*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Taika Waititi
STARS Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston
Suddenly, everyone’s a comedian.
Marvel movies have always plopped heaping servings of humor on top of the expected action and mythmaking, but Thor: Ragnarok dials up the laugh track to heretofore untested decibel levels. This is Asgard by way of The Comedy Store, an approach inspired not so much by previous Avengers-related entries but by Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy. Those saucy superhero outings earned praise for their irreverence and go-for-broke jokes, so it’s not surprising that one of the more traditional franchise threads has opted to similarly amplify the nyuks. To that end, the studio suits even hired a comedian — What We Do in the Shadows’ Taika Waititi — to serve as director. The result is a rollicking adventure yarn sure to delight the faithful, and the picture emerges as arguably the most satisfying of the Thor trilogy.
At the same time, the perpetual need to go for joke means that there’s not much of a dramatic center to the project. Certainly, there’s nothing comparable to the sober moment in 2012’s The Avengers when a Holocaust survivor stands up to the fascistic Loki (Tom Hiddleston), or the heartbreaking scene in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier when Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) tenderly tends to an elderly Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Even the actors have been instructed to tackle the enterprise as a lark. Only Idris Elba, as Asgardian guardian Heimdall, provides any semblance of gravitas; everyone else appears to be auditioning for a spot on the next season of Saturday Night Live.
Picking up story strands from previous entries, this finds Thor (Chris Hemsworth) still contending with the mischievous antics of his half-brother Loki. Both, however, are confronted with a new threat in the form of the sister they never knew they had: Hela (Cate Blanchett), a fearsome goddess who’s laying waste to Asgard. Their initial effort to stop her ends in failure, and the pair find themselves stranded on a planet where the so-called Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) holds gladiatorial bouts between powerful beings. Cue the appearance by everyone’s favorite not-so-jolly green giant, the incredible Hulk (played by Mark Ruffalo and CGI).
Familiar faces appear throughout the picture — the appearance by Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange ranks as a highlight — but there are several notable newcomers as well. Chief among them is Tessa Thompson, who scores as the fearless Valkyrie, and Goldblum, a hoot as the easily excitable Grandmaster. Blanchett cuts a striking figure in her riot grrrl gear, but Hela ends up being a rather one-note villain.
Hemsworth has already displayed his comic chops in past pictures — he was especially hilarious as the dim-witted Kevin in the engaging Ghostbusters remake — so he has no problem turning the God of Thunder into an occasional god of blunder. Between the actor’s puppy-dog demeanor and his character’s farcical bewilderment, Hemsworth and Thor are, naturally enough, the primary reasons that Ragnarok rocks.