Director Taika Waititi has taken the drab world of the Thor movies and injected it with a hefty dose of 1980s tone and style. After all, the nine realms of this universe can’t all be dreary Shakespeare (though they seemed to be before now, given how eager the god of thunder was to get back to Earth in his previous solo films). Since there’s no woman or threat to Earth at the moment, the weird worlds of the realms are where we stay for most of Thor: Ragnarok, and it’s one heck of a fun place to be.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) still has family affairs to sort out in the kingdom of Asgard. His trickster brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), has secretly taken over the throne and dumped their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), on Earth. Once the two find him, however, they are told of a new threat on the horizon. As it turns out, in addition to his sons, Odin also has a daughter by the name of Hela (Cate Blanchett), and she wants the throne as well. She’s a sorceress of sorts, complete with a skintight, green-motif outfit and a headdress that looks like it was stolen from Samurai Jack’s Aku. Aside from some silly quips, a few skills in hand-to-hand combat, and the unique ability to crush Thor’s hammer, there’s little in Hela to separate her from the likes of Rita from Power Rangers (2017) or the Enchantress from Suicide Squad.
Thankfully, Thor’s tale diverts from Hela’s invasion of Asgard to escaping a mysterious junker planet of Sakaar, a world that looks as though everything thrown away from 1980s Earth ended up there. Without his hammer, Thor is powerless against the drunken bounty hunter Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and the goofy planet ruler Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). As a silly king who enjoys pitting enslaved warriors against each other in gladiator combat, Goldblum’s character is an absolute joy of a villain, thanks mostly to his natural Goldblumisms, which make him one of the funniest actors alive. He’s also hilariously portrayed in his sci-fi outfits, neon makeup, and desire to cut sick DJ beats at parties.
Thor, naturally, needs to scrounge up some allies on Sakaar. He’s presented with a few but needs to work on them to join his fight for Asgard. Valkyrie once served Asgard under a different military that failed in defeating Hela, but she needs to be convinced she’ll stand a chance. Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) finally turns up, as shown in the trailers, but he’s a little too comfortable as the unbeatable champion of Grandmaster’s arena. He’s at least better composed than he usually is in green form and can have conversations with Thor that involve more than just snarling and growling. In fact, Hulk/Bruce Banner is more than just a cameo role and proves to have great chemistry with Thor for a pair capable of great violence and galactic science—two requirements if you want to survive in the nine realms.
Taika Waititi is known for his more comedic films What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, directing humor that always feels part of the story as opposed to being levity tacked on for the sake of levity. He doesn’t disappoint with Ragnarok in this regard and keeps the story focused without stopping it for stammering or satire. The very idea of the planet Sakaar is fun, as are its citizens, slaves, and garish décor. Waititi manages to find the right moments to inject some silliness without slowing down any of this story. As an example, Thor’s informative introduction to Sakaar and its Grandmaster could have been boring but is made remarkably hilarious when pitched as a virtual-reality ride, complete with a Willy Wonka soundtrack.
The film still adheres to few expected superhero beats. The third act, in particular, comes almost like an obligation to the Marvel formula with a big CGI fight, a telegraphed sacrifice from a turncoat, and the ultimate action cliché of having a female warrior saunter into combat in slow motion. It’s not as irritating considering the great characters and visual style at play, but it does become a little confounding that the climactic action could be so confusing in placement for taking place entirely on a narrow bridge.
I’ve always liked the idea and character of Thor, and Ragnarok finally delivers on all the untapped possibilities of his abstract concepts. What I believe makes the film work so well is that it bypasses many previous Marvel pitfalls: no pointless alien language, no dry doomsday device, no forced tie-in for future Marvel movies (which this film had plenty of opportunities to capitalize on), and no lackluster side stories. Everything in the movie feels as though it has a drive and purpose, from the opening assault on a towering monster of flames to the brief stop at Doctor Strange’s place. Such clarity makes it easier to enjoy the wild sights of Thor smashing spaceships, Hulk fighting a giant wolf, and an armored Karl Urban firing AK-47s at Asgard zombies.