'Thor: Ragnarok' Review: Chris Hemsworth's New and Much Improved God of Thunder

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Photo: Marvel Studios

Who among us could have imagined when Sir Kenneth Branagh directed the first Thor movie as a buttoned-up Shakespearian drama, that a key set piece in the franchise's threequel would involve an interdimensional wormhole called The Devil's Anus? Or following the dreary sequel, Thor: The Dark World, with its villainous Dark Elves and their threat of eternal darkness, that one of the antagonists in the third film would be an EDM-spinning DJ?

Marvel Studios, which already had hits this year with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, has established such a solid track record by now that it has the confidence to take big swings. For Thor: Ragnarok, that meant handing the keys to the franchise over to indie film director Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), who seems to have realized that instead of changing Thor to fit the film's mold, he could let the movie be as weird as Thor required.

That meant rebooting the god of thunder himself, with Waititi having gone on record as saying he wanted to make Thor to be the most interesting character in his own film. ("There's no point calling the movie Thor if he's not the coolest thing in it.") Chris Hemsworth, having played the part straight for four previous installments, appears more than game, playing Thor as a bit of a buffoon this time, like a frat boy with his sense of childlike wonderment still fully intact. Hemsworth's comedic timing is ace and, while his physicality has always been significant in playing Thor, it's Hemsworth's knack for physical comedy that shines here. (Though the muscles are still there, too. Thor's triceps are like another character in the movie.)

Cate Blanchett in Thor: Ragnarok
Photo: Marvel Studios

Ragnarok, which in Norse mythology and Marvel canon refers to the end of the world, begins with a recap from Thor (via a *record scratch* "I bet you're wondering how I ended up here..." gag): Following his muddling cave vision in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thor set out across the Nine Realms to investigate his premonition and search for Infinity Stones, misadventures which eventually find him held captive by a fire demon, Surtur.

A good rule of thumb with Marvel movies is it's best to go in as unspoiled as possible so I'll attempt to be somewhat vague with the specific plotting, but after escaping Surtur and returning to Asgard, Thor runs afoul of Hela, the Goddess of Death (played by Cate Blanchett), who has a very specific axe to grind with certain Asgardians. And although Thor is absolutely more interesting than he's ever been, it's stiff competition whether he's the most interesting player in the mix. Blanchett is endlessly watchable as the film's main villain, as deranged as she is sexy. With a sneering smirk and akimbo stance, hip perpetually cocked out, Hela seems simply bored by it all as she decimates entire armies, but Blanchett is having a blast doing it. Her Hela strut is everything.

After Hela destroys Thor's trusted hammer, Mjölnir -- which isn't much of a spoiler since it's shown in all the trailers -- he is dumped from a (non-The Devil's Anus) wormhole on a wackadoodle planet called Sakaar, where a former warrior-turned-bounty hunter, Valykrie -- Tessa Thompson, arguably the real standout of the movie, a prickly antihero, badass and surly, swaggering and so damn cool -- forces Thor to compete in a Tournament of Champions. Overseeing the tourney is The Grandmaster, an ancient being played to fizzy perfection by Jeff Goldblum at his most Jeff Goldblum-y. It is evident from the jump on Ragnarok that Waititi loves banter, and no one does banter better than Goldblum. (The director plays his own supporting role as a rambling rock monster named Korg, who manages to steal off with plenty of the limelight.)

Even if you have only seen a YouTube pre-roll ad for Thor: Ragnarok, you surely know this is about the point when Thor reunites with his "friend from work," Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, also appearing sans mo-cap as Bruce Banner), during a stretch of the film that adapts the fan favorite Planet Hulk comic book run. While the gladiatorial battle better the two Avengers has been a crux in all of the movie's advertising, watching it play out in all its rollicking glory is still properly epic, with more great one-liners than the aforementioned one (all around, the Hulk is pretty darn adorable in this) and plenty of thrilling action. All of the action sequences, really, are impressively built, even as the movie gives in to the temptation to fill the final act with flashing lights and CGI effects. Under Waititi's guidance, it remains focused.

Tom Hiddleston, Tessa Thompson in Thor: Ragnarok
Photo: Marvel Studios

And if Marvel's cinematic universe is becoming increasingly serialized as Phase Three races towards the two-part Avengers finale, this is as much of a self-contained bottle episode as one could possibly be. It, of course, connects back to Age of Ultron and has threads that can be picked up in Infinity War, while doing some leg work to retcon various things in the franchise and in the MCU at large. Waititi also makes use of the toys available to him in Marvel's sandbox as he kicks around the universe, even if it's kind of arbitrary. (As with a superfluous detour to NYC for a cameo by Benedict Cumberbatch's Doctor Strange, first teased in the post-credits scene of his movie.) Still, the movie feels very much like it has a beginning, a middle and an end, telling a complete story with something of an air of finality.

All of which means Ragnarok is a superhero movie and space opera, a comedy and grandiose family drama. (Shifty Loki, played by the duly beloved Tom Hiddleston, and Sir Anthony Hopkins' Odin are on hand.) Which a reasonable person might think means Ragnarok is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. That's how it looked in previews: Thor, but done like Guardians. But this is different. Director James Gunn's Guardians films are as kitschy as they are slick, with Gunn's fingerprints all over the script's jokes. Equally, you feel Waititi and the comedy styling he's perfected in his past work in every bit of Thor: Rangarok. It's quite silly, a kooky, off-kilter adventure flick with oodles of meandering improv. I suppose if quibbles were made about Guardians Vol. 2 feeling overstuffed or disjointed, specifically in regard to the comedy, some of the humor here is undoubtedly immature and scattered. But I just found it all endlessly winning. Thor: Ragnarok, out Nov. 3, is just having so much fun with what it is, relishing in being a big, breezy, laugh out loud space romp.