Out of the many branches of the Marvel family tree, Thor’s has long struggled to grow. Most fans would agree that the Norse god’s two standalone films are the least impressive entries in the MCU (at least, outside of The Incredible Hulk), and the box office receipts agree with them. Luckily, in keeping with Phase Three’s dedication to tonal experimentation, Marvel tapped New Zealand comic maestro Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) to lighten things up, and that’s exactly what he did with Thor: Ragnarok. It’s brassy, breezy and gut-bustingly fun; unfortunately, it’s at the expense of the film’s drama and pathos.
Following the events of Age of Ultron and Thor: The Dark World, the titular God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth) searches for his missing father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), who was discreetly overthrown by Thor’s trickster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and dumped on Earth. Upon finding him, however, Thor and Loki must contend with the newly awakened Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death and Odin’s secret firstborn. See, she helped conquer the Nine Realms with Odin eons ago, but was promptly discarded and imprisoned once Odin found her too hawkish for Asgard’s good; now released, Hela plans to take back the throne, overpowering Thor and Loki and throwing them out into space.
Miles and weeks apart, the two land on Sakaar, an interstellar landfill populated by bounty hunters, scavengers, and gladiators who battle in a grand arena for the pleasure of the world’s erstwhile ruler, the theatrical Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). With the help of the long-missing Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who’s spent the last two years in full Hulk mode as the Grandmaster’s gladiatorial champion, and a lost Asgardian Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Thor must find a way off Sakaar and back to Asgard to prevent the dreaded Ragnarok – the destruction of their home.
Right out of the gate, Ragnarok impresses its lighter change in direction: Hemsworth’s performance is loftier, more improvisational (his time on Earth has apparently quickened his wit and added ‘like’ to his vocabulary), the Aussie Adonis getting to flex more of the comedic muscles he exercised in Ghostbusters and Vacation to witty results. The pacing is quicker and the tone is less ostentatious; for instance, “The Immigrant Song” is trotted out not once, but twice as an anthem for the God of Thunder’s ass-kicking marathons. (Side note: Mark Mothersbaugh’s score is a treat, blending James Horner bombast with the blippy synth riffs expected of the Devo alumnus once it gets to the more Guardians-y sections of the film.)
But even with this fresh, clean, new-Thor scent in the air, Ragnarok takes a frustrating amount of time to get to the good stuff. The film’s first act clambers to resolve the lingering plot threads of Dark World as fast as possible (with the help of a slightly stilted cameo by Doctor Strange, a.k.a Benedict Cumberbatch), sinking under the obligation of plot points and characters from previous entries in the MCU.
However, once Hela shows up, Thor’s hammer is pulverized, and he’s dumped on Sakaar, the film’s appeal increases hundredfold. Sakaar’s bulky, clunky, space opera wasteland oozes with homespun charm, combining the glam ostentation of Flash Gordon with a modular bulkiness in its ships and interiors that makes everything onscreen feel built out of dusty Legos (in the best possible way). The occupants are just as loud as the interiors, especially Waititi’s rock-man gladiator/comic relief and Thompson’s brash, no-nonsense Valkyrie, both welcome additions to Thor’s coterie of galactic misfits.
The real star of the film’s new setting, though, is Goldblum’s uh, uh, um, stupendous performance as the Grandmaster, the theatrical impresario of the gladiator arena and leader of Sakaar’s patchwork society. Decked out in golden robes, with a blue soul patch of paint down his lower lip and eyeliner for days, Goldblum prances about the film like a glam rock god, giving the most unabashedly Jeff Goldblum performance he’s ever given. It’s like someone just dressed him up that way and shoved him onto a set, and it’s never disappointing.
Yet for all of its beaming, improvisational glee, Ragnarok can’t help but slide into a tonal mess as it struggles between the baroque, futuristic fantasy world of Asgard and the pulpy, ’80s sci-fi vibe of Sakaar. When it’s putting Thor through the wringer with gladiatorial beatdowns and a delicious back-and-forth with a Hulk that’s all too happy with his interstellar retirement, Ragnarok shines with anarchic spirit. (Ruffalo’s half-sapient Hulk is a real standout.) Unfortunately, the film also begs us to care about the rapidly deteriorating state of affairs in Asgard, which chiefly features Heimdall (Idris Elba) escorting refugees through doors while Blanchett monologues about power and destruction like so many other B-grade Marvel villains.
To her credit, at least Blanchett vamps with the best of them as Hela, a slinky camp goddess who’d probably have a lot in common with Elizabeth Banks’ Rita Repulsa from the recent Power Rangers reboot. Her scenes with Karl Urban’s Skurge, a gruff mercenary in Warhammer 40k armor, evoke The Chronicles of Riddick in an endearing way, especially as she seemingly calculates the extent to which Skurge is actually ready to be her right-hand man. But the cutaways to Asgard just end up disrupting the full-tilt joy of “The Adventures of Thor in The Ice Pirates, Basically.” If you’re going to throw out the playbook, perhaps it’s best to stop cutting back to the stuff that made Thor’s first two movies so tedious in the first place.
Even for a Marvel film, Thor: Ragnarok is a weightless lark, almost to a fault. Waititi has so much fun playing with his toys that, at times, he forgets to offer the proceedings enough import. These are marginal concerns, for at the end of the day Ragnarok aspires to be nothing more than shallow popcorn entertainment, and a chance for Marvel’s black sheep to go out with guns blazing. With this chapter of Thor’s story now largely finished, hopefully the MCU will find more interesting things to do with the God of Thunder.