Ever since they first banded together, there’s been an unspoken hierarchy to Marvel’s marquee Avengers. Dwelling on the lower rungs are peripheral characters like Paul Bettany’s Vision and Anthony Mackie’s Falcon. If they didn’t show up, would anyone really miss them? Maybe. But probably not very much. A step above is bench players like Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. They’re given the same glitzy showcase as the more integral members of the superhero A-team, but they don’t get their own movies. Somewhere, hovering just below the very top shelf, where Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Chris Evans’ Captain America have seemed to establish themselves as dueling straw-that-stirs-the-drink counterweights, resides Chris Hemsworth’s Thor. He has enough hammer-of-the-gods might and charisma to nab his own standalone franchise, but so far the Thor films have felt more like placeholders on the release calendar than real capital-E Events. They’re solid enough to keep fans placated and engaged until the heavy hitters return. He’s what you might call “blockbuster adjacent.”
This isn’t Hemsworth’s fault. Not exactly. Beneath those long buttery locks and somewhere behind those impossibly sculpted Asgardian abs and biceps, there’s always been a gifted comedian with crack timing trying to bust out. He can’t help that he looks the way he does. Plus, it’s hard to get a word in edgewise when Tony Stark is firing off quippy one-liners. Thankfully, the newest — and unquestionably funniest — big-screen Marvel adventure, Thor: Ragnarok, seems hellbent on finally unleashing Hemsworth’s real secret weapon: his humor. With the exception of Deadpool and the Guardians of the Galaxy films, Ragnarok may be the only Marvel-hero movie that feels like it’s first and foremost a comedy. And on those terms — and those terms only — it’s a triumph.
Director Taika Waititi, a New Zealander with an impressive idiosyncratic brand of absurd (Flight of the Conchords, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), brings his caffeinated pinball energy to the often-stoic Asgardian he-man, goosing the predictable, sometimes-plodding plot beats and tired tropes of the men-in-tights genre with giddy hits of WTF laughing gas. It’s amazing that Waititi — a newbie in the jungle of corporate filmmaking — was able to inject so much of his unique voice into such a committee-approved juggernaut. (As a footnote, he also lends his hilarious down-under line readings to one of Ragnarok’s biggest scene-stealing side characters: an alien who looks like big blue pile of quarry rubble named Korg). He’s proof that these films can and should get a little weirder.
What neither Hemsworth nor his director can overcome, though, is Ragnarok’s meandering and narcoleptic story. It’s the sort of rote, paint-by-numbers slog (occasionally broken up by numbing, pro forma smashy-smashy smackdowns) that makes so many Marvel movies feel like Xeroxes of other Marvel movies. I get the why-mess-with-success impulse. Especially when there’s so much money to be made in movies like this. But even the most diehard comic-book fan has to be getting a bit exhausted by a narrative formula that’s become as thin and watered down as skim milk. The stars and directors are doing just fine; the writers (in this case Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost) need to aim higher.
Ragnarok opens with Thor being held prisoner by a fiery CGI demon straight out of an Iron Maiden album cover and the stakes couldn’t be lower. “How will our hero get out of this one?” absolutely no one thinks. Hemsworth winkingly toys with the clichés of his situation, lets loose a few tasty one-liners and sight gags, and manages to survive. Then he’s off to Asgard, where he’s reunited with his sickly father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, in full-on paycheck mode) and his mischievous brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Things are looking bleak as Asgard is threatened with “Ragnarok” — the cataclysmic annihilation of their homeland and its civilization — at the hands of Thor and Loki’s older sister Hela. Long ago, Hela went to the Dark Side. As Hela, Cate Blanchett camps and vamps in a form-fitting black-and-emerald bodysuit, smudgy smears of charcoal mascara, and shiny onyx horns that resemble one of those overpriced hipster antler chandeliers for sale on Etsy.
Blanchett snarls and cackles and purrs brimstone threats. And watching her, you can’t help but get a sense of deja-vu. After all, she’s already done this shtick as the Wicked Stepmother in Disney’s live-action remake of Cinderella. She’s also essentially doing exactly what Angelina Jolie did in Maleficent and what Charlize Theron did in Snow White and the Huntsman. Surely, there have to be other ways to play female evil than just “threat-threat-punchline,” “threat-threat-punchline.” Especially when the threats are dusty groaners like: “Want to see what power really looks like?” But Blanchett is such a talented actress, all isn’t lost — even if she vanishes for large chunks of the film. Instead, there’s Hemsworth getting his locks shorn off, swapping wiseguy banter with Loki, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange (in a drive-by cameo), Jeff Goldblum (in Aladdin Sane makeup doing his “Jeff Goldblum Thing”), and reuniting with Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner and his big green alter ego (who gets to show off some dorsal nudity!). Still, the stand-out supporting player isn’t any of the fellas, but Tessa Thompson (Creed) as a Valkyrie, a new ally who’s beautiful, badass, and likes her booze. The Marvel universe needs to see more of her. She’s a star.
There’s a lot more to the bloated story, but honestly, none of it is very interesting. In fact, it’s endless. You don’t care what’s happening or what’s going to happen next. We’re just led from place to place for a hash of foggy reasons that no one will ever remember 10 minutes after leaving the theater. But that’s not really the point of this movie. Ragnarok is basically a Joke Delivery System — and on that score, it works. The movie is fun. So to recap: Taika Waititi was mostly the right director for the job. Chris Hemsworth is hilarious. Tessa Thompson is going to be a star. And while Ragnarok’s story is an aimless mess, you won’t stop laughing. In other words, it’s a… B