- Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
Whether you are in the mood for CGI action or witty chatter, the wildly enjoyable “Thor: Ragnarok” justifies your hard-earned money, your two hours-plus and, indeed, its very existence right up front.
Within five minutes, our briefly imperiled hero chats with a skeleton (it doesn’t reply), blasts out of his chains and hurls himself, slow motion, at an enormous fire demon out of Norse mythology while Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” blasts on the soundtrack.
We are officially in “(Expletive) yeah!” territory, complete with the (occasional hard-guffaw) comedic touches we all hoped New Zealand director Taika Waititi (“What We Do in the Shadows”) would bring to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The MCU movies are generally lighter on their feet than the funereal DC Universe stuff, but “Thor: Ragnarok” is a genuine, no-kidding comedy, with Thor and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) playing out a road movie/buddy picture the likes of which neither of them has ever done and that feels mighty unusual for a superhero tentpole picture. Word has it that Waititi added a good half-hour of jokes (many of which were improvised, Judd Apatow-style) back into the 100-minute, majority-action version that screened at Comic Con.
This was an incredibly good idea. Plot-wise, “Ragnarok” is a bit all over the place both literally and figuratively — it moves back and forth between Earth, Asgard and the cosmos, as if Waititi and screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost are trying on new contexts for the character.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth, flexing the comedy muscles he displayed brilliantly in the “Ghostbusters” remake) has been wandering the cosmos looking for more Infinity Stones, and, man, the second he gets back to Asgard, it’s clear things are just a mess.
The leadership has gone to seed, Odin seems to be having a very off-day and oh, yeah, his long-banished older sister Hela, god of the dead (Cate Blanchett going full Gloria Swanson in spots) has busted out of her realm and is looking to rule Asgard or destroy it trying, hence the Ragnarok (aka Norse mythology’s end times) of the title.
A few fight scenes (and a broken hammer) later and Thor is suddenly on Sakaar, an extremely colorful battle world headed up by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum in full Jeff Goldblum), who stages battles royale starring his heavyweight, who turns out to be (and this isn’t a spoiler to anyone who has seen a trailer or ad) the Hulk, who has been off-planet since the end of “Age of Ultron” (and gained the power to quip and banter, however primitively, in the process).
Will Thor and Hulk figure out they are old pals? Will Hela conquer Asgard? When does Idris Elba show up? Let the games begin!
A few notes for comics nerds: Visually, “Thor: Ragnarok” is by far the most Jack Kirby-inspired entry in the MCU films, and thank Odin for it. Kirby really was one of the late 20th century’s truly inspired visual artists, dynamic and powerful and weird. His signature shapes are all over the place — costumes and masks and ships and guns are suffused with his wild design sense and sure-why-not color palette. This is the Kirby Krackle (Google it) we have been waiting for.
Plot-wise, “Ragnarok” is a mish-mash of images from Walt Simonson’s spectacular 1980s run on “Thor” blended with a terrific 21st century Hulk plot-line called “Planet Hulk” in which the Jade Giant finds himself in gladiatorial exile on another planet.
Bit parts here and there give Thor new folks off which to play. There’s Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), a boozy Asgardian warrior perfectly happy to stay on Sakaar; Korg (a motion-captured Waititi himself), a soft-spoken, self-deprecating rock monster not too far afield from Waititi’s vampire in “What We Do in the Shadows”; and the machine-gun-loving Skurge, played by a slightly underused Karl Urban.
But for the most part, the lion’s share of the banter belongs to Thor, Loki (Tom Hiddleston, still terrific) and Hulk/Bruce Banner — and, weirdly enough for comic book movies, it’s not just played for well-earned laughs but actually indicates an evolution of characters over time.
Where once Thor and Loki were crafted as mortal enemies, here they are just brothers who have long since given up trying to understand each other and choose to work against common threats. It helps that Loki’s moral flexibility (is he a harmless trickster or actually evil?) is baked into the character and that Hiddleston can play Loki any way a director likes.
Ruffalo as Bruce Banner — once all button-down emotional control — gets good and weird here, while his Hulk is all meat-head confidence. Ruffalo, one of the great dramatic film actors of his age, has never been, to put it charitably, the funniest screen presence, but he acquits himself admirably.
Which is to say that “Thor:Ragnarok” is the closest the extremely controlled MCU pictures have come to a movie with an honest-to-Pete auteur’s vision — in this context, Waititi’s loose comic style, which can feel lazy in an Apatow picture, is downright exhilarating when played out against eye-blasting CGI action.
And, yes, when you get the rights to “Immigrant Song,” you use it more than once. Hammer of the gods, indeed.