REVIEW – ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

After two previous solo adventures, the third time proves to be the charm for the mighty Thor. After the good-not-great first film, and the truly disappointing sequel, Thor: Ragnarok takes a sharp U-turn into the absurd comedic world of director Taika Waititi, gifting us with something truly different, wonderfully charming, and downright fun. Strap yourselves in. New Zealand’s own Waititi is coming to make you laugh, and he will succeed.

Thor: Ragnarok begins with our beloved hero Thor (Chris Hemsworth) imprisoned on the fiery realm of Muspelheim by the beautifully designed flame demon Surtur (Clancy Brown). It just so happens Surtur is prophesied to bring about Ragnarok, aka the doomsday event that leads to the destruction of Thor’s home-world of Asgard.

Having nightmares of an Asgardian apocalypse himself, Thor is desperate to return home. But not before giving us a wickedly choreographed fight sequence to escape his captor, all set to the refrains of Led Zeppelin’s pumping “The Immigrant Song”. After only five minutes, it’s already clear Waititi is taking his lead from Guardians of the Galaxy, and rightly so.

Returning to Asgard, Thor quickly cottons on to something not being quite right. Close ally and keeper of the keys Heimdall (Idris Elba) is no longer at the helm of the Bifrost. In his place, we find a Cockney-accented philanderer named Skurge (Karl Urban), who informs Thor that Heimdall has been declared an enemy of the people and is on the run. Upon arriving in the town centre, now adorned with statues in tribute to his long-thought dead half-brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor finally unmasks his brother’s scheme of assuming the form of their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and stealing the throne for himself.

But Thor’s troubles are only just beginning. He’s soon face-to-face with the biggest threat Asgard has ever known – Hela, the Goddess of Death (a wickedly wonderful Cate Blanchett). It seems Hela, in all her Gothic glory, has quite a chequered history with Asgard – one which I dare not spoil. But it’s a history that has long been redacted from all Asgardian memory. The Goddess has returned to enact her vengeance and take rule of the kingdom.

Adorning herself with her antler-inspired helmet, Hela single-handedly lays waste to whole swarms of Asgardian army members, and, in the process, recruits a fearful Skurge as her doting henchman/executioner. Despite their knack for fighting, Thor and Loki are no match for the Goddess, and both find themselves banished to the planet Sakaar, on the other side of the universe.

Presided over by a camp with a capital C dictator, known as the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, in all his absurd glory), who Loki quickly befriends, Sakaar is home to an epic gladiatorial arena, where captives of the Grandmaster are forced to face his mighty champion. That champion turns out to be none other than the incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who’s been MIA since the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron when he fled Earth on a jet plane. After a quick haircut (yes, his trademark long locks are no more) from a familiar face, Thor winds up being pitted against his “friend from work,” and the two face off in a showdown that makes a glorious cinematic spectacle.

While Thor is trapped on Sakaar, Hela is causing all sorts of havoc back on Asgard. Our hero must find a way to escape the clutches of the Grandmaster, and return home to save the day. But he can’t do it alone. He’ll need to convince some local Sakaarians to help with his cause, including rock-monster Korg (a hilarious motion capture performance from director Waititi himself), and Valkyrie (a dazzling Tessa Thompson), a booze-thirsty bounty hunter with a secret past of her own, which may just provide the key to Thor’s quest.

With its grandiose plot and over-the-top subtext, this could very easily have fallen into a pretentious, gritty, far-too-serious melodrama. And perhaps it still could have worked. But Thor: Ragnarok takes a deft turn away from such darker traps by asserting one clear thing, right from the opening scene – this is a comedy. And as a comedy, it’s a wondrous triumph.

With their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks, director Taika Waititi and screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher L. Yost deliver genuine humour and numerous laugh-out-loud moments throughout. With his previous films, Waititi showcased his knack for dry, absurdist comedy, and he brings every piece of that flair to this film. It winds up being just what this franchise needed. For all their rumoured control (just ask Edgar Wright), Marvel Studios have really let Waititi loose here, and the film bears his trademark deadpan Kiwi humour throughout. Whether that works outside of Australia and New Zealand is another story.

Much like Deadpool, it’s an impressive style of humour that never feels forced or unearned. Each beat hits because it deserves to, whether it be dry self-deprecation or classic slapstick absurdity. And when required, Waititi knows to pull back on the comedy, so there’s always a true balance of seriousness and ridiculousness. But the director is clearly having the time of his life playing in the theme park that is the Marvel universe. Waititi is fully aware of how ridiculous this entire premise is, and embraces it completely. And so should you.

