Thor is one of the more ridiculous Marvel superheroes, which also makes him one of the best. You don’t need to have multiple generations’ worth of superhero mythology under your belt to comprehend this God of Thunder with a hearty appetite for beer and a bodybuilder’s brawn; it’s permissible to just like him.
Since Chris Hemsworth has played him — first in Kenneth Branagh’s insane 2011 operatic dazzler Thor and one more round in Alan Taylor’s much more drab Thor: The Dark World, while also touching down here and there in the other Avengers films — he’s impossible to hate. With his very being, he invites you to laugh at him. Just look at the way he wields his disproportionately small but powerful hammer like it’s a baby rattle. You have to be pretty secure in your masculinity to pull that off.
Thor Ragnarok is boyishly excited to ravel Thor’s oddball likability to us, as if it were something we hadn’t yet witnessed. Directed by the enormously talented New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi, it’s well intentioned but ultimately numbing, an instance of fun overkill whose ultimate goal seems to be to put us into a special-effects coma. Not even the occasional inspired touch — such as Cate Blanchett as the amazing villainess Hela — can save the film. It’s at least three movies rolled into one, with maybe half a decent one in there. But like Thor himself, it sure is big. And if you value quantity over quality, it’s a lot of movie for the money.
As Thor Ragnarok opens, our big Norse god hero is imprisoned in a big place by a big thing with big horns. As he swings dangerously from a suspended cage, he taunts the thing with one of his bro-ey good lines: “Oh, that’s your crown. I thought it was a big eyebrow,” he exclaims breezily, a clear sign that this is going to be one of those films that calls attention to how saucy and irreverent it is, without coming anywhere close to real boldness.
Thor vanquishes the big thing and escapes with its big eyebrow, bringing it to his home world of Asgard, where his one-eyed pops, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), awaits. At least, he believes it’s Odin: It’s actually his evil brother, the pale, lank-haired, passive-aggressive Loki (Tom Hiddleston), in one of his typical shape-shifting tricks. The two proceed to bicker and spar, occasionally finding shaky accord, like Marvel’s version of Noel and Liam Gallagher.
The real Odin eventually shows up, warning the guys about their older sister, Blanchett’s hellraising Hela, whom he’d banished years ago after he learnt how dangerously ambitious she was. Suddenly, Hela appears, a lithe vision in a black and beetle-green unitard. Her makeup looks like what happens to a smoky eye after you’ve slept in it, and she sports a marvelous set of black antlers, as if she’d raided a glam hunting lodge. She intends to take over Asgard and fulfill its destiny of being destroyed — that’s what the whole Ragnarok thing is about — and she’s surely a very busy Norse goddess, since she is nowhere to be seen for long stretches of the film.
When she’s not around, Jeff Goldblum pops up, with a stripy chin and a glittery one-armed coat, as the megalomaniacal kook Grandmaster. His entrance is a grand one — in keeping with the movie’s aim to make us think it’s surprising even when it isn’t really, it’s very “Ha ha, look, it’s Jeff Goldblum!” But at least his shtick temporarily enlivens the movie. Other appealing performers show up: Tessa Thompson is the Valkyrie . Mark Ruffalo smashes his way into Thor Ragnarok first as that big green bad tempered Hulk and later, in the film’s best bits, as the blissfully neurotic Bruce Banner.
Thor Ragnarok is packed tight with zooming space vehicles and noisy thunder battles, but the movie’s extravagant excess is more narcotizing than energizing. Even poor Thor appears lost in all of it while he’s supposed to be its star. Waititi appears to be following the example of James Gunn’s tiresomely adorable Guardians of the Galaxy movies.
Even if his touch is a tad lighter, like Gunn, he shoots up the flare every other minute: “Hey, this is a film based on a comic-book! It’s supposed to be fun! Let’s not take any of it too seriously!” These are increasingly elaborate approximations of fun rather than the real thing. At the same time, the studio’s expenses — in this case, it’s that of Walt Disney Pictures — is splashed resplendently on the big screen. The meter is running every minute, and don’t you forget it.
All of this would be less depressing if Waititi were just your random indie moviemaker making the leap to big-budget flicks. This isn’t the first overstuffed superhero movie, and it won’t be the last. But he’s too original to be wasting his time this way. His previous projects include the breezy, offbeat Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), a wonderful but not cloying film about grief and coming of age (and one with a foundation in Waititi’s Maori roots), as well as the incredibly wiggy lo-fi vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows (2014). Waititi has a talent for ramshackle craziness with a strong undercurrent of compassion — but frankly, where is that going to get you nowadays?
Today the reward for being a terrific or at least just an interesting independent filmmaker is to be put at the helm of a big-budget superhero movie, which means you shoot for a couple of months and then spend a year (or more) in post-production, supervising the layering of elaborate special effects and, most likely, putting out lots of fires. Much of moviemaking is putting out fires — it has always been so. Still, the big movie franchises are not where the best filmmaking is being done. You can’t blame anyone for wanting to try his — or her — hand at it. But the hammer of power is really a pretty tiny one, much, much smaller than it looks on the big screen.