There were moments in the newest Marvel extravaganza, Thor: Ragnarok, when I was having so fantastic a time that I resented the interruption of yet another brainless, weightless action sequence featuring a little computer-generated man throwing around and zapping other little computer-generated men. Who needs this violent junk when you can see some of the most casually funny clowning since the Hope and Crosby road comedies of the 1940s?
Here is the bulging-all-over Chris Hemsworth as Thor — world-weary, having been chained, electrocuted, smashed and bashed, and shorn of much of his hair — striding through a garbage scow of a planet trading acid barbs with the skinny, black-clad Tom Hiddleston, whose Loki is every inch the wild Romantic poet as redesigned by Tim Burton. Here is Hemsworth on the same planet, trying to warm the heart of an alcoholic Valkyrie played by Tessa Thompson, who’s only one comic set piece away from being as much fun as Dorothy Lamour in a sarong — but is, in any case, a laudable female role model (minus the alcoholism). Hemsworth has two other comic collaborators: an enormous green special effect with a Hulk-sized inferiority complex, and Mark Ruffalo as the rumpled, fast-talking little wisecracker Bruce Banner, who’d like to put as much distance between himself and his humongous alt-self as possible. They are trying to evade an army dispatched by Jeff Goldblum with blue mascara and bizarro blue markings. Far away on the planet Asgard, meanwhile, Cate Blanchett as a punk dominatrix with wings like black antlers sashays around issuing husky proclamations of war, halting every so often to slit her eyes like Melania Trump and dare someone (Thor? Hope Hicks?) to dislodge her.
Yes, it really is a pity when the cookie-cutter plot comes back and Thor: Ragnarok passes before your eyes from the hands of its wonderful comic director, Taika Waititi, into the clutches of CGI companies under the direction of robot overlords.
My 15-year-old daughter — a Marvel fan — tells me that in the Ragnarok comics, everyone dies. Someone had the lovely idea of putting the kibosh on that and turning the project over to Waititi, who is half-Maori and half-Jewish — evidently an inspired combination of genes where comedy is concerned. He worked on Flight of the Conchords, then directed and performed in the jocular bloodsucker mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows. Audiences loved his Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which I found too camp. But it’s camp that elevates Thor: Ragnarok into the stratosphere. The movie is much closer to the Queen-scored Flash Gordon than the recent Star Wars snores.
In the past, Hiddleston has gotten all the raves for his trickster Loki, and this time he proves he’s not just a lively comedian but a smart one: He responds to the general madness by underplaying, letting Hemsworth do the slapstick heavy lifting. Hemsworth is up to it, it turns out. Though musclebound, he can seem agile, floppy, buffeted by large forces but able to right himself, good-naturedly, and proceed in the direction he was previously heading. He patters with the aplomb of Bill Murray. In one scene, Thor labors to convince the stubbornly resistant Hulk that he likes the big guy much better than Banner. Later, he labors to convince Banner that he much prefers him smaller and friendlier — even though Banner believes (rightly) that he’s “just using me to get the Hulk.”
What’s interesting about Banner/Hulk is that he’s different in every single movie. In Thor: Ragnarok, the Hulk speaks fluently and irritably, like a mean jock after years of steroids, while Banner is a frenetic babbler with an Eeyore-like streak of self-pity. It’s good to see Ruffalo liberated from the more masochistic portrait in Avengers: The Age of Ultron, and with a fresh partner in Tessa Thompson. The writers (Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost are credited) are apparently still figuring Valkyrie out, and they don’t do a very good job of dramatizing her transition from Thor’s antagonist to his comrade-in-arms. The best thing about Thompson’s Valkyrie is that she’s in, one of the gang.
It’s likely Thor: Ragnarok works as well as it does because the cast is mostly Brits, Aussies, and Kiwis, who are more culturally attuned to deadpan camp. (Waititi does the voice of a charmingly self-deprecating pile of rocks called Korg.) But the American Goldblum holds his own and then some. The idea of playing a murderous fascist leader (the “Grandmaster”) with his customary addled stammer is like a gift handed down from Mount Olympus.
In a lot of conventional ways, Thor: Ragnarok comes a cropper. The fights between Thor and the Hulk are a rousing success, but the larger battles kill the pace instead of quicken it. The climax is underwhelming. Anthony Hopkins is unusually dull as Odin, perhaps confused — as I was — by his having been turned into Obi-Wan Kenobi. Comic-Con nerds might well find the movie too un-self-serious to get behind, preferring the deep ethical musings of Captain America: Civil War. This one is probably my favorite, being the most unlike the others.