The mighty Norse god Thor, as played by Chris Hemsworth, is a fun presence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe®, but his last stand-alone film (Thor: The Dark World) was the worst of the franchise. The latest, Thor: Ragnarok, regains its sense of humor and gives Thor plenty of entertaining interaction with others, redeeming this particular thread in the Marvel tapestry. Yet like the thunder god himself, the film is stuck between two worlds: the one where you want to tell a lively fantasy-adventure story, and the one where you have to make it tie in with the other movies.
As foretold by a teaser scene at the end of Doctor Strange, Thor and his mischievous/murderous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) have come to Earth in search of their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), whom Loki deposited here and misplaced. Dad has news: The boys have a sister! An older sister, totally forgot to mention her, sorry! She’s been in space-jail for eons because of her genocidal impulses, but Odin’s imminent death will free her, whereupon she is expected to return to Asgard and unleash a demon that will bring about Ragnarok, aka the Norse apocalypse (like the regular apocalypse, only blonder).
Sure enough, big sis Hela arrives, played by actual space-queen Cate Blanchett and looking every inch like the goddess of death that she is. While racing back to Asgard to protect it from her, however, Thor and Loki are knocked out of the rainbow tunnel and land on a random junk planet run by a Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, now at the stage of his career where he starts playing himself) who befriends Loki and forces Thor to be a gladiator. You’ll never guess who Thor’s opponent is, unless you’ve seen even one second of advertising for the movie, in which case you know it’s the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who’s been here since he left Earth at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The gladiator planet is a comedy goldmine in the hands of director Taiki Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) and screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost (all veterans of Marvel’s TV properties). There is the Grandmaster, of course, in all his Jeff Goldblumian dorkiness, and his bitter assistant (Rachel House). There’s the drunk scavenger (Tessa Thompson) who first captures Thor and turns out to be a fellow Asgardian. There’s Korg (Waititi in a motion-capture suit), a creature made of rocks who welcomes Thor to the gladiator pen and speaks in a polite New Zealand accent. Many people are hit on the head or fall off of things, to the amusement of all. If nothing else, Thor: Raganarok is among the funniest Marvel films.
And there may indeed be nothing else. The action is fine (Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” is used to great effect), the story is fine (though the whole gladiator planet sequence feels like a tangent), the outcome is … typical. As much as Blanchett gives herself to the role of Hela, the character is yet another lackluster villain without interesting dialogue or a long-term purpose, a Monster of the Week. Meanwhile, unsure what to do with a semi-reformed Loki, the film has him stick mostly to brotherly antagonization, which is diverting for now but unsustainable in the long run. But hey, lotsa laffs! You could do worse than a superhero movie that’s merely hilarious.
P.S.: There’s a mid-credits scene setting up the next adventure, and a post-credits scene that’s merely an amusing button on the film you just watched (i.e., you don’t need to stay for it).
Eric D. Snider is the Grandmaster of Portland.