Marvel Studios’ latest suggests the future of superhero movies – Thor Ragnarok may rely increasingly on embracing their inherent silliness. When Marvel Studios released the original Thor in 2011, it was their trickiest franchise to date: This time the hero was not an irradiated Earthling or a guy in a metal suit, but a surfer-blond extraterrestrial who also happened to be a Norse god with a magic hammer.
Wisely, the studio chose to forego (as the comic eventually had) his alter ego as a hobbled physician with a walking stick that could suddenly make him—boom!— the God of Thunder. (Way too Shazam.) But the Thor saga has been a balancing act from the beginning. The first film had the mildly Shakespearian vibe that one might have expected from its director, Kenneth Branagh; the second capitalized on the realization that its titular hero, played by Chris Hemsworth, was less compelling than his Asgardian adopted brother and nemesis, Loki (Tom Hiddleston).
But it wasn’t until 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy that Marvel came upon a true model for Thor moving forward. Forget the wackiness of Norsemen from outer space: Guardians served up an ambulatory houseplant and a talking raccoon, and leaned hard into the craziness of both. As a result, we now have Thor Ragnarok, which is perfectly acceptable as an action movie but moderately inspired as a comedy. (This may well be the future of the entire superhero genre—see also: Spider-Man: Homecoming—which means that DC Comics and Warner Bros. will probably catch on in about five years.)
One might have imagined this movie’s plot would revolve around the fact that, as we learned at the end of Thor The Dark World, Loki had assumed the identity of his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and with it, the throne of Asgard. But this premise is abandoned within minutes. (That said, Loki/Odin’s “Oh, shit,” when Thor shows up unexpectedly is almost worth the price of admission alone.)
Instead, after a cameo by another Marvel hero (who’s considerably better here than he was in his own movie), the plot, in pure Guardians of the Galaxy fashion, is largely left by the wayside. Or rather, it bifurcates aggressively: Asgard is taken over by Hela (Cate Blanchett), Odin’s oldest child and the Goddess of Death, long exiled and until now forgotten. Thor and Loki, meanwhile—along with the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), last seen piloting a Quinjet to nowhere in particular at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron—spend most of the film in what can charitably be called a subplot.
But it’s a fun subplot, which is all that really matters, involving a planet obsessed with gladiatorial contests. (The story is based in part on the “Planet Hulk” comic series and, reaching further back, echoes the classic Star Trek episode “Arena.”) That the contests are overseen by a Grandmaster played by Jeff Goldblum, easily one of the most underutilized actors in Hollywood, is a substantial bonus. Tessa Thompson shows up as a disillusioned Valkyrie-turned-procurer-of-combatants, and Karl Urban appears as a half-hearted Hela stooge.
Like Tony Stark in Iron Man 3, who spent much of that film without his armor, Thor loses his hammer, Mjolnir, early in the proceedings. (Anyone who knows me well will know just how difficult it is for me to resist a Dr. Horrible joke here.) The movie makes terrific use—more than once—of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” which formed the basis of the brilliant trailer for The Girl With the Dragon Tattooseveral years back. And it will surprise no one to hear that the film’s director, Taika Waititi, who also plays a hilarious motion-capture pile of rocks named “Korg,” is a comedy veteran who cut his teeth alongside fellow Kiwi Jemaine Clement.