Marvel movies have long located their own groove in the form of a fun and focused formula, but lately they’ve nestled even deeper into a comfortably cool canal of their own making. Thor: Ragnarok finds the blockbuster factory in one of its grooviest grooves yet, working the formula with ease and releasing rich ridiculousness at every run round the familiar plot posts. It’s a trifle in the end, but a tantalizing one, packed tightly with nuttiness that prioritizes playful pranks over pathos.
The goal here is to showcase beefcake star Chris Hemsworth’s great comic timing and turn his latest adventure into a goofball romp where even the end of the hero’s fabled world isn’t so seriously dramatic that you can’t get a few laughs out of it. Humour is the key to director Taika Waititi’s impressive attempt to overhaul the Thor franchise, which was last left in a pitiful state with 2014’s grim, grumpy sequel The Dark World.
That movie represented the worst of Marvel movie tendencies, from the forgettable villain to the blandness of its generic threat against the universe. Here, the subtitle directly references the fall of Thor’s glittery home world Asgard, but this time around, the apocalypse is less apoplectic and more absurdly amusing.
Marvel has been on quite the comedic kick of late, with all three of their 2017 features (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-man: Homecoming being the others) juggling jokes and jesting about their heroes’ journeys more eclectically and excessively than ever before. While Marvel has always put the “comic” in, well, comic book movies, their latest efforts go for giggles with gusto.
Ragnarok still has moments of gravity as it chronicles the further adventures of Thor and his contentious family relationships, which now include a long-lost sister named Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death and a bit of a meanie compared to her jovial headlining brother, but the movie is truly a comedy at heart. For all of Blanchett’s baneful badassery, she never gets the opportunity to escape Marvel’s villain curse, being relegated, as per usual, to a cutaway-friendly side-story that sets up a big final battle.
She makes the most of her scenes, constantly slicking back her jet-black hair with her hands to grow an ornately antlered headdress that signals she’s entering her murderous mode, but adhering to the Marvel mould means that this is the hero’s tale and the title character gets the lion’s share of screen time. In this case, it’s a fair tradeoff because Hemsworth has never been so loose in his signature role and never nearly as funny.
He’s an absolute delight from the start, casually narrating a predicament his character has found himself in before launching into a fun opening action sequence, and by the time he gets thrown off course to a junk-filled planet where he’s forced to fight foes in a gladiatorial arena, the movie makes the wise choice to be completely committed to comedic craziness, playing directly to Hemsworth’s strengths.
On this new planet, Waititi introduces Korg, a physically imposing alien comprised of rocks and a fellow gladiatorial participant that shows Thor the ropes in this prison run by the eccentric and eclectically robed Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, as gleefully Goldblum-y as ever). Voiced by Waititi himself, Korg looks like a dangerous monster, but sounds like a laidback Kiwi. He’s basically the movie’s super-quipping secret weapon, spewing hilarious non-sequiturs every chance he gets with topics ranging from whatever gooey substance is being secreted by his mute alien pal to a revolution that failed due to a botched pamphlet print job. Korg, like Thor, has a warmly enjoyable presence, which enables Waititi to hit his huggable target of making a cozily cool celebration of charm and charisma.
Added to the motley crew are newcomer Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), a tough, hard-drinking scavenger trying to outrun her past, and none other than Thor’s Avengers colleague Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, with the help of much CGI of course). The latter’s presence is a prime example of how comfortable Marvel’s creative team is at paving the path for future adventures.
Hulk hasn’t been seen in a Marvel movie since 2015’s Age of Ultron and since the character hasn’t been granted his own spin-off franchise since Ruffalo joined, he needs to be incorporated into the plot somewhere along the way before worlds clash in next summer’s franchise-amalgamating Infinity War. The cosmic reach of the Thor series makes it a good fit and so Ragnarok becomes something of a buddy picture once the two Avengers heroes get together.
But while the real reason for Hulk’s use in the movie can easily be charted on a connect-the-dots map of Marvel’s ever-expanding universe, Waititi makes him an invaluable part of the experience instead of awkwardly shoehorning the green behemoth into the story. The banter between Thor and Hulk (and Thor and Hulk’s alter-ego Banner) is one of the movie’s main selling points, an extremely entertaining examination of exorbitant egos executed endearingly.
Marvel’s ability to weave its world-building through the narrative fabric of multiple franchises is impressive specifically because they make it all look so easy. They don’t hide the fact that this is all a very manual procedure to rotate the cogs of the movie-making machine in order to generate enough story for myriad sequels to come, but their efforts are beginning to adopt an organic quality that belies the overarching franchise’s status as one of the most meticulously planned undertakings in blockbuster history.
The pieces of the puzzle connect and that’s a goal that has eluded many cinematic series, which in itself makes a third Thor movie that operates as a sort-of Hulk movie and a bridge between Avengers movies a rather successful event. Like with most things Marvel, the lingering taste isn’t meant to last, only to satiate the viewer until the next chapter can pick up the story and reinject some flavour. So at least this Thor has enough syrupy sweetness that its candy-coated creativity goes down smoothly, grinning and grooving all the way.