Of all the Marvel heroes thrust into the limelight by Disney’s omnipresent marketing machine, it’s tough to tell how many people would have pegged Thor as their best comedian. The Asgardian hero had a tendency to be rather self serious in the comics, with his Shakespearean affect and epic, universe-spanning storylines. Sure, he would be turned into a frog from time to time, and his Avenger buddies might label him a stick in the mud, but he was a character of honor and dignity first and foremost. When Kenneth Branagh was tasked to bring Thor to the screen in 2011 behind at-the-time predominantly unknown Australian actor Chris Hemsworth, it seemed to make all the sense in the world. Few men could be considered more Shakespearean than Branagh, so of course he would be the one to direct Thor. That film had its fair share of humor, mostly thanks to his Beowulf-esque meal hall hijinks contrasted against modern society, the classic fish out of water situation. Hemsworth is gifted with preternatural comic timing, and has a great rapport with Tom Hiddleston’s trickster brother Loki, leading to Marvel doubling down on the humor with Alan Taylor’s dreadful follow-up, Thor: The Dark World, a mess of tones and styles that wanted to be funny and super serious and accomplished just about nothing beyond providing the worst Marvel movie villain among a very long string of bad Marvel movie villains. But Hemsworth and Hiddleston still managed a fair few laughs, so it appeared that Marvel finally decided to fully commit to the bit and embrace Hemsworth’s comedy chops by hiring Taika Waititi to continue the story with Thor: Ragnarok.
Waititi, the New Zealander who directed What We Do in the Shadows and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, is the purest comedy director that Marvel has ever hired. We’re all plenty used to the Marvel Cinematic Universe house style at this point, but bringing in Waititi, who doesn’t have a single bona fide hit to his name in most of the world, points to the House of Ideas’ desire to amp up the comedy of their most consistently funny hero. And it pays dividends. The story is standard Marvel fare, as Thor is banished to the planet of Sakaar, a futuristic gladiator world overseen by the loopy Grand Master (Jeff Goldblum) after his sister and Goddess of Death Hela (Cate Blanchett) has violently claimed the throne of Asgard. On Sakaar, Thor fights for his freedom against the Grand Master’s champion, who turns out to be The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). In order to save Asgard and the rest of the universe from Hela’s rampage, Thor must bring together Hulk, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and fellow gladiator Korg (Waititi, voicing a CG character) to strike back and prevent Ragnarok from destroying his home. It’s vital that Waititi brings something fresh to this one, as absolutely nothing about the structure of the story is gripping in any way. His first major move, completely abandoning the Earth and his trio of mortal companions. Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings are nowhere to be found (not even mentioned in any way, though the film still manages to to split time between two planets thanks to the addition of Sakaar, which still leads to some clunky pacing from time to time. Sakaar itself comes off as a bit of a half-baked concept, a futuristic city predicated on ancient-Roman style bloodshed, and a heavy departure from its depiction in the comics (Thor: Ragnarok is essentially a mash-up of Walt Simonson’s Surtur storyline and Planet Hulk). It’s engaging, but only so much so. And that’s almost all down to the characters.
As a comedy, though, Thor: Ragnarok is undeniably successful. Working on a script from comic book writing team Chris Yost and Craig Kyle, as well as Eric Pearson, Hemsworth’s chops are well-known at this point, and the spirit of Waititi’s previous films is intact in many of the ancillary characters, played by a legion of Australians and New Zealanders. Obviously, Korg is the clearest example of this, a giant pile of rocks with a meek, sarcastic voice right in line with the roles he’s played in his previous films. He’s a laugh riot here, and a constant delight (the big imposing character with an opposite personality feels very Joss Whedon), though it will be interesting to see how a hero this outrageously wacky would gel with the rest of the MCU, as it seems like he’ll be sticking around for a bit. Not everything works; there are still the same ham-fisted attempts to shoehorn in other Marvel heroes and still do little more than upend momentum, but taken as a whole, this is the most entertaining Marvel release in quite a long time. It’s heartening that you can see and feel Waititi’s fingerprints all over this one. That doesn’t happen enough in blockbusters these days.
That sense of fun is vital for Thor: Ragnarok, as there isn’t all that much to cling to beyond it. Blanchett gets to saunter and sashay and have a ball, but Hela as a character is little more than a sneer and a cool headdress. She’s too withdrawn from Loki and Thor to make their familial relation mean anything. Grand Master is an utterly perplexing oddity (making this, once again, a Marvel movie with a weak set of villains) of a half-character saved by Goldblum’s...Goldblumness, and Anthony Hopkins could not look more disinterested in the whole enterprise of playing Odin if he tried. The action sequences are the same muddled, blurry, chaotic CG parties they have always been, a problem exacerbated by an awful, vertigo-inducing 3D conversion (for the love of God, see this movie in 2D). Waititi, for all his charms, cannot do much about these blemishes, as ingrained as they are in the core of the Marvel style. It’s the price of doing business, a concrete ceiling that even the most powerful authorial voice couldn’t break through. It’s what you do around the margins that counts.
The margins here are pretty darned good. This film is relentlessly charming and breathlessly funny prior to its standard uninspiring beat-em-up explosion fest, and the Marvel folks do right by letting Thor: Ragnarok have some wiggle room to sidle up to being an all-out comedy it’s clearly yearning to be. Hemsworth continues to fly under the radar as perhaps the best of Marvel’s trio of Chrises, and has such easy chemistry with Tess Thompson (whose accent work meanders a bit, but otherwise continues to impress), Hiddleston and both incarnations of Mark Ruffalo that it’s never difficult to watch them do their thing. It’s a huge step up from The Dark World (but that’s not a particularly difficult feat) and more often than not it feels like a Taika Waititi movie trying to break the bonds of its oppressor. It’s perhaps depressing that this is the best we can hope for, but you play the hand that you’re dealt. Thor: Ragnarok is still a win, even if it’s a reserved one.