Thor can go to hell.
No, I mean, literally: Thor is capable of going to hell, just for a visit, which is where he is at the opening of Ragnarok. Okay, okay, I know, I know, it’s not really hell, not Hell. I know it’s Muspelheim, the extradimensional realm of fire, please don’t write in to complain. But it’s pretty hellish, and Thor is there to confront the fire demon Surtur, who is fairly satanic: extremely large and scary, aflame, and determined to slay the gods of Asgard and destroy Asgard itself; all the usual apocalyptic stuff. But if Thor can only steal his horned crown, the source of his power, all this talk of armageddon will be reduced to nothing more than talk.
“Really not kidding here, people: Do not talk to me until I’ve had my coffee.”
Thor’s battle with Surtur (the voice of Clancy Brown: Warcraft: The Beginning, Hail, Caesar!) is exciting and intense, especially if you see it in 3D IMAX, as I did. But you’d expect that from a Marvel flick. What makes this opening sequence — which sets up the tone for the entire movie — so extra-special, so geeky, so hilarious, is Thor’s casual humor in dealing with Surtur; Chris Hemsworth (Ghostbusters, The Huntsman: Winter’s War) nails the offhand insouciance a badass divine celestial being like him should have, and finally here is a Thor script (by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost) that lets him exhibit that. That includes a sort of “previously on Thor” meta monologue delivered by the god of thunder that is both a catchup on the previous movie, The Dark World, and a winking acknowledgement of how deliciously ridiculous the Thor movies have been, how impossible they are to explain.
That verve also comes via the nerdy impudence of director Taika Waititi setting the battle to Led Zeppelin’s prog-rock classic “Immigrant Song”; that’s the one with all the Norse-mythic lyrics, “We come from the land of the ice and snow,” etc. (He uses it again, to compounding effect, for another battle later. You will not be able to get Robert Plant’s wail of “Ah-ahhhhhhhh, ah!” out of your head for days after seeing this.) It’s a heavy-metal black-light album cover come to life and yet — miraculously — not in any cheesy way. It’s just genuinely cool and freaky-funny.
Thor: Ragnarok, basically, is everything Guardians of the Galaxy (both volumes) wanted to be: breezy and jokey, crammed with clever science-fiction ideas, populated by intriguing, entertaining aliens. Except Thor isn’t an insufferable jerk like Peter “Star Lord” Quill, and even though there’s lots of stuff about family — Tom Hiddleston (Kong: Skull Island, Crimson Peak) returns as Thor’s brother Loki, for one — there isn’t the constant harping on about it, as if we were in danger of missing an Important Theme. Best of all, GotG’s vanilla deployment of retro pop culture pales next to, say, the gladiator disco madness of Ragnarok’s middle segment, in which Thor, stranded on a remote planet and stripped of some of his powers, is shanghaied into a trial by combat against the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo: Now You See Me 2, Spotlight). (It eventually makes sense that the big green guy is there.) His host is the Grandmaster, a movie-stealing Jeff Goldblum (Independence Day: Resurgence, Mortdecai) who lords over what is essentially the decadence and violence of ancient Rome reconceived as a Studio 54 theme party in 1977. It’s hilarious. (Goldblum overshadows even Hiddleston’s wickedly entertaining embodiment of Loki, that’s how much Ragnarok has taken it all up a notch.)
“Bring me Flash Gordon! Haha, just kidding.”
I keep using that word: hilarious. This is hands-down the funniest movie yet in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, not just because it’s got lots of jokes that actually make you laugh out loud (though only, often, if you’re steeped in the MCU) but because it exudes a unifying cheeky personality that isn’t like anything we’ve seen in the series before. Waititi’s unique style — see also his outrageously funny vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows — is almost shocking to see in a series that has previously maintained a visually even keel, ironing out whatever individual panache its directors might have brought to the films. (Waititi also directed those, well, hilarious Team Thor shorts; you can watch them here and here. The tone of Ragnarok is closer to those than to the previous Thor movies.) There’s a sense here that Marvel cut Waititi loose to do whatever he wanted… and the result is a kind of vision, an imaginative sweep, that could re-enliven a franchise that — it seems suddenly, in retrospect — it needs. I’ve been loving the Marvel movies. I didn’t know I could love them this much more.
Not that there isn’t plenty of the familiar Marvel stuff here too. Benedict Cumberbatch makes a brief appearance as Doctor Strange, which probably wasn’t strictly necessary for this story but may be setting up something to come in next year’s Avengers: Infinity War. (Though, honestly, the bit in which Hemsworth, Hiddleston, and Cumberbatch are all onscreen together is something like fangirl heaven.) There are some hysterically funny cameos, not just the traditional Stan Lee one, though that’s the best one ever. Cate Blanchett (Truth, Carol) as Hela, the Norse goddess of death — who wants to bring her own brand of Ragnarok, or armageddon, to Asgard — and Tessa Thompson (Creed, Selma) as a retired Valkyrie are terrific; Thompson especially is a great example of how to do female sidekicks for male heroes, not as already perfectly formed but as flawed people with their own journeys to take. (Thompson’s Valkyrie is more like the Han Solo of the MCU than Peter Quill could ever hope to be.)
“So you’re suggesting, dear brother, that if we simply stand here, girls will just come talk to us? We don’t have to kidnap them?”
As much as I love the often weighty ideas of the Marvel movies, I also love the lightness of this one. (There plenty room for it all in the MCU!) Ragnarok may be about a threatened apocalypse, but even the end of the world isn’t necessarily the end of the world when you live in a universe teeming with planets, after all. The movie skims a serious concept about Asgard’s bloody history of conquest and imperialism being transformed into a fantasy about benevolence, which could — *ahem* — certainly be seen to have some relevance for plain ol’ planet Earth. But mostly Thor: Ragnarok is about garbage planets, and street festivals celebrating Hulk, and Thor stopping in the middle of a New York street to take a selfie with some Avengers fangirls. It’s a nice escape from heavy reality, which is very welcome right now.
• Thor (review)
• Thor: The Dark World review: Viking with a chance of wormholes