THOR: RAGNAROK * * 1 / 2
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston, Tessa Thompson and Cate Blanchett. Screenplay by Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost and Eric Pearson. Directed by Taika Waititi.
There’s a delightful eighty-minute comedy buried somewhere beneath the pummeling spectacle of Thor: Ragnarok. Directed by droll New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi, this latest installment in Marvel’s never-ending Avengers saga has an adorably off-kilter comic sensibility during the scenes where such a thing is allowed. Sometimes it’s even enchanting. To call this the best Thor movie is I suppose damning with faint praise, as it’d be awfully difficult *not* to be the best Thor movie. But Ragnarok is about as inventive and original as one of these things can probably get away with being, before it has to go back to being the same old shit.
After half-an-hour or so of throat-clearing, cameos and franchise maintenance, the story begins in earnest with Chris Hemsworth’s hunky God of Thunder stranded on a faraway planet called Sakaar. Thor’s lost that silly-looking hammer and finds himself forced to fight as a gladiator for the amusement of the planet’s ruler, played by Jeff Goldblum with a deliciously louche self-regard. This is the most resplendently Goldblum-iest Goldblum performance we’ve seen in ages, all twinkly-eyed narcissism and run-on sentences muttered musically under his breath. Sakaar boasts the retro-kitsch design of the 1980 Flash Gordon with Mark Mothersbaugh’s disco-inflected synthesizer score adding to the throwback charm. I never wanted to leave this place.
We quickly discover that Sakaar’s most beloved gladiatorial champion is a certain big green fella who disappeared into outer space at the end of that awful Ultron movie. (“He’s a friend from work,” the beaming Hemsworth exclaims, with crackerjack comic timing.) Thor’s trickster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has conveniently also somehow wound up on Sakaar, apparently because he’s such a fun character Marvel can’t help but keep putting him in these films even when it doesn’t make any sense for him to be there. Fabulous banter ensues, our heroes enlisting the help of Tessa Thompson’s drunken bounty hunter and a deadpan rock monster with a Kiwi accent (voiced by the director himself) to try and get off this crazy planet. There’s a splendid, giddy nimbleness to these Sakaar scenes, a half-kidding, gee-whiz wonder that at times feels like a $180 million remake of Buckaroo Banzai.
But back on Asgard it’s a whole other story. Literally, *a whole other story* in which Thor and Loki’s long-lost, never-mentioned sister Hela, Goddess of Death, has returned to enslave the Nine Realms. She’s somehow been released from some sort of extra-dimensional prison after Anthony Hopkins’ Odin –having fulfilled the terms of his three-picture contract– dissolves into pixie dust for no reason other than that the screenplay arbitrarily needed him to. Cate Blanchett plays Hela in her most drearily one-note performance since Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, looking sultry in a Jack Kirby headdress while waving her arms in front of greenscreens.
I hate Asgard. It’s a tacky-looking place somehow dull enough to even suck the charisma out of Idris Elba, who returns once again as that all-seeing, dreadlocked blind dude, now placed in charge of rescuing sad sack mortals from Hela’s clutches while Thor and Loki are off having fun across the universe in a much more enjoyable movie. Every time Ragnarok cut back to this miserable storyline I audibly groaned. It’s downright painful to be jerked away from the effervescent clownshow on Sakaar and subjected to stuff like Karl Urban’s tedious mope having a crisis of conscience while Blanchett cuts down hundreds of his countrymen.
The final reels inevitably succumb to what my pal Matt Zoller Seitz diagnosed several years ago as the “things crashing into things” school of superhero cinema, where entire cities get leveled with zero emotional impact and pre-vizzed CGI fireworks displays all bleed together from film to film – which is why when you stumble across a Marvel movie during their constant cable airings it’s sometimes surprisingly difficult to guess which one you’re watching. Ragnarok can’t even be arsed to keep Goldblum’s character in the loop, abruptly abandoning him until after the closing credits.
When crusty old grumps like me whine that there are too many superhero movies, what we’re really complaining about is that they all seem so samey. Thor: Ragnarok is more frustrating than most because it teases and tickles us for a little while with an interstellar Hope and Crosby road comedy starring Thor and the Hulk, then timidly falls back on boring, familiar formulas. In the future I’m going to seriously consider just walking out on these films at the ninety-minute mark, when the stories end.