A light, comic touch has been a hallmark of most Marvel movies, but Thor: Ragnarok may be the first one to qualify as slaphappy.
Dominated by bright colors and frequently dazed characters, the movie seems to have both downed a gallon of Mountain Dew and doused itself with it, giggling all the while. With its interplanetary adventures and psychedelic aesthetic, it’s like a Star Wars spinoff made by people short on sleep because they were binge-watching episodes of Teletubbies. Plus, Jeff Goldblum in blue eyeliner and lipstick.
Goldblum anchors the film’s middle section, in which Thor (Chris Hemsworth)—on his way to rescue his home planet of Asgard from a monumental threat—gets sidetracked on the planet of Sakaar. Largely a garbage dump, though punctuated by vibrantly colored shacks here and there, Sakaar is presided over by the Grandmaster (Goldblum). With his hair swept up like a rooster’s comb, the Grandmaster preens about his ramshackle city, playing DJ at his own parties and presiding over a gladiator-style tournament in which Thor, as his prisoner, is forced to compete. His adversary? In this franchise-minded Marvel Cinematic Universe, none other than Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).
Hulk still resides in CGI’s uncanny valley—this is no Caesar from the Planet of the Apes films—but once he calms down to the size of Bruce Banner, Ruffalo and Hemsworth get to share some nicely comic scenes together. (Hemsworth has a similar chemistry with Tom Hiddleston, returning here as Thor’s conniving brother Loki.) Having spent the past few years on Sakaar as Hulk, Banner can’t remember much and follows Thor around like an addled puppy, adding to the film’s punch-drunk demeanor. Their bickering over who actually won the fight in the arena is part sibling rivalry and part “Who’s on First?” routine.
Why does all of this work when a similar tone was tried—and greatly failed—in the likes of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets? Much of it has to do with Thor: Ragnarok’s cast. From Goldblum to Ruffalo to Hiddleston to Hemsworth (the latter of whom was the funniest thing about 2016’s Ghostbusters), these are all performers more attuned to comedy than the likes of Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, who anchored Valerian. Even more important to Ragnarok, however, is another cast member, Taika Waititi, who provides the voice for a CGI rock alien named Korg and is also the film’s unlikely director. Waititi had only a handful of small, comedic features under his belt (including the brilliant What We Do in the Shadows) before he was given this assignment, but the gamble on Marvel’s part was a good one.
The movie seems to have both downed a gallon of Mountain Dew and doused itself with it.
Waititi employs a specific comic strategy—undercutting—that makes Ragnarok a lively, consistently surprising experience. Sometimes he undercuts our expectations (as when he gives the physically imposing Korg a delicate personality) and at other times he undercuts the demands of the genre itself. This is true right from the start, when the tension of the movie’s dramatic opening—with Thor dangling in chains before a fiery demon named Surtur—is deflated by the fact that Thor awkwardly, apologetically spins away from Surtur as the demon threatens him, as if he were sitting in a wonky swivel chair. What most movies would treat as a violent showdown (and it does get to that), Ragnarok sets up as a light comedy of manners.
I should probably get to what essentially accounts for the other half of Thor: Ragnarok. This involves that monumental threat to Asgard: Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death. Hela is Thor’s banished older sister (whom he never knew), back on the scene to make a vengeful claim to the crown. This plotline is far more routine than the goofiness going on on Sakaar, but at least Blanchett makes the most of it. She struts about with the same sinister sensibility she brought to Cinderella; scoffs at Asgard’s hypocritical patriarchy (there’s a great moment where she reveals the hidden history that lies behind the palace’s Sistine Chapel-like murals); and regally wears a fantastic helmet that seems to be made from the racks of demon deer (I love the way she brushes her hair back to make it appear).
Still, there is an obligatory nature to some of Blanchett’s scenes, and you could argue that the entire Hela storyline should have been saved for another Thor installment. What’s more, save for two painterly instances of action as tableau, much of the fight sequences in the movie rely on dark and dreary CGI imagery. That said, most of Thor: Ragnarok is delightful. Quibbles can be had, to be sure, but giggles are far more fun.