When Cate Blanchett, playing Hela, the Goddess of Death, struts through the treasure storehouse of her father, Odin, in Thor Ragnarok she casts her eye about. One by one, the film’s black-antlered villainess assesses the artifacts – which include the highly sought-after blue “infinity stone” – with a series of blunt dismissals: “Fake!” “Weak!” “Smaller than I thought it would be!”
Such Twitter-worthy put-downs are not the only wisecracks that might make audiences remember of a certain occupant of the White House. Somewhat later, in this cheekily self-aware and richly entertaining live-action comic book, we meet the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who, as fans of the Avengers franchise will recall, has been missing in action since the end of Avengers Age of Ultron. “Whatcha been up to, big guy?” he is asked, to which the taciturn green giant replies: “Winning.”
In his case, it’s not hyperbole.
Don’t worry, the latest movie from Marvel Entertainment isn’t exactly political, although it does involve palace intrigue. Hela, the twisted sister of the film’s God-of-Thunder hero, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), is planning to take over the celestial realm of Asgard, stepping into the power vacuum brought about by the absence of their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), who, as Thor Ragnarok film begins with, seems to have been exiled to a senior-living facility on Midgard, a.k.a. Earth.
Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) makes a quick crossover cameo to help Thor look for his father. That’s not the film’s only delightful cameo. In one funny sequence early on, Thor witnesses an Asgardian stage play featuring costumed actors portraying him, Odin and Thor’s adopted brother, Loki. The casting, which is best kept hidden, has two wonderful surprises – and one that’s very meta.
The real Thor, for his part, means to put a stop to Hela’s ambitions, while the real Loki (Tom Hiddleston), must decide whose side he’s going to fight on – other than his own, as is his opportunistic habit.
That’s the internecine setup, in a nutshell: Thor, like Abraham Lincoln before him, must put together a team of rivals to take out Hela, who has used her powers to reanimate Asgard’s dead warriors, long laid to rest.
Much of the movie focus on our hero’s attempts to recruit an Avengers-like version of Seal Team 6 – efforts that are hampered by the fact that he has been kept imprisoned on the planet Sakaar, where he is forced to participate in the gladiatorial Contest of Champions by that world’s ruler, called the Grandmaster (a deliciously effete yet cruel Jeff Goldblum). There, he runs across a fellow refugee from Asgard, Valkyrie (“Creed’s” Tessa Thompson), and Korg, a CGI character made out of rocks who is voiced by the movie’s very director, Taika Waititi, in one of filmdom’s most prime examples of self-dealing.
Waititi, a New Zealand actor and moviemaker best known for such minor, irreverent, indie charmers like “What We Do in the Shadows,” provides exactly the right balance of meaty action and sauciness to Thor Ragnarok, which, although huge, avoids the bloated, cartoon-noir ponderousness that has, until “Wonder Woman,” plagued films from the movie arm of Marvel’s strongest rival, DC Comics.
“Everything always seems to work out,” Thor keeps us reminded – blithely – not just once, but twice, in a screenplay (by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost) that elaborates Thor Ragnarok to the giddy heights of “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Deadpool” in its refusal to take itself seriously.
Perhaps “elevate” is not the best word here. Much of the humor is absurdly silly, as in a sequence in which Thor tries to explain to Korg how his mystical hammer, Mjolnir, grants him the ability to fly. (It ends up sounding like he has a sexual relationship with it.) At another point, Thor learns that the only way back to Asgard from Sakaar is through an interdimensional portal called the Devil’s Anus.
It may sound as if the film is only for 13-year-old boys, or the Marvel faithful, but it actually isn’t. In these times of heightened stress and anxiety, Thor Ragnarok – a word from Norse mythology that refers to both the end of the old world and the rebirth of a better, new one – could not come at a more opportune time. It’s a movie that, to put it in terms that the film’s screenwriters might appreciate, is Thor-ly needed.