It’s been six years since Chris Hemsworth’s Thor swaggered onto the MCU scene with charmingly misplaced arrogance and pecks that could crush an Infinity Stone to dust. But lately it feels like the God of Thunder has grown stale: Alan Taylor’s grimly stogy follow-up and an overstuffed Avengers sequel proving that all the Shakespearean haminess and entitled worthiness were starting to lose their appeal.
Thankfully, Thor: Ragnarok is just the bonkers shot in the arm the hammer-twirling superhero required. Gleefully tearing up the rule book for a cape-and-tights adventure, director Taiki Waititi has crafted a colourfully cosmic thrill ride that’s funnier and more uproarious than a modern superhero movie has any right to be.
The director of affectingly funny Kiwi comedies Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi wastes little time in stamping his off-beat style on the Norse god. Things kick-off with a side-splitting prologue in which Thor’s attempts to reason with a fiery demon are constantly interrupted by the twirling of his restraints and the from there delivers belly laughs at every turn.
It’s indicative of a movie that cheerfully brings out the superhero genre’s inherent silliness by undercutting any hint of seriousness or pomposity with a perfectly executed mix of clever, daft and just plain weird gags. Make no mistake, Ragnarok still delivers all the pulse-quickening set-pieces you could desire – it’s just that it’s all imbued with an effervescent sense fun which brings a whole new energy to proceedings.
The God of Thunder likewise feels reinvigorated by this change in tone. Since we last saw him swatting verbose robots in Age of Ultron, Thor’s taken to wandering the cosmos to learn more about the Infinity Stones (or “glowing stoney things” as he calls them). That is until a premonition forces him to return to Asgard – where his brother Loki has dethroned Odin and dumped him in an Earthly retirement home – to head off the threat posed by Cate Blanchett’s invading Hela. After receiving an almighty pasting from the Goddess of Death, Thor is tossed from the Bifrost and finds himself stranded on the junkyard planet Sakaar. There he’s promptly taken hostage, shorn of his cape, his trusty Mjolnir and, most devastatingly of all, his flowing golden locks, before being thrown into the gladiatorial pits to fight for his freedom.
Being stripped of his defining traits proves to be transformative for the buffest of deities. Left with only his fists and wits to survive, we get to see a grittier, wilier Thor, but also a more vulnerable one, which is particularly enticing given his strength is about to be severely tested in terrifying new ways. It also allows Hemsworth to flex the comedic muscles he so handsomely displayed in last year’s Ghostbusters reboot, ditching the fish-out-of-water schtick of previous outings and throwing himself into a much sillier version of Odinson.
And then there’s the big green rage machine. Riffing on the Planet Hulk storyline, Thor is joined in his kaleidoscopic exile by Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, whose stuck in perma-Hulk mode and eking out an existence as Sakaar’s premier tourist attraction. Having developed a broader vocabulary, the strongest Avenger gets more to do than just Hulk smash his way through every scene (though there’s still plenty of destructive force on show) and quickly forms a winning double act as the tightly-wound straightman to Hemsworth’s reckless hero.
Indeed, the movie is stuffed with staggering performances. Tom Hiddleston makes a welcome return as sly mischief maker Loki, who finds himself unexpectedly on the fringes of his brother’s plans after his previous betrayal. Jeff Goldblum is at his most flamboyant as Sakaar’s eccentric overlord the Grandmaster. Tessa Thompson is an impressive addition, playing an ale-swigging Asgardian warrior-turned-scavenger. Meanwhile, Waititi almost steals the entire movie with an hilarious turn as softly spoken Kronan gladiator Korg whose heartfelt commentary results in some of the best lines.wits
But true to Marvel form, the villain fails to inspire. Blanchett is a certainly striking presence, looking for all the world like Marlyn Manson’s stroppy sister with her smudged eyeliner and twisted headdress, and poses a significant threat with her superior strength and ability to conjure razor sharp weapons out of thin air. Yet she’s underused, her motive for invading Asgard never fully fleshed out and little being made of her complex connection to Thor’s family. Her scenes rarely move the action forward and serve only as an unwelcome distraction from the bombastic joys of Thor’s off-world hijnks.
That’s ultimately where Ragnarok falters: when it’s forced to be a straight-forward superhero movie. Though the plot is far from slight – dealing with massacres, slavery, refugees and the small matter of the end of days – attempts to reach the heavier emotional beats are hampered by the constant barrage of gags that are fired towards us. It feels like the movie spends so much time goofing across the universe that there’s little time left for character building or emotional depth. With the stakes made to feel so low, it’s hardly shocking that the climatic showdown lacks gravity – and not just because Waititi can’t help but resort to the usual Giant CGI Thing cliche.
Nevertheless, Thor: Ragnarok is a delirious carnival of psychaedelic colour and bonkers entertainment that offers a fresh, invigorating look at one of the most popular Avengers. If only Waititi has resisted the urge to revert to formula in the final third…
Runtime: 130 mins (approx.)
Director: Taiki Waititi
Screenwriters: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Jeff Goldblum, Cate Blanchett