2017: a year in which a movie about The Goddess of Death is the gut-busting comedy of the year. Irony has rarely been penned so beautifully, and so surprisingly signed off by a major, family-friendly studio.
Thor: Ragnarok, the latest title in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is as much like its predecessors as Shakespeare is likely to get a staff job at MAD Magazine. As Kevin Feige and company have gotten into the groove of ensuring each of their Marvel efforts is at least decent, they’ve become more willing to make concessions with their directors: If you play by our rules with the grand story, we’ll let you add your personal flourishes.
Enter Taika Waititi, a slap-dash New Zealander with an impeccable ear comedy humor, who wraps up the latest solo-Avenger saga with as much goof and glee as the Walt Disney board of directors could possibly have allowed to befall a fall tentpole release.
This is not Kenneth Branagh’s SuperBard, or Alan Taylor’s “Well, This Script is Downright Boring, Tom Hiddleston, Can You Just Act Your Way Out of this Paper Bag and Make This Interesting?” Ragnarok is a straight up chuckle-fest, peppered with cosmic action and the most audacious oddball tone this side of the Bifrost Bridge. We’d rather not see Waititi sign on for more of these films for originality’s sake (while Ragnarok is oodles of fun, it’s no Hunt for the Wilderpeople). But spending time with Odin’s son has proven to be a worthy use of his talents.
Pairing Chris Hemsworth, whose comic timing and delivery is thoroughly underappreciated, with a director like Waititi produces the same whimsical results as when Channing Tatum decided to let his guard down for Phil Lord and Chris Miller in the 21 Jump Street movies. His Thor is no muttonhead – he’s a sly, pensive warrior who knows how to land a punchline, even when trapped in some otherworldly beast’s fiery cavern or fighting for his life in a battle royale with The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, who finally gets a chance to play his big green guy with some aplomb).
This time, Hiddleston – whose Loki is much-more carefree and less loquacious than in previous iterations – can’t take the film away from his hammer-wielding co-star. After two films that nearly had us rooting for the trickster, Waititi helps Hemsworth lay claim over his dominion by trading the winged helmet for a top hat and a cane. The newcomers all do well. Tessa Thompson is stellar, and might be Marvel’s best-written female character since Joss Whedon added to the story for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Jeff Goldblum gets a role perfectly tailored to his subtle eccentricities, and Waititi, whose motion-capture work as Korg the giant rock monster nearly steals the entire movie. The gentle golem has one line that might well be the funniest joke this year (it will make your face hurt worse than getting a right jab from Bruce Banner’s alter ego).
The film flies by given its length, though, per Marvel tradition, one could argue for a lighting zap here and there to the runtime. And, while the film is a riot, there’s still the weighty central plot regarding Thor and Loki’s sister, Hela, the Goddess of Death. This isn’t exactly from the catalog of Laurel and Hardy, and its here where the film loses a little of its flair.
Cate Blanchett works wonders with a character who’s last name might as well have been MacGuffin. It’s impossible for Blanchett to ever have a bad day at the office, but the role doesn’t call for a great deal of depth.. She’s all at once delightful and disposable, a testament to what the actress can do with any given performance, and further proof that outside of Loki, Marvel has no clue how to develop lasting villains that don’t come from plot twists.
Despite missing a chance to finally correct the MCU’s biggest problem, Thor: Ragnarok is too enjoyable to really give any of its flaws more than a passing mention. With everything going on outside of the theater walls, spending time hanging out and laughing your Asgard off with Chris Hemsworth and the Hulk feels like a high honor and an irresistible getaway.
Waititi’s film might be too slight for some who enjoyed the self-serious bravado of the first two films, but by the time you’re gasping for air at a joke from a rock monster, it won’t matter that much.