Back in 2015, I had just seen Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows when it was announced that the New Zealand director was going to helm the third Thor movie. I wondered if it was going to be like that vampire mockumentary comedy and feature the Norse god getting an apartment with other superheroes and having them bitch about who takes out the garbage. I would have been on board with that. Since then, Waititi cemented his place as Oceania’s funniest filmmaker with the even funnier Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and now his Thor: Ragnarok is a showcase for his comic talent on a grand scale.
The story begins with Odin (Anthony Hopkins) passing on to Valhalla but not before warning his sons Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) — who didn’t die at the end of Thor: The Dark World, a revelation that will surprise maybe 0 percent of you — about the threat posed by Hela (Cate Blanchett), the exiled death goddess who is their disowned older sister. Sure enough, as soon as the old man is gone, she returns good and pissed off, intent on taking over Asgard as her birthright. She destroys Thor’s hammer before consigning the brothers to a distant pleasure-loving planet called Sakaar, where Thor is condemned to be a gladiator. With the help of Loki, plus a hard-drinking fallen Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and fellow gladiator the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor has to get back home and avert Ragnarok, the prophesied end of his world.
It was only two years ago in Avengers: Age of Ultron that we started to see what a gifted comic actor Hemsworth is, so it makes eminently good sense for this entire movie to be played as a comedy. The star gives us tasty scenes with Thor hearing about the Valkyries and awkwardly expressing his manly support for women in Asgard’s military (“It’s about time!”) as well as seeing the Hulk naked and reacting by shutting his eyes and saying, “That’s in my brain.” More than just newly vulnerable, Thor acts like a total weenie when he’s forced to get his long hair cut by a Sakaaran flunky (the inevitable Stan Lee). This is so much better than Thor merely being the fish out of water that he was in the early films.
The playful mood has a gratifying loosening-up effect on the whole cast, especially Hiddleston — surely the god of mischief should have a sense of humor. Karl Urban gets a nice showpiece scene early as a henchman trying to impress a couple of Asgardian maidens with some assault rifles he bought in a place called “Tex-aaahzz.” Benedict Cumberbatch turns up as Stephen Strange, playing the wizard as an officious bureaucrat who uses his astral gates to mess with Thor’s and Loki’s heads. Waititi himself turns up as a giant alien warrior made of rocks whose fearsome looks belie his bashful temperament. The interplay among this cast resembles a well-oiled improv troupe’s.
The director layers on some great visual gags, as when Bruce Banner leaps out of a spaceship to transform into the Hulk only for his move not to go according to plan. His writers make Sakaar itself into a funny dystopia, where slaves are referred to as “prisoners with jobs” and indoctrinated with Muzak and a soothing electronic voice saying, “You are appreciated. You are valued. You are loved.” Also, when Thor first returns to Asgard, he finds a bad play about himself being put on. (The Thor in the play is portrayed by the star’s brother, Luke Hemsworth, while Odin and Loki are played by some surprise guests.)
All this would be more than enough, but the director also does a fair job of knitting together all the movie’s different subplots without losing track of any character for too long. While Waititi may not be the best Marvel director when it comes to the action sequences, he does take more care over it than most, especially with the climactic battle when first the good guys and then the bad guys are hemmed in on the narrow bridge leading into Asgard’s capital city. These are definitely good to have, but it’s the shaggy sensibility that the former comic has brought to this least interesting of Marvel’s superhero series that has exploded it into joyous life.
Starring Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo. Directed by Taika Waititi. Written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher L. Yost, based on the comics by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby. Rated PG-13.