'Ragnarok' Hurls Thor Headlong Into Comedy ... And It Works

Directed by: Taika Waititi; Runtime: 130 minutes
Grade: B+

It's amazing that Thor: Ragnarok was greenlit by Marvel Studios. While the rampant success of Deadpool proves that superhero movies with a deliberate comedic focus can actually work, there's a world of difference between its relatively low-budget execution of concept and the pressure of hundreds of millions of dollars going into one of the summer's superhero outings. Levity has always worked in Marvel's favor, sure, but that mostly ties into how situational humor and banter break up two hours of buildup toward tentpole action sequences. When What We Do In the Shadows' actor and director Taika Waititi jumped into the pilot seat for the third entry in the Thor universe, the requisite musings emerged as to whether he'd accomplish something similar to what the Russo brothers did with Captain America: Winter Soldier: whether he'd simply mold his sensibilities into the framework and restraints of straightforward blockbuster expectations. Turns out, Waititi has a blast with the end of the world, excelling because of how persistently this Marvel outing doesn't take itself seriously.

As with other superhero films, Thor: Ragnarok underwent some changes throughout development, but the concept of the Norse realm of Asgard being threatened by prophecies of its destruction -- said "ragnarok" -- has stuck around since the beginning. Several years have passed since the events of Thor: The Dark World and Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has embarked on a search for the powerful Infinity Stones, which has made him unaware of the details of what's happened at his homeland. It's revealed that his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), no longer resides there, and that his absence could open Asgard up to being destroyed by fire and cataclysm. Another warning sign of the apocalypse arrives in the form of Hela (Cate Blanchett), Thor's powerful and sinister sister. A cosmic battle ensues between them, which sends the Son of Asgard careening through the universe and onto a faraway, somewhat lawless planet focused on a gladiator-style arena and lorded over by a Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Thor finds himself in a situation where he must battle in this arena, against a familiarly green opponent, to get off the planet and save Asgard.

Beyond her familiar backstory and the way Cate Blanchett rocks that skin-tight suit and elaborate-horned helm while intimidating Asgardians, there isn't very much to Hela's depth and motivations as a villain, hinged on domination and birthright. She possesses just enough of a daunting presence for the intentions of Thor: Ragnarok, though, ensuring that any place or legion of people pose almost no threat, heightened by Blanchett's piercing confidence and embodiment of a family member scorned. This visceral intimidation factor is crucial since so much of the film transpires outside her reach, while glimpses at her progress in Asgard -- and at her influence over Karl Urban's Skurge -- are dropped in between Thor's adventures on a different planet. It's a unique setup: Hela's the villain of the story, yet the superhero's interactions with her and her forces are uniquely sparse throughout the course of the film. Instead, Ragnarok relies on Thor's momentum to get off his current planet and eventually square off with his rival, and her seemingly unconquerable prowess does compelling things with the film's stakes.

It'd be pretty effortless for the magnitude of Hela's power and the seemingly fated collapse of Asgard to be taken seriously, providing yet another end-of-the-world scenario for one of Marvel's films, but the absurd and expansive perils of the situation end up also being ideal for wall-to-wall humor. Where The Dark World lacked the jovial aspects of what made the first film such a hit, Taika Waititi ensures that there's a punchline every stop along the way in Ragnarok, not unlike Hec and Ricky's suspenseful expedition through the Australian forest in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. As Thor wrangles with locals on this new crazy planet and once again interacts with his scheming brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the dialogue -- apparently over three-quarters improvised -- bends and molds around Chris Hemsworth's innate charisma as he arrogantly collides with the obstacles in his way. The humor has the consistency of a straight-up comedy, and Waititi runs into similar benefits and challenges fitting movies with that slant, with some -- most -- jokes landing and others falling flat while trying too hard.

The action in Thor: Ragnarok emerges in what could've been complicated, too-defined blocks separated by this obvious humor, but the tightly-edited vigor of Waititi's somewhat cheesy, ‘80s-twinged craftsmanship give it enough of a flow so that it's a cohesive twist on the "hero's journey". The trials undertaken by Thor eventually toss him into the gladiatorial pit against a foe whom would've made for a brilliant surprise reveal, had Marvel decided to keep it under wraps: Hulk, in all his green and oversized glory. Despite the promo materials basically functioning like boxing posters announcing their brawl, it's a bold, dazzling fusion of computer-generated and practical work that holds onto numerous surprises, and leads well into an extension of the rapport between the two that made their moments from the Avengers films such crowd-pleasing displays. Knowledge that they'll be teaming up sets Ragnarok up for certain expectations, and Waititi both delivers on those and subverts ‘em, playing with concepts from the comics -- Planet Hulk! -- while scurrying around under the quirky authority of a sassy Jeff Goldblum.

Amid those jesterly intentions and structured action, Ragnarok also manages to deepen and deconstruct the lore surrounding Thor and his homeland, introducing the concept of female-warrior Valkyries, hidden chambers of slumbering minions, and the long-foreseen inevitability of Asgard's collapse. Director Waititi funnels new and old characters -- the boozy badass played by Tessa Thompson; Idris Elba's sagely sentinel Heimdall -- into a chaotic, high-stakes finale that smartly blends all these components, in which the heroes' powers both get a jolt of enhancement and grasp their limitations against superior foes. Driven by repeat use of "The Immigrant Song", a fusion of visual techniques that create dreamlike flashbacks, and an unrelenting desire to turn just about everything into a punchline, Thor: Ragnarok ends up feeling like something truly different -- and needed -- from the Marvel creative machine, capitalizing on the risks taken to make such an outlandish, blatantly comical diversion from the norm. Other Marvel movies probably shouldn't emulate it, else it'd become overkill, but it's hard not to get a charge out of this one.

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