by Michael Henley
The Marvel movie franchise has never been more rickety than within its Thor films, quasi-Shakespearean would-be profundities all about the antics of the Norse God of Thunder and his kin. They go down easy enough and have their pleasures, but they are limited ones, since the movies bet much of their capital (too much, if you ask me) on star Chris Hemsworth, who is capable at playing a likable oaf and can swing a magic hammer well, but has not been a good fit for dramatic heavy lifting. It’s not that the ongoing soap opera between Thor, his half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and their father the basso profuno Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is necessarily bad. It’s just that I don’t necessarily…what’s the word? Care.
It’s possible that Marvel might agree with me. For their third Thor film, Ragnarok, they’ve enlisted the help of an accomplished maker of comedies (Taika Watiti, the New Zealand director behind such gems as What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople) and now seem to be tilting the Thor brand decidedly more towards humor. This is a better use of Mr. Hemsworth, who has shown himself to be a real comedian with a gift for self-effacement. And it helps make this third Thor movie sing with a real anarchic spirit. This isn’t great cinema, and doesn’t even distinguish itself as a superior Marvel movie (which at their best can juggle a pirate’s bounty of characters and tones with aplomb). But as Thor movies go, this one is far and away superior.
It is, of course, though, a sequel, and so it reassembles the basic building blocks of previous Thor adventures, only this time deployed with an almost flippant lack of conviction. Watiti livens up some of the early moments, which are dedicated to tying up loose ends from previous movies and also egregiously tying into other Marvel properties, and maybe even giving a cameo or two (the best: one you will absolutely not see coming). But it’s telling that these are some of the weakest elements of the movie: one early scene that reconvenes Thor, Loki and long-lost father Odin is so perfunctory that it borders on aggressively anticlimactic.
This is mere curtain-raiser, though, for the entrance of Hela (Cate Blanchett, in full Bette Davis mode), a horn-decorated slink of a villainess with designs on capturing Asgard with a demon army and conquering the galaxy or somesuch. It’s standard material, lazily developed (the idea that Hela, who has been banished for centuries, is a link to a more bloodthirsty past that has now been hypocritically paved over, is sketched in and then never fleshed out). But Blanchett is always welcome and has some fun with the role, though she’s not given nearly enough screen time.
The movie truly enlivens when Thor is left for dead and accidentally routed to Sakaar, an off-the-grid planet that serves as an intergalactic dump, where circles of energy that look like nothing so much as interdimensional cosmic sphincters pour out garbage from the sky (not for nothing is the largest orifice, later a plot point, dubbed “The Devil’s Anus”). There are glittering cityscapes made of piled refuse, with gladiatorial games overseen by the amiably sociopathic Grandmaster (Jeff Goldbulm, having a ball). In conception, costuming and hairstyling, the Grandmaster seems like a rebooted Caligula festooned in 80’s glam and glitter. This is where Mark Motherbaugh’s superb score, by the way, begins to go nuts, utilizing bonkers electronics not heard since Daft Punk went to Tron.
Anyway. Thor is gang-pressed into the gladiatorial arena, where he must fight the undefeated champion, who is none other than–in what’s clearly considered a twist by the movie, and less so by the marketing campaign–Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Thor is overjoyed to see the big green guy before their fight turns ugly (“Yes!! He’s a friend from work!”), but this is a more-violent-than-ever Hulk, and yet also strangely talkative. Eventually, after a lot of amusing bickering, the two pair up, and this is where the movie’s comic spirit really thrives. Who knew the best way to throw Thor into sharp relief was putting him right next to an even more lovable and dumber lug?
Actually, that’s not fair, because although I kid the Hulk the movie does not. He’s a character Marvel’s never known quite what to do with, but Ragnarok, which hints that Hulk has been “on” ever since he was last seen in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, mines some new veins of pathos with him, showing him a superstar cage fighter on this desperate and scrappy planet, adored by a crowd of fans and pampered in his private chambers, where he sits and stews in his own uncomfortably luxurious sense of unguarded id. At once he seems so unprecedentedly comfortable it feels like decadence. When he finally turns back into poor Bruce Banner, he’s never seemed more lost and broken, nursing a two-year hangover and warding off Thor’s attempts to butter him up. “You’re just using me to get to Hulk,” Banner moans. “You’re a bad friend.”
The mid-section of the movie, on Sakaar, feels like a wild and wooly comic book come to life, teeming with adventure and weird environments and some crazy invention—it owes more than a little to classic Heavy Metal books: fantastical sci-fi adventures that sometimes walked right up to the edge of good taste. My favorite supporting character might be Thor’s friend he meets at the gaming pit, a talking pile of rocks named Korg (voiced by Watiti himself) who is a source of the sort of resigned, sardonic bemusement that the New Zealand accent is somehow most conducive to. Also on planet Sakaar: a slave trader named Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), who was once of Asgard and is now very much of the bottle, with Thompson’s drunken entrance being one of many perfectly-timed sight gags. Despite the heavy roster of talent in this thing, it might be Thompson that steals the movie.
Also on hand, of course, is Hiddleston’s scheming Loki, who exists primarily to get the pride consistently punctured out of him, and occasionally showing a devotion to trickery that is almost admirable, especially in the way he smiles knowingly as he double-crosses himself in the process. And as much as I sometimes tire of Marvel Studio’s insistence of cross-referencing its other works, there’s a moment here, reaching back to Loki’s last encounter with the Hulk (in 2012’s The Avengers), that is a perfect little bit of business and does illustrate the sheer joy of what these little things can do when they’re done right.
Of course, in the end, this is a Marvel comic book movie, so it must end like it always does, with a big battle and a fight to save Asgard, which unfortunately has now been relegated to a series of chinty green screens, and if something happened to it, we wouldn’t really miss it (compare this to Kenneth Branagh’s direction in the first Thor, flawed that it was, that valued persuasive visual spectacle). The fights aren’t really Waititi’s strength, but he peppers in enough funny stuff to keep himself—and us—from falling asleep. There’s references in here—towards the end—to the fact that Marvel has a movie coming out next year. Don’t they always?
So. Does the movie work? It works well enough. I liked its spirit, most of the time. It works especially during that field trip to Sakaar, which is loaded with very funny jokes and a general sense of funkiness, and Goldblum’s Grandmaster is a riot of droll comedy. It doesn’t work as a standalone Marvel movie, and by the end I think we’ve all had just about enough of the towering spires and faux-literate political intrigue of Asgard to last an immortal lifetime. But I admire the movie’s infectious sense of piercing graphic novel pretentiousness and just having some fun. They are called comic books, after all.