Thor returns in the colorful, funny ‘Ragnarok’

Thor and the Hulk fight in the arena.

Three stars

Thor: Ragnarok Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett. Directed by Taika Waititi. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.

The range of quality in the movies that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe is fairly narrow. Thanks to strong oversight by producer and Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige, almost every movie his company puts out is pretty good—but rarely either terrible or great.

Thor: Ragnarok, the third movie starring superhero and Norse god of thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth), is neither terrible nor great, although it’s a definite improvement over the previous two Thor movies. Director Taika Waititi, known for quirky comedies What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, along with his work on Flight of the Conchords, gets to play with the established MCU format a bit, without deviating significantly from what Marvel movies do best.

Part of the problem with the previous Thor movies is that Thor himself, an essentially immortal being from a mystical realm, is hard to relate to as a protagonist, never really seeming like he’s in much danger even when the world is potentially ending around him. He’s worked better as a member of an ensemble in the Avengers movies, and here Waititi and screenwriters Craig Kyle, Christopher L. Yost and Eric Pearson surround Thor with plenty of colorful, more flawed supporting characters, freeing him from having to carry the entire movie. There’s still a villain with a half-baked plan to conquer and/or end the universe (Cate Blanchett, entertaining but underused as Hela, goddess of death), and there are still the requisite CGI-filled battles that often feel weightless. And the first 20 minutes are mostly devoted to addressing plot points from previous Marvel movies.

But Waititi asserts his own off-kilter vision in the middle of the movie, as Thor and his trickster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) are stranded on the remote planet of Sakaar, ruled by the genially sadistic Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, having a grand time), who forces prisoners to fight in gladiator-style contests. There Thor reconnects with old Avengers teammate Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), aka the Hulk, and comes across exiled Asgardian Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), who proves to be a formidable ally (and a promising hero for future Marvel movies). The colorful production design, synth-heavy score by Mark Mothersbaugh, mishmash of alien characters and loose, jokey performances give off a sort of campy Flash Gordon/Barbarella vibe, with a little more self-awareness. Even if the quippy space adventure is itself already an MCU staple (thanks to the Guardians of the Galaxy movies), it’s new to Thor, and Waititi puts his own deadpan spin on it.

While the comedic approach sets Ragnarok apart from the previous two Thor movies, it eventually becomes overkill, with jokes undermining nearly every emotional connection and action scene, as well as the potential menace from Hela. Waititi casts himself (via motion capture) as the rock-covered alien Korg, who serves as comic relief on top of comic relief, making goofy, lowbrow jokes that sound like they come from an entirely different movie. By the time Korg interrupts the movie’s final bonding moment, the humor has fully worn out its welcome.

Before that, though, Waititi creates a fun, relaxed vibe among Thor and his allies, particularly the now more articulate Hulk and the sullen, perpetually drunk Valkyrie. Hemsworth gets a chance to loosen up in his performance, and he still has strong chemistry with Hiddleston as Loki, whose endless double-crosses haven’t quite lost their charm. Both Blanchett and Goldblum fall victim to the MCU’s tendency to undersell its villains, each disappearing for large portions of the story. Everything is still coated in the trademark Marvel sheen, with requisite setup for future adventures. Those will probably be pretty good, too.

Tags: Film
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