Thor, played with a familiar twinkle of jovial regality by Chris Hemsworth, spends the first few minutes of Thor: Ragnarok in chains, hanging sideways in a straitjacket of iron links. Things do not get easier for him. Like Tony Stark in Iron Man 3, the god of thunder will lose his weapon of choice: that mighty hammer of his, reduced to shards with the flick of the villain’s wrist. He will be stranded on an alien world, pitted against friend and foe alike, and even have his flowing locks chopped clean off, like Samson or James Hetfield from Metallica. (Unlike Hetfield, he still looks pretty cool without them.) Ragnarok, the third and easily the best entry in Marvel’s least-loved solo series, succeeds partly because it does something its predecessors never quite could: It makes an ageless space god with the nobility of King Arthur and the bodacious abs of a supermodel look like an underdog. Fallibility, not lightning, is his secret weapon.
The other thing about Thor is that he can be pretty funny: in his outsize physique, in his flared-nostril vanity, in the way his King’s English theatricality clashes with the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Joss Whedon got the humor in the character, even if he never gave him much to do in the crowded ensembles of his Avengers movies. And now so, too, does Taika Waititi, the New Zealand director of What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, recruited to bring his offbeat charm to the MCU. Anyone hoping for a big-budget version of those idiosyncratic Kiwi comedies may be disappointed. For better or worse, Thor: Ragnarok is a Marvel movie, complete with magical MacGuffins, synergistic superhero cameos, a villain less interesting than the heroes, and an overlong CGI-heavy climax featuring giant aircrafts. But over the years, Marvel movies have also basically become zippy ensemble sitcoms, powered by their squabbling personalities, and those are a Waititi speciality.
Ragnarok takes longer than it should to take off. The opening stretch is all tying of loose ends, sending Thor back to his chintzy emerald-kingdom home planet of Asgard, where adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) remains disguised as Odin, just as he was at the end of the little-liked The Dark World. (Anthony Hopkins gets to have some brief hammy fun doing Loki-as-Odin, before reprising the speechifying role of the brothers’ exiled father.) It’s during an elegiac detour in Norway—a scene that bears the blatant imprint of green-screen tinkering—that Ragnarok extends its sci-fi Shakespeare family drama, introducing a new heavy: Thor’s heretofore-unmentioned older sister, Hela, the goddess of death, played by a black-clad, antlered Cate Blanchett, with nearly as much vamping, eye-rolling sarcasm as Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns. Blanchett, like Waititi, could certainly be doing something better with her time and talent, but in lieu of a more menacing or better-written villain, her dripping-with-contempt line readings will do just fine.
As Odin’s first child, Hela sees Asgard as her royal birthright, and the movie’s blockbuster Game Of Thrones conflict hinges on whether it will survive her bloodthirsty reign. (Good riddance to the eyesore, says this writer.) But Thor: Ragnarok blessedly puts off the battle royal. Large portions of the film take place instead in a spectacularly cluttered, Mad Max landfill metropolis, where Thor is taken prisoner by a drunken mercenary “scrapper” (Tessa Thompson) and sold into the gladiatorial ranks of hedonistic aristocrat The Grandmaster (a hilarious Jeff Goldblum, who’s like Jabba The Hutt by way of... well, Jeff Goldblum). Trailers have already ruined the movie’s best delayed reveal: that Thor’s much-feared colosseum competition, spoken about in hushed tones throughout, is none other than not-so-jolly giant The Hulk (a motion-captured Mark Ruffalo), who’s been stuck in mean-green form since the end of Age Of Ultron. But that doesn’t take away the fun of the way Waititi and his team of veteran comic-book-adaptation writers expand Hulk’s vocabulary and personality, reinventing him as a petulant, ill-tempered teenager.
Like Doctor Strange and the recent Guardians Of The Galaxy sequel, Thor: Ragnarok continues to inch the MCU away from its traditional library of stock locations—nondescript hangars and bunkers, abandoned tarmacs, high-tech compounds—and into a weirder, more colorful universe of Jack Kirby-inspired alien landscapes. Waititi, in his first blockbuster gig, draws from ’70s and ’80s sci-fi fantasy, sprinkling in cosmetic hints of Krull, and Dune, and Time Bandits. His action scenes recall not just comic-book splash panels, but also heavy-metal album covers: beefy viking-like warriors leaping into slow-motion battle, dragons tearing across skies, a towering fire demon laying siege to a city. Composer (and one-time Devo crooner) Mark Mothersbaugh augments the rainbow spectacle with grandiose fanfare, throwing a layer of Atari arena-rock synth over a typically sweeping Marvel score. There’s also not one, but two airings of “Immigrant Song” (a classic-rock needle drop as inevitable, and obvious, as Iron Man’s use of “Iron Man,” thanks to that line about the hammer of the gods), and somehow they both work like gangbusters, as though the iconic anthem was written with these good-versus-evil brawls in mind.
But Thor: Ragnarok, with its jabs of reportedly improvised banter, isn’t really an action movie. It’s a round-robin buddy comedy, mismatching Hemsworth’s amiable lug to characters old and new: his treacherous brother, still toeing the line between ally and enemy; Thompson’s playful antihero cynic, a fine addition to the always-growing Marvel family and an agreeable potential love interest, given the absence of Natalie Portman’s written-off-with-a-single-line Jane Foster; and even Waititi himself, exerting his specific auteuristic personality most strongly as a dim, Kiwi-accented rock person, who might count as comic relief in a movie that didn’t turn almost all of its characters into joke machines. The most fruitful pairing, though, is between the thunder god and the big green guy—a relationship that’s been mined for fun in the comics, the old Hulk TV show, and in the first Avengers film, which scored one of its biggest laughs with a punchline sucker-punch. Ragnarok never looks more like its own film, as opposed to another MCU assembly-line product, than when drawing on the antagonistic bond between these twin muscles, bickering in captivity like the bloodsucking roommates of Waititi’s found-footage horror comedy. Both characters deserved a better movie. Now they have one.