Opening Friday, Nov. 3
There’s a short sequence early in Thor: Ragnarok in which an Asgardian acting troupe plays out the events of 2013’s Thor: The Dark World. The scene is framed as a lark, from its dialogue to the cameos from famous actors playing Thor, Loki, and Odin, which I won’t spoil. It’s also a sidelong admission that the Thor, nay, the entire Avengers franchise, had become too stodgy—self-parodies in which dour characters yammer away, with faux gravity, about Infinity Stones and interstellar realms.
Thor: Ragnarok is the fun(ny) Guardians of the Galaxy sequel we didn’t get earlier this year. New Zealand director Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) retools the Thor universe around a band of castoffs enveloped in classic rock and Loki’s wicked wit. “I am Thor, god of thunder, son of Odin and defender of Asgard!” Thor (Chris Hemsworth) bellows, just before being unceremoniously zapped into submission by a doohickey attached to his neck by a random mercenary. Moreover, the film accelerates the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s turn toward irreverent fare, which began with the first Guardians and continued through Ant-Man and Spider-Man: Homecoming. The result is one of the breeziest and best Marvel movies yet.
When Odin (Anthony Hopkins) passes into the afterlife, it leaves Asgard vulnerable to destruction during the prophesied apocalyptic Ragnarök. The immediate danger comes from Hela (a vamping, scene-chewing Cate Blanchett), the powerful firstborn Odin locked away because of her insatiable ambitions. Hela smashes Thor’s hammer, then sends him and their trickster brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), careening off the Bifröst Bridge and onto Sakaar, a junkyard planet ruled by the foppish Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, in full bloom) and lacquered to a retro Flash Gordon-like sheen.
While Hela wreaks havoc back on Asgard, Thor is captured by a bounty hunter with a backstory (a terrific Tessa Thompson) and conscripted into service as a gladiator. He’s shorn and forced to fight the undefeated champion, which the film’s posters and trailers long ago revealed borrows elements from the “Planet Hulk” comic-book storyline. It’s here that Thor: Ragnarok becomes a buddy road movie, with Thor and Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) as demigods delightfully out of their element.
There’s a welcome feminist undercurrent here not seen in previous MCU entries, detectable in Hela’s omnipotence, the bounty hunter’s nerve, and the reminder that only Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) can tame the Hulk. This turn isn’t the only death and rebirth that Thor: Ragnarok represents. Blessed with less hammer and more humor, it displays the ongoing renovation of the MCU, a realm that is constricting its mythologizing and expanding its diversity (your turn, Black Panther). The film closes on refugees searching for a new homeland, so perhaps there’s more to the prominent use of “Immigrant Song” than a catchy guitar riff. Dumb fun has seldom been so smart.