The End of the World Is a Ton of Fun in ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

Despite an abundance of epics within the comics they’re based on, the Thor films never really took off like the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe did. Perhaps placing the otherworldliness of Norse mythology in a real-world context—as seen through the lens of Jack Kirby and Walt Simonson—stretched the suspension of disbelief just a wee bit too far. For its third installment, however, the studio found a great solution: if we can’t make it somewhat realistic, at least we can make it a whole lot of fun.

For this task, Taika Waititi is the absolute perfect choice for a director. Through the cult favorite vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi had already proven he could wring wry humor out of fantastical elements. Still, he seemed like an unorthodox choice for a huge blockbuster superhero film. Marvel’s gamble couldn’t have panned out better. Waititi even uses a smart trick to sneak in a signature scene of his: without actually breaking the fourth wall, Thor talks directly into the camera in the film’s opening shot, strongly reminiscent of both Waititi’s earlier films and the hilarious #TeamThor shorts he directed.

From then on, the film moves into a relentless pace, with its first three major scenes taking place on three different worlds, and featuring a play-within-the-film full of star cameos. Besides its genuinely funny jokes, the film benefits greatly from having much of Marvel’s toy box on the table and the fact that audiences are familiar with most of the pieces in it. If it makes sense to have Dr. Strange in a scene, you can now just throw Dr. Strange in that scene, without having it feel shoehorned, or slowing the tempo by explaining who this guy is.

Of all the various worlds in the film, it’s the fourth one, Sakaar (rather than Asgard) that shines brightest. It’s a cross between the junkyard planet from the 1986 Transformers animated movie and ancient Rome, with a deliciously off-kilter Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster as its emperor. It’s easy to imagine Waititi’s direction to Goldblum as something along the lines of “have fun with it, and just do a lot of Jeff Goldblum-y stuff.”

The design of his costume is relatively faithful to the source material, although the film actually puts more of a Jack Kirby spin on it than its comics counterpart does. Which is a great idea, because every single thing on Sakaar looks like it came straight out of a Kirby drawing. From the technology they use to each doorway, bit of furniture, or decoration adorning walls—even the semi-skirts its guardians wear and the weapons they carry. Kirby’s aesthetic is all over this planet, as if the King of Comics himself oversaw the art direction from beyond the grave.

While Hulk and Thor romp through Sakaar, Cate Blanchett’s Hela is subjugating Asgard, with Keith Urban’s Skurge at her side. Longtime fans of Walt Simonson’s classic run on the Thor comics will be delighted by the depiction of that character, but unfortunately, Cate Blanchett herself is not given much to work with. Sure, she strikes the right menacing tone, nails the evil glare, and provides a very cool visual each time she slicks back her hair to conjure a Kirbyesque war helmet, but like in practically every Marvel film which doesn’t feature Loki as the main villain, she is yet another personification of death/evil/tyranny, bent on destruction, without any particularly interesting character traits or motivations.

A much more layered and interesting character, however, is Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), the estranged elite warrior who drinks just as hard as she kicks ass. Her flashback scene actually looks like one of those overly glorious Renaissance paintings of a mythological battle come to life. When that visual trick is pulled again to great effect later in the film, Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ blasts through the cinema speakers, a track that not only serves as a fitting theme, but something of a thematic template for the film.

Thor: Ragnarok is a wild, joyous, and LOL-inducing film. Spared of pretensions and leaning into the inherent silliness of it all, without ever falling into the trap of spoofing it, Taika Waititi finds the perfect balance to make a great action comedy that’s the best Thor, and the best Hulk movie so far. A not to be ignored part of the film’s success is Waititi’s own role as the alien Korg, a large creature made of rocks, yet possessing the mild-mannered voice of a New Zealand comedian with expert timing.

The biggest part of it, though, is that this film has a lot of heart, and a great, big ol’ smile on top.

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