Full disclosure: I’m a weirdo who, upon release, thought the first two Thor films — which most consider the black sheep of the MCU family — were actually pretty great. Both combined this sort of faux Shakespearean tragedy with a flippant sense of humor that I found most appealing in the franchise’s earlier, more restrained days. (And Thor: The Dark World is still the best Superman movie released in decades.) Since then, though, we’ve had Marvel movies that are even more successful at mixing funny with heartfelt — Spider-Man: Homecoming and Guardians of the Galaxy to name two — which took the novelty away from those Thor films, leaving them a bit stranded if you rewatch them now.
Marvel’s answer to this in bringing a third Thor installment to the screen? Eliminating the corny drama, rolling with Chris Hemsworth’s innate goofy side and slamming the comedy pedal to the floor. Whereas Spidey and Guardians were very funny but still recognizably sincere comic-book movies, Thor: Ragnarok is a full-blown farce that’s only intention is to make you laugh, even if that means making one of the universe’s most powerful heroes — a guy who is literally a god — look like a total buffoon for its entire run time. There is no scene in this movie where a joke is sidestepped in favor of an emotional beat or a moment of earnestness. If a laugh can be had, that’s the option chosen by director Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) with little regard for how Thor has been handled as a character in the past.
One side effect of this is that Thor: Ragnarok has no time or care for the events that came before it. Characters and unresolved plotlines from the earlier Thor films are casually swept away in the first 10 minutes of Ragnarok without a care in the world. Might this upset all 14 fans of those two films? It could! Do I find it to be a fair trade-off? Yeah, I think I do, because even though Ragnarok‘s full commitment to absurdity leaves it feeling kind of weightless, it’s also a really, really funny film.
After beginning in media res with a battle against a giant fire demon, the movie has the God of Thunder returning Asgard after a long and fruitless trip searching the galaxy for Infinity Stones. Loki (Tom Hiddlestone) is still on the throne, disguised as Odin, although that situation is quickly rectified as a new threat arises: Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett), has returned and intends to conquer the Nine Realms and beyond. Thor and Loki are booted from Asgard and wind up stranded on Sakaar, a junk-yard planet where a prickly being named the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, basically playing himself) stages epic gladiator throw-downs inside a massive coliseum. Thor is dropped in to fight the current champion, who happens to be — tada! — the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), last seen fleeing Earth on a Quinjet at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron. (There was zero chance of this happening for commercial reasons, but I like to imagine a world where Ruffalo’s involvement in Ragnarok was kept a complete secret and theater crowds didn’t know the Hulk was going to show up until he bursts out of that coliseum door. People would have lost their goddamn minds.)
Needing to get back to Asgard to fight Hera, Thor attempts to team up with Hulk, Loki and a new female warrior named Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, awesome as always) to escape Sakaar and save the universe. His problems? The Hulk hasn’t been Bruce Banner for two years and isn’t very agreeable. Valkyrie is drunk all the time and has a history with Hera she’s not eager to repeat. And Loki is still his usual charming asshole self who can’t be trusted. All of this is played for comedy; all of it. And once Hulk does shrink back down into puny Banner, the movie turns into a buddy comedy where the two heroes spend all their time bickering, complaining about their place in the Avengers hierarchy and trying not to get killed.
Again, all of this is very funny. (That’s the fourth time I’ve included the word “funny” in this review. There may be more coming.) Hemsworth is hilarious. Ruffalo is hilarious. There are punchlines both unexpected and ludicrous. It almost — but not quite — ends up being too much. But I think either Waititi or Marvel uber-producer Kevin Feige knew just how far they could take this without the audience turning on the film. Thor: Ragnarok is also gorgeous, splashing the screen with bright, comic-book colors that will be welcome to those who have seen what James Gunn has been doing with the Guardians films and said, “Yes, all comic-book movies should look like this, not whatever bullshit DC is doing.”
All of this adds up to a lively, largely stand-alone installment in the MCU. (Don’t worry, nerds. There are still tons of little references to Marvel films past.) But you know what? I already get the sense the good times here are going to be a bit overrated by cineastes at large. Ragnarok is NOT top-tier MCU. Hera is by default the best villain ever in a Thor movie because she’s played by Cate Blanchett and has a great design, but honestly? She’s no deeper than The Dark World‘s Malekith, who is routinely mocked for his utter uselessness as a heavy. Hera has a connection to Thor that’s used as shorthand for “this villain matters,” but the film never capitalizes on it in any profound way. And while the movie’s barrage of silly jokes could be compared easily to Groot saying nothing but “I AM GROOT” over and over again in Guardians of the Galaxy, realize that THAT gag pays off emotionally by Groot proclaiming “WE ARE GROOT” when he sacrifices himself at the end of the film. Nothing in Ragnarok pays off like that; each gag just rolls into the next gag which rolls into the next gag until the movie ends. (There are two post-credits stingers. One sucks. The other is yet more funny business.)
All of this is fine, and not every MCU movie has to (or even should) shoot for some type of superhero pathos or poignancy. Don’t go in expecting any of that here. Just expect to laugh early and often, and there’s no way you’ll walk out of the theater disappointed. (Unless, for some reason, you’re a big fan of the Warriors Three, in which case I’ve got some very bad news …)