Movie Review: ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

Charlotte, N.C. – “Thor: Ragnarok” is arguably the funniest Marvel movie to date.

The latest comic-book extravaganza brings a self-aware silliness to the character along with a heaping dose of childlike imagination. It’s all the things typically associated with the films of Taika Waititi. The New Zealand born filmmaker, behind such pictures as “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and “What We Do in The Shadows”, brings his own unique sensibility, which is all the more impressive considering how much of the Marvel brand is built on tonal consistency.

“Thor: Ragnarok” marks the third solo outing for the character and it’s easily the most entertaining to date. Of course that claim is a little of a loaded complement; the character has not transitioned as well to standalone pictures as say Iron Man or Captain America. Thor’s worked well as a supporting player in both “Avengers” movies but Marvel has never really managed to make the character that compelling on his own.

The previous “Thor” movies saw Kenneth Branagh bring his knack for Shakespearian dialogue and royal drama, while Alan Taylor leaned heavily more heavily into fantasy aspects of the comic in the second film. The key difference between the first two and Waititi’s is a sense of humor about the character as a whole. Sure, Branagh brought in some fish-out-of-water comedy with Thor being banished to earth, but he also clearly saw the family dynamic between gods as a kind of comic-book “Hamlet”.

Waititi embraces much of the character’s silliness, making “Thor: Ragnarok” feel more in line with “Guardians of the Galaxy” than the other “Thor” pictures. This time around, the god of thunder finds himself stranded on an alien planet while Hela, the goddess of death, wreaks havoc on his home world of Asgard. In his quest to return home, Thor recruits the assistance of the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who now lives as an intergalactic gladiator on the same planet, a drunken Asgardian warrior named Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), and the mischievous Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

Everyone involved clearly knows what kind of movie they are making and, like Waititi, is willing to embrace the silliness while winking at the camera. Nowhere is this more present than in star Chris Hemsworth, who’s certainly been funny before but never given this much screen time to flex those chops. Hemsworth knowingly plays into the perception of being this perfect male physique. He’s found a way to make Thor a lovably over-confident jock who becomes humorously embarrassed when he’s upstaged. It’s a kind of performance that reminded me of Kurt Russell in “Big Trouble in Little China” or Channing Tatum in “21 Jump Street”.

You also have to give credit to Cate Blanchett in the villain role. It’s a part we’ve seen a thousand times in a dozen other Marvel movies; a godlike being who wants to destroy world for no other reason than she simply can. Yet, Blanchett takes it as an opportunity to go over-the-top in a way that is immensely enjoyable. Like everyone else in this movie, she’s winking at the camera.

In anyone else’s hands this movie probably would have teetered on self-parody but “Thor: Ragnarok” is not a farce of superhero movies or this particular character. There’s an acknowledgment of camp but it’s lovingly embraced. It almost feels as though you’re watching a Saturday cartoon serial brought to life. The set pieces and comedic moments all have the same spontaneous imagination as a child playing make-believe. It’s not hard to picture an 8-year-old Waititi sitting down with his action figures and coming up with something as wild as the Hulk fighting a giant wolf.

However, what keeps “Ragnarok” from being a truly great movie is the concentration of  spontaneous creativity to a single section of the movie. While the scenes in Asgard, such as the one with Hulk mentioned above, are certainly entertaining, they don’t draw nearly as much attention as the one’s on the planet of Sakaar. It’s there Waititi really gets to really let his freak fly, creating a kind of tripey Flash Gordon with dry goofy dialogue.

I’d also be hard pressed not to mention the obvious moments of actors simply standing in front of a green screen. The scene of Thor facing off against Hulk in a gladiator match is certainly fun but it’s painfully clear Hemsworth is the only thing on screen not rendered in a computer. One would think a studio with as much money to throw around as Marvel could generate an effects heavy sequence like this that felt a little more life-like.

That being said, “Thor: Ragnarok” remains infectiously fun and Waititi’s imprint is clearly felt on most of the picture. At a time when comic-book movies can be a little repetitive or plot heavy, it’s nice to see one that’s so comfortable being laid back and funny. There’s no obsession with universe building or desire to set up five more movies, just an effort to be as enjoyably fun as possible

Grade: B