If you haven’t figured it out yet, Marvel Studios is ridiculously good at crafting crowd-pleasing pabulum. What I hadn’t expected going into Thor: Ragnarok is that Marvel also recognized the validity and necessity of innovating its own model from time to time. To that end, Marvel made one of the most inspired and intelligent decisions in the world of comic book movies by bringing Taika Waititi on board, as his comedic sensibilities and genre bona fides breathe new life into one of Marvel’s most tired franchises. Ragnarok is not only the best Thor movie to date, it’s one of the best Marvel movies, full stop.
Waititi is responsible for two of my favorite movies of the last few years (What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), so it’s not shocking that I loved his take on Thor. What proved to be more revelatory was the fact that his comedic tendencies meshed so well with what has traditionally been a pretty dour series of films. Though the tone of opening scenes created some subtle trepidation, the jokey tenor is almost immediately subsumed by surprisingly competent action-driven set pieces. Perhaps most impressively, Waititi packs more story into the first act of his film than most comic book movies can manage in more than two hours.
Though the story’s nothing to write home about, it does prove to be surprisingly essential in setting up the next Avengers film without leaving the impression that one has been privy to a feature-length exposition dump. And while a passing knowledge of the events of Thor: The Dark World may prove helpful, an ingeniously contrived stage play (complete with some exceptional cameos) recaps enough of the prior film’s storyline to sufficiently familiarize those who couldn’t be bothered. This time around, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is tasked with preventing Ragnarok, a mythical apocalypse set to destroy Asgard. To this end, he recruits shifty brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), but their efforts are derailed when their long-lost sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) strands them on a gladiatorial planet overseen by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Shenanigans predictably ensue.
If the plot mechanics are predominantly perfunctory, powerful performances from an outstanding ensemble overcome the pitfalls of typical comic book movie cliches. Hemsworth and Hiddleston retain the affable chemistry that distinguished the previous Thor movies, with the welcome addition of Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk lending a new wrinkle to their strained sibling dynamic. Blanchett and Goldblum deliver some of the campiest work of their respective careers, to great effect. Idris Elba’s Heimdall is finally given something worthwhile to do, and it was almost sufficient to make me forget about The Dark Tower. But the cast is greater than the sum of its parts, and Waititi is savvy enough to give them all plenty of scenery to chew.
Thor: Ragnarok is potentially the most fun you can have at the movies this week, assuming you’re not looking for anything more than lighthearted entertainment. Waititi’s greatest accomplishment here is to acknowledge that a film about an improbably statuesque Nordic god who speaks with an absurdly affected accent and hits people with a giant hammer is fundamentally silly. By leaning into the inherent ridiculousness of his source material, he’s delivered a film that proves to be both fun and functional without taking itself too seriously. If this is what his version of selling out looks like, I eagerly await his next tentpole picture. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material. Now Playing at AMC Classic River Hills 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville, Strand of Waynesville