THOR: RAGNAROK treads a very thin line. It’s really funny; probably laugh for laugh the funniest of all the Marvel films, including James Gunn’s masterful GUARDIANS offerings and Peyton Reed’s ANT-MAN, which featured no small comedy cred with its screenplay from Adam McKay and Paul Rudd.
And yet, in terms of scale and of stakes, this is also one of the larger Marvel films. Big things are happening here, with characters and realms that have been firmly established parts of the Marvel Universe since the beginning in serious jeopardy. Is it possible to treat those potential losses seriously and with respect while at the same time delivering the funniest Marvel film yet?
It turns out, yes. That’s what director Taika Waititi has done here, with a film that not only pays tribute to the THOR films that have come before, but isn’t afraid to turn that world on its head with startling revelations and absolutely no fear of change. When Hela the Goddess of Death invades Asgard, Thor is cast into deep-space exile and finds himself on a far-off gladiator world ruled by the Grandmaster, where he’s forced to face off against his fellow Avenger the Hulk, and I will say no more because the various delights of this film, both comedic and dramatic, are too sweet to be spoiled herein.
The key to pulling off a little piece of magic like this is making sure that the humor comes from your characters, but not at the expense of your characters. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Chris Hemsworth seems more at ease in the skin of his character here than ever before, just as noble and powerful (and who knew Thor’s fight scenes should always be set to Led Zeppelin?), but now even more naturally charming and funny. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki remains as much the secret weapon of these films as ever (although he does seem a bit more physically imposing these days compared to when the series began, no doubt thanks to his more recent leading-man runs in big summertime fare like KONG: SKULL ISLAND), with one or two huge laugh-out-loud moments that absolutely bring down the house.
In fact, from top to bottom, all the performances here are great. Jeff Goldblum provides the Jeff Goldblummiest Grandmaster anyone could have imagined, and it totally works. Tessa Thompson provides just the right mix of badassery and vulnerability in her turn as the Valkyrie (let’s hope we see her again in future films). Karl Urban makes the most of an underexposed part with his Skurge the Executioner, but at least got the opportunity to bring the character’s most iconic moment to life. And Mark Ruffalo not only brings back his note-perfect Bruce Banner, but gives us his most nuanced, interesting Hulk yet, certainly not talkative, but much more like the Hulk of the beloved comics of my youth, equal parts sulky toddler and raging behemoth. And in a callback to one of the earlier films that lets Ruffalo demonstrate the Hulk’s still-broken heart, well, mine broke a little too.
But far and away, the movie is stolen by Cate Blanchett as Hela, immediately one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best villains by a mile, who owns the screen every second she’s on it. And I was also pleasantly surprised at how often Hela was shown wearing her enormous Jack Kirby-designed headgear, the character’s trademark in the comics which I assumed would be swept away in the film. Instead Blanchett elegantly sweeps back her hair and calls forth the helmet time after time, and it looks absolutely badass.
There’s so much more here to rave about, from the 1980s-style techno score from DEVO veteran Mark Mothersbaugh to director Waititi’s supporting role as Korg the Stone Man from Saturn, but why let me spoil these things for you? Get to the theatre already — THOR: RAGNAROK is the real deal.