Ragnarok, an incontrovertibly bitchin’ word that refers in Norse myth to the final, winner-take-all smackdown between good and evil, is an awfully heavy subtitle for a movie as affably insubstantial as The Mighty Thor’s mighty third.
Catching us up on what your friendly neighborhood Thunder-God (and your friendly neighborhood Incredible Hulk) were doing while they were absent from last year’s Captain America: Civil War, the movie earns the backhanded compliment of being the best Thor picture by an Asgardian mile, and the more sincere one of being not in the least a chore to sit through. It’s funnier and prettier than most of the other Marvel movies, having figured out that adopting the visual palette of Frank Frazetta’s glossy swords n’ monsters n’ muscles fantasy paintings — rather than trying to cross that uncanny valley into photorealism — is a good way to make the wall-to-wall CGI less fatiguing. Half the frames in this film would look right at home airbrushed on the side of a 1978 Ford Econoline “shaggin’ wagon” van, which would almost certainly be blasting Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” a vintage headbanger that the Thor 3 soundtrack Ragna-rocks twice. (I am getting choked up thinking about all the 10-year-olds who will see this thing and shortly thereafter download their very first Led Zep.)
As directed by the ingratiating Kiwi comedian Taika Waititi — he of the hilarious 2014 vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, as well as last year’s charmer Hunt for the Wilderpeople — Ragnarok is, if anything, too eager to puncture any moment of gaseous Lee/Lieber/Kirby super-rhetorical grandiosity with gags and pratfalls; in terms of emotional heft, it makes Spider-Man: Homecoming look like Cries and Whispers. There’s just isn’t much there here. But lo, what there there is is really quite agreeable. Chris Hemsworth, the 34-year-old Aussie who hath wielded the hammer for five movies now (counting two Avengers), has never been better. Neither have his arms.
Hemsworth’s comic mojo is no joke, especially for a guy whose very name was a punchline not too long ago. He’s got scenes opposite Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Tessa Thompson, Mark Ruffalo, and Waititi himself (as a genial political-prisoner alien named Korg) here, among spoilable, Oscar-nominated others. And nobody carries him. He’s performing at their level.
Hems is… worthy.
It’s no fault of his that I project at least a 40 percent likelihood that four months will now I will have to Google this review before I will be able to answer with any certainty whether I saw Thor: Ragnarok. Thy Thor-iad has always been the Crystal Skull Kingdom of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Among the MCU’s 17 entries (!!!) to date, Ragnarok ranks slightly north of middle-of-the-pack. In my unscientific estimation, it’s more enjoyable than either of the Guardians of the Galax-ies (to which it bears a more-than-casual visual and tonal resemblance) but not as stirring as any of the Captains America. But if you’re any kind of a nerd at all, you live to argue this stuff, so your mileage will and should vary.
Still, one cannot help but be pleased to see that Waititi has thrived within the Marvel factory that proved too confining for Baby Driver driver Edgar Wright (who was tapped to make Ant-Man but differed with his bosses creatively) and Wonder Woman Chief Amazon Patty Jenkins (who was hired to make the prior Thor but left, prompting Thor’s onscreen girlfriend, Natalie Portman, to depart the MCU in solidarity). Perhaps Waititi has been the beneficiary of his forebears’ struggles, in the way that younger siblings tend to get an easier ride than the firstborn — which, come to think of it, is the closest thing the Thor films have to a thematic idea. Whatever the reason, the movie is colorful and casual and hunky dory, in the David Bowie-est possible sense. What it lacks in urgency — which is a lot, given that the story involves an extinction-level threat to Asgard and All Who Therein Dwell — it makes up for in alacrity.
The plot, such as it is, involves two worlds seized by despots. Asgard has been invaded by Hela (Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, who is Thor and Trickster Loki’s previously undisclosed big sister. She’s so fearsome she shreds Thor’s hammer like it was a disintegrating unbagged copy of Journey into Mystery No. 83 (Aug. 1962). Before this happens, there’s a funny play-within-the-play in Asgard, which is fair compensation for the tedium of the Asgard stuff. (I am sorry to tell you that Idris Elba is once again exiled to the dullest part of the movie, in Asgard.)
Fortunately, Thor is quickly godnapped away by hard-drinking bounty hunter Tessa Thompson to the trash-planet of Sakaar, a Crayola-set-dressed spin on the Mos Eisley Cantina. (This sizeable segment of the movie borrows heavily from the decade-old “Planet Hulk” comic book story.) Here Goldblum’s Grandmaster is ruler of all he surveys, keeping the bloodlust of the hoi polloi sated through gladitorial contests. (“I tried to start a revolution but I didn’t print enough pamphlets,” is Korg’s explanation of how he was sentenced to fight in the arena. It’s a good line that becomes a great one when filtered through Waititi’s New Zealand accent.) Thor really just wants to snap his aggro verde pal the Hulk back into his nebbishy scientist pal Bruce Banner and get each of them back to their respective homes, but they’re probably going to end up liberating the Sakaarian people on their way off-world because, as Thor frequently has occasion to observe, “That’s what heroes do.”
And this, late in “Phase Three” of the improbably successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, is what Marvel movies do: They entertain wonderfully without leaving much emotional or intellectual residue. This one is more idiosyncratic than most, because it has more slapstick comedy than any superhero movie in history and because it’s the first Marvel to feature a memorable music score. Devo principal Mark Mothersbaugh brought out his analog synthesizers to make this thing even more of a prog/Heavy Metal (magazine) throwback than it already was visually.
Ragnarok is also notable for an unusually high number of bloodless impalings. It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. Actually, one key character does lose an eye and the fun and games barely pause for a moment. At least he’ll be able save a few doubloons (or whatever currency they use in Asgard) by opting for the 2D version of the upcoming two-part finale Avengers: Infinity War.