In Marvel Studios’ Thor: Ragnarok, Asgard is threatened but Thor is imprisoned on the other side of the universe without his hammer and to escape and save his home world he must fight his former ally and fellow Avenger—the Incredible Hulk.
Marvel movies operate within a fairly narrow band of quality. They’re never going to be truly bad (though some have come close), but they’re never going to be amazingly good either. The trick for the studio now is to find directors who excel in the limited areas where these films are still allowed to be individual. That mostly seems to be comedy - though Edgar Wright leaving Ant-Man after years of development suggests that even there the house style reigns supreme – and in New Zealand director Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) they’ve struck gold.
The Thor series has always been a little wobbly compared to the other first wave Marvel films, Iron Man and Captain America; they’ve survived more on the casting of Chris Hemsworth, whose perfect looks and sly sense of humour couldn’t have been more spot-on for the Thunder God (or rather, the space alien with the name and the powers and the backstory of a Norse god). The character was a perfect fit in the Avengers films but when the time came for him to fly solo in a standalone film, Marvel struggled to nail down exactly how a superhero high fantasy saga should work. With the serious approach having fizzled and the franchise needing to shift more characters into space for the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War, the series has taken a leaf out of the successful Guardians of the Galaxy series and pivoted towards a brightly coloured space-based team-up. The dangling subplot at the end of Thor: The Dark World is brushed off as basically an extended joke, Thor’s never-quite-there love interest Jane Foster is dismissed in another joke, and if it’s starting to sound like this film has a lot of jokes you’re starting to get the idea.
The bad news is that the sluggish plotting that has affected the last few Marvel films is firmly in evidence here. After a gleeful opening scene that reminds us that Thor always has been a swashbuckling adventure hero, and which shunts aside of the aforementioned stale plot points, Thor and his frenemy half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) are faced with a new status quo on Asgard that involves the return of their (previously unmentioned) sister and Goddess of Death Hela (Cate Blanchett). Since she’s unstoppable they fail to stop her, and they end up dumped on the (literal) garbage planet Sakaar, where Thor is captured by an entertainingly drunken warrior (Tessa Thompson).
And then the story pretty much stands still for an hour or so.
The reason why this doesn’t kill the film stone dead the same way that a similar stalled plot did the recent Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is that Waititi is working with a better class of comedy characters (only Anthony Hopkins as Odin isn’t given the chance to get a laugh or two), and giving him space to let his cast be funny is exactly the right way to go. Like a classic sitcom, putting any two of these characters together creates a perfect comedy pairing; even when there’s only one joke there - as when Loki realises he’s on a planet with The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) - it’s a really good one.
The action is the usual fare and largely forgettable (one decent third act twist aside) and the meandering plot occasionally struggles to give the growing cast something useful to do. that said, Idris Elba’s Heimdall does get some badass moments, and Karl Urban’s comedy relief Skurge has a surprisingly moving moral arc. The performances are consistently excellent: Hiddleston skilfully underplays Loki’s usual manic energy to better contrast the craziness all around him; Thompson is a convincing foil for Hemsworth’s buff bod and brazen comedy charm; Ruffalo talks a mile a minute as a rattled Bruce Banner; and Jeff Goldblum, playing the most Jeff Goldblum character possible as Sakaar’s hard-partying despot ruler Grandmaster, is more fun than most movies could handle.
Every chance he gets, Waititi puts his stamp on the material. He voices rock (as in made of actual rock) gladiator Korg in a broad New Zealand accent; Wilderpeople star Rachel House plays Grandmaster’s henchwoman Topaz. And being unafraid to go big for laughs (remember What We Do in the Shadows?) pays off in pretty much every scene set on Sakaar. Increasingly, it’s obvious that much of the Marvel universe works best when it goes big and silly: Thor: Ragnarok is about as big and silly as a Marvel movie is ever going to get.