Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi, 2017) 3 out of 4 stars.
Until now, Thor has been my least favorite of the Marvel superheroes. This has nothing to do with casting – Chris Hemsworth (Rush) is a charismatic and capable actor – and everything to with the design and worldbuilding of the Thor universe, particularly as it relates to the rest of the Marvelverse. In a cinematic galaxy governed by fairly consistent rules of science fiction, however outlandish, the denizens of Asgard – Thor’s home “planet” (such as it is, though flat) – exist in the realm of fantasy, their powers more magical than supernatural, and the clash of the genre with the other has never worked for me. This may seem like a ridiculous distinction to some – is it not all the same, either hocus-pocus or space opera? – but science fiction usually grounds itself in some aspects of real science, however altered, whereas fantasy, even if inventive, can just be made up from scratch (witness the flat planet). The good news in Thor: Ragnarok, however, is that since director Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) doesn’t take the mythos too seriously, neither do we, and the genre discord ceases to matter. It’s all good fun, in other words.
Right from the start, Thor: Ragnarok feels different than its predecessors (Thor and Thor: The Dark World), more comedic in tone and lighter in palette. We meet our hero as he narrates the tale from inside a prison of sorts, seemingly unconcerned about his fate. Soon he is on his feet and on his way out, fleeing from a fire creature who threatens to bring about Ragnarok (from old Norse, meaning “the final destruction of the world”). Thor escapes, but only to jump from the fire into many more frying pans, his subsequent adventures taking him back to Asgard, to Earth, and beyond, his ever-mischievous adoptive brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, Kong: Skull Island) in tow. Along the way, they cross paths with fellow Marvelites Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game) and Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight), as well as newcomers to the series “Scrapper 142″/Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, Dear White People), the Grandmaster of Sakaar (Jeff Goldblum, Le Week-End) and, the baddest of the bunch, Thor’s own sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett, Carol). Waititi keeps the pace brisk and the jokes punchy. There’s no time to sit in judgement of the premise, as we’re too busy enjoying ourselves.
Delightful though the film may be, it still leads to the inevitable end-of-world scenario (telegraphed by the title, for sure) endemic to all these kinds of Marvel stories, complete with flying digital debris. As always, the stakes are so high as to be almost meaningless. But there’s a genuine surprise twist that partially redeems the cliché of the climax, and Blanchett, as the movie’s villain, is such a brilliant screen presence that even though we know there’s no way Thor cannot win in a movie that bears his name, we still almost fear that he won’t. Overall, then, Thor: Ragnarok stands as the most enjoyable of its series, so far. In this world of fantasy, three’s the charm, apparently.