But comedy lives and dies by its actors. Luckily, Waititi is a director known for getting great performances out of his chosen thespians, and all of them are on fire here. For all his good looks, a man like Chris Hemsworth should not also have the gift of comedy. It’s just not fair, right? But as we saw in Ghostbusters (where he somehow stole the entire film away from four experienced comedians) and his previous Marvel appearances, the man gives good comedy. And this is his best effort yet.

Without Hemsworth’s impeccable comedic timing and talent for self-deprecating humour, Thor would be an entirely flat, wooden character. We saw that when the comedy was sucked right out of Thor: The Dark World. But with Waititi’s guidance, Hemsworth finds the humour hidden beneath all that muscle, and it creates something much more engaging and genuinely delightful than any of his previous adventures. But, of course, when Thor is required to bring the beefcake, and the action side takes over, Hemsworth knows how to turn it on.

Surrounding Hemsworth is a terrific supporting cast of players. With his third appearance as the big green guy, Mark Ruffalo continues to mark his claim as the best actor to ever portray the Hulk. His motion-capture performance reaches new levels, thanks to the increase in brutish dialogue the Hulk finally gets to deliver, and his chemistry with Thor, when he reverts back to Bruce Banner, is genuinely charming. If Marvel still won’t give him his own film, it’s clear the Thor franchise is where the Hulk belongs.

Tom Hiddleston delivers another delectable performance as everyone’s favourite bad guy with a heart of gold, Loki. It’s clear Hiddleston understands this character inside and out, and he constantly dances the line between villain and hero with expert precision. It’s impossible not to be won over by Loki, yet again. The film does appear to forgive his past misgivings a little too conveniently (let’s not forget, he has murdered a hell of a lot of people), but there’s something about Loki that is somehow insanely forgivable, no matter what he does.

Marvel films often suffers from the lack of a great villain. Thor: Ragnarok takes it to a new level with not one, but two superb villains. It’s not quite fair to call Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster a “villain,” per se. He’s really just an advantageous businessman. But he does melt a guy into a pile of goo, in one surprisingly hilarious scene. And he does imprison a whole bunch of poor souls for the pure purpose of fight-to-the-death gladiatorial entertainment, so he’s sure not a good guy. But with Goldblum’s trademark brand of bizarrely wonderful humour, it’s hard not to strangely adore this character.

It should come as no surprise it’s Cate Blanchett who steals this whole thing, as Marvel’s most wonderfully designed villain to date. Her Gothic aesthetic alone is the stuff of true despicableness, but Blanchett fleshes Hela out to be something so much more than just a visual villain. Much like Julianne Moore in Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Blanchett gives herself over completely to playing a villain for the first time, and winds up chewing every damn piece of scenery around her. She delivers every line with such a biting snarl, which many are sure to find ridiculous, but I found it too delicious for words. Hela winds up something akin to Maleficent meets the Evil Queen, with a good dash of Joan Crawford thrown in, and it fits the absurdity of this film so perfectly.

The real shining star here is Tessa Thompson. As Thor’s newest ally Valkyrie, Thompson cements her name as one to watch. Valkyrie is a worthy challenger to Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in the badass female stakes, and her back story is every bit as devastating as that of Natasha Romanoff. With her penchant for alcohol and look-out-for-numero-uno-only attitude, she could even be Marvel’s very own Jack Sparrow. And just like Captain Jack, you’ll be completely captivated by her.

But the truest scene-stealer is the director himself, as the instantly iconic Korg. With his Kiwi accent and “choice, bro” style dialogue, he gets the film’s biggest laughs and the best lines. Much like Guardians breakout star Groot, Korg has a tough exterior that hides the gentle, sweet soul within. And when that soul gets displayed, it’s a triumph of true heart. After this film, Groot may have some competition in the popculture phenomenon stakes. I can already see the Korg merchandise now.

If there’s one criticism to make of Thor: Ragnarok, it’s the moments when Waititi perhaps borrows a little too heavily from James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, particularly with the design aesthetic of Sakaar. You half expect Star Lord and co. to turn up at any moment. In saying that, much like every Marvel adventure, the film is a visual feast for the eyes, with practical and computer-generated effects blending seamlessly. The worlds of Asgard and Sakaar are beautifully crafted, as are the costuming and sets, and the entire production is a dazzling array of visual wonders.

Ultimately, Thor: Ragnarok is just a bloody wonderful film and one of Marvel’s absolute best. Visually spectacular, action-packed, enormously entertaining, and genuinely hilarious, it never takes itself too seriously, and therein lies its brilliance. It takes the franchise to a new height, and finally gifts Thor with the film he always deserved. It’s a true joy to watch, and one of the best times you will have in a cinema this year.