In some alternate universe, I’d like to see a parlor drama where Chris Hemsworth, Cate Blanchett, and Tom Hiddleston play beautiful, velvet-voiced siblings squabbling over who daddy loves more. Until then, I have Thor: Ragnarok, which tells the action-packed, intergalactic, Marvel-approved version of that story.
This is the third installment of the Thor franchise and, while you can argue whether or not it's the best (I have a soft spot for the Thunder-God-Out-of-Water stylings of the original), it certainly is the most ebullient. Marvel—and the rest of us, for that matter—has finally awakened to the fact that Chris Hemsworth is an excellent comic actor and, in the hands of New Zealand director/actor/wag Taiki Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), he really gets to demonstrate his comedic chops.
In the film’s opening sequence, Thor finds himself in chains, dangling in front of the evil demon Surtur; but as he dangles, he slowly spins. “I’m not even trying to do this!” he says merrily, attempting to scooch back around so he’s facing Surtur. It’s a funny bit of physical comedy and the kind of hero-upending moment that the film is littered with. You can be darn sure that every time Thor attempts to make a hero’s exit—“Cause that’s what heroes do!”—he’ll face some embarrassing impediment. And every time, Hemsworth’s goofy grin adds to the amusement.
In this installment, Thor’s evil older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) has re-emerged to claim her (frankly rightful) place on the Asgardian throne. Of course, Thor has to stop her because, well, evil—but first he must escape the garbage planet Sakaar ruled by the eccentric Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who presides over alien gladiator fights.
In one of the film’s great jokes, Thor encounters Grandmaster’s champion in the gladiator ring and it turns out to be his old buddy Hulk. “Hey, I know him!” Thor says, cheerfully. But the persona of David Banner (Mark Ruffalo) has been long suppressed—this Hulk doesn’t recognize his old Avengers mate and Thor is in for a world of hurt.
The perpetually-glowering Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is around, too—occupying the moral ground somewhere between evil Hela and the purely good Thor. As is always the case, he really just wants to be admired and loved—by his people, by his father (Anthony Hopkins, in an extended cameo), and most of all, by his kid brother—but he can’t get out of his own way.
A great new addition to the cast is Tessa Thompson, as Scrapper 142, once a Valkyrie, a legendary force of Asgardian female warriors, now a hard-drinking bounty hunter for the Grandmaster. She’s cool as hell—and a potential future love-interest for Thor—but Waititi, of course, tweaks her image, as well. When we first meet her, she struts cockily off a space ship, only to fall down drunk off the ramp. Speaking of Waititi, he acts, too, voicing the amusingly droll rock demon named
Waititi generously peppers his film with pop culture references. Sakaar will immediately remind Pixar enthusiasts of WALL-E and the Grandmaster is intentionally reminiscent of Gene Wilder’s playful/malicious Willy Wonka (so much so that “Pure Imagination” plays as Thor is slowly transported to his kingdom). And, whether intentional or not, Thor: Ragnarok, like Guardians of the Galaxy before it, takes many of its tonal cues from Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer—wise-cracking demons, reluctant heroes, insiderish jokes.
The whole cast is great. When you have Idris Elba in a relatively minor role of the all-seeing protector Heimdall, you know your ensemble is stacked. Blachett, giving booming, “bow down to me” speeches to the quivering Asgardian masses, uses her gorgeous instrument to full effect and takes the smoky eye to a whole new level. Goldblum does his wildly entertaining weirdo routine as Grandmaster. I think I’m allowed to tell you that Benedict Cumberbatch makes a brief, clever appearance as Dr. Strange. (Sorry if that was a SPOILER ALERT.)
I liked Thor: Ragnarok. It’s a romp. But it’s also busy and overlong, the CGI is occasionally garish, and and, even in the hands of a director as singular as Waititi, it has the patented Marvel whiff of focus groups and corporate oversight.
And who the hell decided it was okay to cut Thor’s hair? Yes, Hemsworth looks hot with his shorn locks, but this is madness. Thor’s long hair, like his hammer, is non-negotiable. How did the focus groups let that one slide?