Thor: Ragnarok’s Comic Apocalypse

Chris Hemsworth in Thor: Ragnarok (Photo: Marvel Studios)
The latest in the superhero series is enjoyable precisely because it doesn’t take itself seriously.

As far as I’m concerned, Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song” is a criminally underused element in movies. Thor: Ragnarok features two fight scenes choreographed to the head-banging anthem, and it’s still not enough! That the combatants are superhuman Nordic fighting machines wielding gigantic hammers and firing huge guns makes the song that much more apropos. At the screening I attended, the audience couldn’t resist singing along to the chorus. “Aw-aw-AWWWW-Aw!” Or maybe that was just me.

Any movie that strikes such an attitude is more or less all right with me, and I found Thor: Ragnarok (the second word is a Norse term for apocalypse) more bearable than the campy first two movies about (let’s face it) this second-tier superhero and his mallet of might. After two would-be epics that were funniest when they were trying to be serious, this one is a full-on comedy aimed squarely at Guardians of the Galaxy fans: If you’re the kind of person who thinks it witty when the screenwriters dub a magical portal between worlds “the Devil’s anus,” then you’ll have a fine time.

Even though I loathed both Guardians movies and the tonally similar Deadpool, Ragnarok doesn’t have nearly as much bedroom/bathroom humor as those three, and its unfortunate frat-boy aspects are offset by a disarming, whimsical tone that I credit to the Kiwi director Taika Waititi, previously known for an episode of Flight of the Conchords and low-budget, sweetly college-spirited films such as Eagle vs Shark and What We Do in the Shadows (both of which starred Conchords alum Jemaine Clement). I suppose it couldn’t hurt for the New Zealand mafia to take over Hollywood.

Ragnarok introduces Thor’s evil older sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), who wears a bodysuit and a set of black Goth antlers and likes to be called the Goddess of Death. She is, as you’d probably guess, bent on ultimate power and destruction. The series also brings back the frustratingly difficult to kill brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the God of Mischief, who like most brothers is alternately an ally and enemy to Thor. Dad (Anthony Hopkins) would like the boys to stop their intergalactic squabbling, but there’s no chance of that.

Apart from boring expository speeches, the film has two modes: cracking skulls and cracking wise. Often the two activities are taking place at the same time, as in the opening scene, when Thor does battle with a giant fire-monster and never stops joking. “Thor, son of Odin,” says the monster. “Surtur, son of . . . a b***h!” is the rejoinder. There’s lots of this kind of thing to come: lame Internet catchphrases (“You’re welcome,” “You had one job”), a character named Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) equally adept at kicking butt and emptying bottles, exchanges like “You’ll pay for this!” “No, I got paid for this.”

Ragnarok has no “graphic novel” pretensions; this is a straight-up comic-book movie, 130 minutes of clowning (including two post-credits sequences). I enjoyed some of it, particularly Jeff Goldblum’s turn as a kooky emperor/warlord/deejay named Grandmaster who rules an entire planet and enjoys holding gladiatorial contests for the masses, at one of which Thor is pitted against his old friend, or at least workplace acquaintance, the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who lends the movie some nutty appeal. As for Goldblum, he may be 65, but his dry asides turn out to be well-suited to the movie’s Millennial sense of humor. When he has Thor chained to a chair and the superhero proves to be a bust at summoning the power of thunder to break free, Grandmaster says, “I didn’t hear any thunder, but off of your fingers — was that, like, sparkles?”

Superhero movies can be funny without undermining the foundations they stand on, as Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and Spider-Man: Homecoming all were. Those films managed to make their fight scenes exciting despite the inherent silliness of the universe they all inhabit. As much fun as it is, Ragnarok, by treating everything as an opportunity for a goof, forfeits any chance of taking root in your imagination. Nothing matters here, even the destruction of a planet, and since the characters are just quipping-and-fighting machines, they’re all expendable. Though shorter than a lot of superhero movies, this one feels longer: Everything’s happening and nothing has the slightest impact. Its episodic nature makes the film snackable, meant not to seize your attention but to be caught in little pieces as you flip through channels, or to occupy the background while you scroll through a social-media feed and occasionally look up at your favorite bits. Why should you be particularly invested in anything that’s going on? The characters sure aren’t.


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