It’s the third Thor film and the 17th (!) movie in the this Cinematic Universe, but it’s a real marvel that Ragnarok manages to feel fresh in any sense at all. And yet it does: an irreverent kaleidoscope of vividly-realized alien worlds and beings, Ragnarok is a real blast, and often laugh-out-loud funny.
The titular ‘Ragnarok’ means the total destruction of Asgard, something that the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth) has foreseen dreams. But it’s not a giant fire monster that threatens his world: it’s something closer to home, as father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) tells him of a sister he never knew he had.
That sister is Hela (Cate Blanchett), the God of Death, an all-powerful being who seizes control of Asgard while sending Thor and brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) tumbling through space and time. They couldn’t have got a better actress for the role, but the icy queen Hela, whose motives and powers we never quite grasp, doesn’t end Marvel’s streak of unmemorable villains.
But Ragarok is not about the destination, it’s about the journey. And Thor’s drops him right into something like the fan-favorite Planet Hulk storyline seen in the Marvel comics a decade ago, where the Incredible Hulk finds himself the unwitting savior of an alien world.
It’s a shame that Planet Hulk didn’t warrant its own movie – and where is the standalone Ruffalo Hulk film, anyway? – but what we get here is still plenty fun. On the planet Sakaar, the oddball Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) collects and imprisons fighters for gladiatorial battle against his much-loved champion: one of those fighters just happens to be Thor, and the Champion just happens to be the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), last seen hurtling into space in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
A razzle-dazzle spectacle of intergalactic battles, Thor: Ragarok is candy-coated sensory overload; an early scene even references Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. This is more Guardians of the Galaxy than The Avengers – and that’s a good thing.
As the DC movies get darker and darker, the MCU is leaning heavier on getting laughs, much to their advantage. While earlier Marvel movies slipped in the occasional wink and gag, this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spiderman: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok all feel they were designed primarily as comedies.
And rather than lessening the impact of the dramatic scenes, the loose comedic tone enhances it. These movies are inherently silly; when the filmmakers embrace the comic material rather than try to mold it into something else the entire project benefits. The dramatic scenes in Ragnarok work better than the previous two Thor movies because the filmmakers better understand these characters and their worlds.
Even supporting players, like a lone female Asgard-defending Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and a Scurge (Karl Urban), who assists Hela as a matter of self-preservation, get real development and genuine character arcs. There’s only poor Idris Elba, who had little to in the previous two movies and even less here, despite plenty of screen time.
Best of all: Korg, a Thing-like rock monster voiced by director Taika Waititi who delivers deadpan comic relief with aplomb. Rachel House, who starred in the director’s previous films, also gets a scene-stealing comic relief role.
Waititi, the New Zealand director behind What We Do in the Shadows and last year’s acclaimed The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, deserves a lot of the credit for the success of Ragnarok; while Marvel won’t risk giving their directors too much influence, he still manages to get a lot of his eccentric humor in the movie and keep things moving at a breakneck pace.
Of special note here is the score by Mark Mothersbaugh, which is the best music heard in the MCU this side of the well-chosen Guardians of Galaxy mixtapes. His disco-esque retro synth sounds greatly underline the vivid colors and general weirdness seen on the screen, and help this Thor feel fresh even when the story elements feel just a tad stale.
In an early theatrical scene on Asgard, look out for younger brother Luke Hemsworth playing Thor, with Sam Neill as Odin and Matt Damon (!) as Loki. Benedict Cumberbatch, as Doctor Strange, also shows up in a scene that, oddly, repeats the end-credit sequence from his movie.
The expected additional scenes appear during the end credits, though a mid-credit reveal didn’t mean anything to me and a final gag will elicit little more than a smirk for those that have gone the distance (save for fans of Goldblum, who’s a real riot here).