Returning home to Asgard after battling demons in some dimension or other, Thor discovers things aren’t quite as he left them. His apparently dead brother is in charge, having packed dad Odin off to a retirement home on planet Earth. While rescuing him, they’re interrupted by long-lost (and wholly forgotten) Asgardian Hela, AKA the Goddess of Death. She has appropriately wicked plans to avenge herself on her hometown.
Things don’t really get any simpler from that point on. It hardly need be said the plot is never really the point in a comic book movie. This one, directed by Taika Waititi, rattles through detours and diversions and reversals like the most breakneck of sideshow rides – and is about as garishly lit. Like the best rollercoasters, it’s also ridiculous, dizzying fun.
While it’s still more of a Marvel film than a Waititi movie, the New Zealand director’s fingerprints are all over Thor: Ragnarok. For one thing, it’s the first out-and-out-comedy in the franchise.
While Ant Man and (to a greater extent) Guardians of the Galaxy flirted with laughs, Ragnarok is in a committed relationship. From the opening scene, in which Thor explains his predicament to his cellmate (a long-dead skeleton), it’s clear there has been little attempt to reel in the director’s irreverent wit.
This shift in tone suits Chris Hemsworth, whose Thor – with his penchant for portentous, cod-Shakespearean dialogue – has always had the potential to slip into bland, generic hero mode. Here, Thor is more self-aware, talking about himself in the third person, never doubting that he is the hero of the movie and resolute about living up to the responsibilities that come with being a star. For the first time, Hemsworth gets to outshine Tom Hiddleston’s wicked Loki in the comic moments.
Indeed, Waititi gives Hemsworth a series of winning double acts in which he shifts between straight man and funny man. His rapport (or lack of) with the Hulk and his alter-ego (Mark Ruffalo) is fun, but the real zing comes from his sparring with a drunken ex-Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson in what will hopefully be a recurring role).
For we Antipodeans, what is so refreshing about the humour is how familiar it all feels. While Hemsworth is still affecting a slight plum to his accent (less so than before), his Thor feels Aussie as. For a royal god, he’s peculiarly lacking in airs and graces. He’s more your salt of the earth god, a decent (if not intellectually brilliant) bloke who can be trusted to come through in a pinch.
Likewise, there’s a real joy in hearing the sort of accents you don’t usually get to hear in these blockbusters. Having shot the film in Queensland, Waititi has recruited a bunch of Kiwi and Aussie chums to fill the supporting roles whose gentle piss-taking works to ground – rather than undermine – the overblown stakes and neon-coloured alien worlds. (Appearing himself as dumb-as-rocks blue alien Korg, Waititi comes close to stealing the show.)
Ragnarok can go for the big jokes (and outrageous comic turns such as Jeff Goldblum’s), because there’s someone waiting in the wings with some deadpan snark.
The detours, which remove our hero from the main story for a good hour, would sink another film, but the jokes come so fast and relentlessly here that it’s impossible to mind. Indeed, the detour is far more interesting the grim primary plot, in which Cate Blanchett destroys Asgard by gleefully chewing on the scenery.
Which isn’t to say there’s a dearth of drama. Big things happen, with consequences that will change the face of future Marvel flicks. (Thor’s in particular.) But for once the apocalypses don’t drown out the fun, or the inherently human need to crack jokes even when things are at their most dire.
At this point, any change in the Marvel diet is a welcome one. This is less dramatic than a shift from, say, processed to paleo. Instead, it’s more like discovering an improbable new flavour of your favourite potato chip. Thor: Ragnarok might not be brain food. It may not improve your life, but it will likely make it (two hours of it at least) a lot more fun. And, in 2017, we’ll take our fun where we can.
- Opens October 26
- Rated M, 130 minutes