Thor: Ragnarok, however, and the reason for its wild success as both an action and comedy, is Hemsworth’s transformative and vulnerable portrayal of this otherwise wooden hero. In previous outings, Thor seemed little more than a straight man; an ultra-serious dolt who generated laughs by being hopelessly out of place.
Here, Thor is an active participant in everything that happens, including the delivery of some righteously insulting zingers. Hemsworth’s uncanny comic timing opens previously unexplored avenues and allows him to capably exchange quips with the likes of Goldblum and Ruffalo. He also handles the quiet moments well, as when he laments how boring Loki has become in the service of predictable mischief. One can actually imagine this version of Thor maturing and changing into something far more interesting than previously imagined.
Marvel’s choice to move in an edgier, more irreverent direction has reinvigorated a stale Thor franchise. The God of Thunder removes the giant hammer from his backside and drops his stodgy pretentions in favor of having a good time. Thor: Ragnarok sets a new standard for superhero films by creating immensely likeable characters and an exhilarating sense of fun and adventure.