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With a stunning cast and a fresh sense of humor courtesy of director Taika Waititi, Thor 3 Ragnarok go-around isn’t just his best—it might as well be Marvel’s best, too.
Marvel movies, generally speaking, stink. Since 2008, Disney has churned out sixteen unambitious, bland movies that have ranged in quality from “totally serviceable” (the Captain America series) to “totally garbage” (Iron Man 2), with maybe an exception for the two Captain America series titles. There’s nothing worse than hearing someone invoke the “Marvel Cinematic Universe”—the commercial glue disguised as narrative consistency connecting all these Disney possessions together—except when folks call it by its acronym, the MCU, which makes it sound like a college for those who aspire to host open-mic nights.
And still, I’ve watched them all, each time exiting the theater trying to decide if I’m more disappointed in the movie or in myself for expecting more from Marvel’s cinematic pyramid scheme. When I saw Taika Waititi was attached to the newest Thor, I got my hopes up again, knowing rationally they’d be dashed by the final product. But I was dead fucking wrong. Thor 3 Ragnarok hits it big—and it hits like few superhero flicks to come prior to it.
In some ways, the required viewing before Ragnarok isn’t the first two underwhelming Thor movies, but Waititi’s singularly excellent comedy Hunt for the Wilder people—a simple but good-natured movie about an orphan who runs away into the New Zealand bush with a grizzled Sam Neill.
Sure, Thor may have cost $177.5 million more than Wilder people, but the spirit of a comedic romp is still there. Just begin with the look: The worst consistency throughout the MCU is that every film looks bland and washed out, as if they were all shot by a pair of faded khakis. By contrast, Ragnarok is a Technicolor dreamscape.
Thor 3 Ragnarok is a movie of brilliant cosmic hues and lasers and spaceships and other sorts of pulpy sci-fi cheese—elevated by an ‘80s-tinged Mark Mothersbaugh soundtrack and the occasional touch of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” Waititi recognized just how ridiculous a movie about an arrogant space Viking is and just leaned all the way in.
The thing that most annoys me about comic book superhero movies, apart from the inevitable baffling third-act onslaught of special effects, is that they are so intent on hitting the required beats of the formula that there is very little space left to squeeze in a sense of a distinctive directorial voice. In this at least, Thor 3 Ragnarok is a departure. New Zealand director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows; Hunt for the Wilderpeople) takes the helm of the latest instalment of the adventures of Marvel’s meathead minor deity.
And while Waititi is not credited as a writer, we do get a tingling sense of his input, not just in the humour of the picture – it’s the most hilarious Marvel so far by no small scale – but in the very nature of that humour. In common with Waititi’s vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, the film finds absurd comedy by juxtaposing the extraordinary with deliciously prosaic details. A badass warrior made of lumps of granite (and voiced by Waititi himself) bemoans a rebellion that failed because of a lack of pamphlets. A formidable flesh-liquefying weapon wielded by Grandmaster, Jeff Goldblum’s despot/game-show host, is referred to, with deadpan banality, as “the melt stick”.
The movie also forms a distinctive look – the dual backdrops of Thor’s threatened homeland, Asgard, and Sakaar, the junk-strewn setting for Grandmaster’s gladiatorial battles, are stunningly realised. But perhaps the most fun comes from the prickly fraternal jostling between Chris Hemsworth’s lovable lunk Thor and his trickster stepbrother Loki (an enjoyably malicious Tom Hiddleston).
Even with Ragnarok’s decided wackiness, the stakes are still conventional superhero stuff. Thor learns that he has a secret gothy older sister named Hela (played by a delightfully campy Cate Blanchett), and that she has a penchant for shooting bladed missiles through people’s chests. She brings back to life a giant wolf and an army of zombie in order to conquer Thor’s home planet of Asgard, etc., great deal, who cares.
Thor 3 Ragnarok moves through all these perfunctory plot points quickly, because the movie trusts its audience enough to roll with it. Waititi and screenwriter Eric Pearson realize that all of these details are just an excuse to put Chris Hemsworth in a position to punch some guys and make a ton of jokes.