Third time’s the charm for the Thor strand of Marvel’s massive movie superhero franchise. While Kenneth Branagh’s Thor and Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World have their charms and their fans, both lacked that je ne sais quoi that separates the high host of superhero films from the rank and file. This latest offering, Thor: Ragnarok, tries to course correct by drafting in director Taika Waititi (Boy, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) to lean into the comedic elements, and it works a treat.
Ragnarok sees our lightning-swinging hero (Chris Hemsworth) banished to the far-flung planet of Sakaar where he’s forced by an alien despot, The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum at his saturnine, eccentric finest) to battle in the gladiatorial arena against his champion – who turns out to be none other than the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), lost at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron and making a life for himself crushing skulls at the far end of the universe.
The big green guy is not the only familiar face in the mix – treacherous Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has wormed his way into a position of esteem in the Grandmaster’s court, and there’s also Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), once one of Odin’s chosen elite warriors, now a booze-hungry bounty hunter. Hopefully the Thunder God can win them to his cause and stage a Spartacus-style revolt quick smart, because he really needs to get back to Asgard, where goddess of death Hela (a slinky Cate Blanchett, clearly having All The Fun) has installed herself as ruler, and is oppressing the populace with the help of the Cockney-accented traitor, Skurge (Karl Urban).
That sounds like it has all the makings of a portentous, ponderous, self-serious sci-fi epic, and perhaps in other hands it would have, but Ragnarok is, first and foremost, a comedy. Waititi goes out of his way – indeed, sometimes far out of his way – to undercut the more stentorian, Wagnerian elements with his trademark deadpan Kiwi humour, which pairs nicely with Hemsworth’s impressive comedic chops. Every iconic shot is balanced with a self-deprecating one-liner, every big action beat includes one or more Stooges-worthy pratfall (look for Ruffalo’s brave leap into danger in the back half). There are times when it almost becomes too much, and you want the film to take itself seriously for one damn second.
It works because Taika and his team clearly love this stuff – the whole Frazetta-inflected, Moebius-inspired, ’70s-as-hell, OTT, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, isn’t-Flash-Gordon-amazing lot – which is why the movie is essentially a prog rock album cover come to life. They love this kind of cosmic nonsense in a similar manner to the way Guardians of the Galaxy‘s James Gunn does: a way that knows this is all ridiculous, but it’s still awesome, too. Yes, it’s fun to hear Thor drop non-sequiturs about how much he misses his hammer, Mjolnir, or have Waititi himself voice an alien gladiator in full “sweet as, bro” Kiwi mode, but here’s the Hulk fighting Fenrir, the giant wolf of the apocalypse – look at that!
Ragnarok is so much fun, in fact, that its faults take a while after viewing to land, and even then they’re fairly minor. For one, Anthony Hopkins’ Odin is mercilessly sidelined in a way that is both twee and nonsensical, and involves some of the worst CGI of the whole film. For another, the film is very quick to forgive Loki, who is, lest we forget, both a murderer and a would-be dictator – but let’s face it, Hiddleston is so charismatic, it’s forgivable. Perhaps the biggest issue is the way Ragnarok departs so completely from what has gone before in terms of tone and intent. It’s difficult to view the Thor franchise as a complete whole; rather it’s a series of attempts to “get it right”. You could make the argument that Ragnarok leans too far away from the sturm und drang that has characterised, or at least informed, the previous films, and while that’s not necessarily a deal breaker, it’s a fair observation.
But hey, here’s Tessa Thompson leading an army of women warriors on winged horses! Here’s Cate Blanchett in full supervillain mode!
Thor: Ragnarok is a good time all the time; a big, colourful, action-packed piece of spectacle cinema that’s smart enough not to take itself too seriously, and even smarter not to descend into self-parody. It’s really a joyous piece of cinema, a celebration of all the things that comics in particular and fantasy in general can do better than any other medium or genre, and almost certainly the best time you’ll have at the movies this year.