“Life is about growth. It’s about change,” counsels Chris Hemsworth’s Thor late in Thor: Ragnarok, and he may as well be speaking about his franchise as a whole, given that his third “solo” outing is anything but the same old thing.
To be sure, there’s an evil villain to be defeated, large-scale warfare to be waged, and some powerful friends (some new, some Avengers) around to lend a helping fist. But under the stewardship of Taika Waititi, the New Zealand director responsible for the vampire-reality-TV farce What We Do in the Shadows and the outlaws-in-the-bush comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople, it’s a Marvel effort like no other, surpassing the jokiness of The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy by turning every single conversation, scene and set piece into a vehicle for absurdity. This PG-13 side of Deadpool, it’s the funniest—and best—superhero film in years.
It was only four months ago that, with Spider-Man: Homecoming, Marvel seemed stuck in a monotonous rut, with wan wit and perfunctory CGI chaos struggling to enliven a typical—and, typical for the studio, visually ho-hum—cinematic template. Not so with Thor: Ragnarok, which from its opening sets a new tone for the character, whose previous big-screen appearances have only briefly (see: Avengers: Age of Ultron) suggested he was more than just a strapping vanilla hunk. Here, trapped in a cage chatting with a skeleton, and then dangling from a chain wrapped around his torso while bantering with a fiery demon—during which he asks his adversary to stop blabbing when his chains spin him around the wrong way—Hemsworth’s Thor is immediately established as an amusing blowhard doofus, one with the demeanor of a cheery, overeager puppy and the gee-whiz clumsiness of vintage Chevy Chase.
After defeating that titanic brute, Thor learns that his ne’er-do-well brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has usurped his father Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) authority back home on Asgard. To make matters worse, Thor quickly suffers a personal tragedy and is then forced to confront the older sister he never knew he had: Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death, who was imprisoned years ago by Odin because of her world-conquering ambition, and who Blanchett embodies as a cocky, quippy harbinger of doom in a black bodysuit and a multi-pronged headdress that makes her look like the love child of the Grim Reaper and Medusa. On her way back to Asgard, where she plans to bring about “Ragnarok” (aka the apocalypse), Hela casts Thor and Loki off into the far reaches of space, where the former soon finds himself devoid of his hammer, his trademark long hair, and his claim on the throne.
And that’s when the real fun starts.
Thor and Loki’s destination winds up being Sakaar, a garbage-strewn urban planet ruled by the fickle Grandmaster, who’s played by Jeff Goldblum in full-on Goldblumian glory. The Grandmaster is a chipper, talkative sovereign who has no problem dispatching prisoners with his “Melting Stick,” and who loves overseeing games at his coliseum, where combatants fight—to the death, usually—against his beloved champion. That becomes Thor’s fate as well, after being captured and sold to the Grandmaster by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), a wayward Asgardian soldier who prefers making cash and getting drunk to fulfilling her noble calling. After much droll repartee, including with a strange rock-creature named Korg (Waititi), Thor finds himself center stage in the arena, where he’s surprised and excited to discover that his gladiatorial enemy is his furious old Avengers mate, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo)—who, besides now existing in a permanent green state, can also speak.
The Hulk’s newfound voice is that of a petulant teenager, and like every other one found in Thor: Ragnarok, it’s employed for constant witty back-and-forths; there are only a few moments in Waititi’s 130-minute-long film that aren’t stuffed full of loony exchanges and asides. Working from Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost’s script, the director never wastes an opportunity to make a fool of his characters—at one point, Thor conveys Loki’s untrustworthiness with the most random, ridiculous anecdote in Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) history—or to just go over-the-top silly, as when Thor names his makeshift band of do-gooders “The Revengers.” Or when Korg, somewhat perplexed by Thor’s means of flight, asks, “Oh my god, the hammer pulled you off?” Or when another character dubs an intergalactic portal through which the heroes must travel “The Devil’s Anus.”
Thor: Ragnarok is plotted like a pinball game, frantically bouncing from one point of interest to another, each more brightly colored and crazily cartoonish than the last. One might expect such a wild structure to grow wearisome, and yet within each scene, Waititi takes enough time establishing character dynamics—often via one-liners—that the proceedings feel zippy without ever coming across as rushed. A collection of cameos from both familiar and unanticipated faces further keeps the energy high, delivering even more humorous diversity to a superhero adventure defined by its generosity of spirit. Waititi generates laughs from a wide variety of character-interaction combinations, pairing off his protagonists to consistently rewarding ends. And he elicits performances that, dialed into his weirdo wavelength, are universally charming—with particular punch provided by the swaggering Thompson, whose brash twinkle in her eye makes her an apt foil for Hemsworth, and who (along with a captivating, if somewhat underutilized, Blanchett) injects some welcome female ferocity into the aggro Marvel arena.
Waititi doesn’t disappoint when it comes to serving up the rock-‘em, sock-‘em goods, although his conventional gestures are secondary. What makes his clashes—and his film—stand out is sheer, unadulterated aesthetic and comedic extravagance. Replete with slow-mo shots of sword-wielding female warriors astride winged horses, and of mythic alien commandos leaping downward toward hordes of opponents while firing machine guns, Thor: Ragnarok is like an issue of Heavy Metal magazine come to demented, delirious life. Amidst its kaleidoscopic insanity, it champions the notion that everything changes: people, family, destinies, and even one’s definition of home. Here’s hoping that, in the process, Waititi’s go-for-broke blockbuster also transforms the increasingly formulaic MCU itself.