I wouldn’t have called Chris Hemsworth Marvel’s breakout comedy star when he was first cast as Thor, the almighty Thunder God, but he turned out to be one of the best things about this never-ending mega-franchise.
He’s tall, brawny and impossibly handsome, but there’s a self-mocking twinkle in his eye. When Thor turns gung-ho jock mode, Hemsworth’s wry machismo finds the young Sean Connery as James Bond, raising an eyebrow at the corniness surrounding him. When he bumbles and stumbles, there’s a touch of Cary Grant to his embarrassment. And when he’s playing things more or less straight, there’s an average guyness to his reactions. All this humanizes an actor who’s perpetually at risk of being treated as a life-sized action figure.
Hemsworth’s charisma holds Thor Ragnarok together whenever it threatens to spin apart, which unfortunately is often. Written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost and directed by Taika Waititi (“Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” “What We Do in the Shadows”), this is almost but not quite a stand-alone picture, tethered to previous Avengers entries only by Thor’s opening search for the Infinity Stones, which has led him to be imprisoned by the fire demon Sutur. The demon tells him that his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is no longer on Asgard and that their homeworld will soon be destroyed in Ragnarok, a prophesied apocalypse. After that, the film splits into a couple of parallel narratives.
Fully half the movie is a court intrigue/war scene, featuring the takeover of Asgard by Thor’s long lost sister Hela (Cate Blanchett), a black-clad force of nature who appears to become a demonic stag-beast when she fights: her head sprouts elegant antlers that might have been drawn in the air with a brush dipped in India ink. The other Thor Ragnarok is a loosely comedic gladiator film with prison thriller accents: Thor is stuck on the planet named Sakaar, where he’s forced to battle against the planet’s reigning champion, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). As revealed in trailers, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is back, too — and why wouldn’t he be? He’s easily the most amusing villain, or antihero, in the series, so beguiling that when Thor inevitably succumbs to his charisma and fights next to him, both he and the audience momentarily forget how much death and property destruction he’s caused in past chapters.
The overqualified supporting cast does a lot with not-quite enough. Sakaar’s “Grandmaster” is Jeff Goldblum, who gives exactly the sort of performance you’d want Jeff Goldblum to give in a project like this: intellectually detached, droll and smart-alecky, yet also somehow petty, arbitrary and sadistic. Goldblum’s unique genius is his ability to toss off lines that might’ve seemed as overripe as week-old avocados on the page, like, “Let’s have a hand for all of our undercard competitors who died so gruesomely.” (From the inventive way he adds “ums” and “ahhs,” you can tell that he’s also a jazz musician.) The worst thing I can say about him is that he’s more appealing here than well-used. Either there should have been a lot more of him — though not at the expense of Blanchett, who’s a slinky hoot — or his efforts should’ve been more finely shaped by the filmmakers, so that his brilliance cohered into a bona fide character or else pushed on towards toward Dadaist madness, like Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” or the late Gene Wilder’s title performance in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” (The latter seems to have been what Waititi and company were going for in casting Goldblum: when Thor is introduced to Sakaar, “Pure Imagination” plays on the soundtrack.)
As Valkyrie, an alcoholic bounty hunter who once fought against Hela and now works for The Grandmaster, Tessa Thompson more than holds her own in scenes opposite Hiddleston, Hemsworth and Ruffalo. She’s hard-boiled, like a tough dame in a 1940s detective film spitting wisecracks. As Skurge, a warrior who makes it through Hela’s disastrous takeover of Asgard and follows her command in order to survive, “Lord of the Rings” star Karl Urban captures the misery of a sellout who knows he’s better than the path he’s expediently chosen; but so much of his performance is reduced to anguished reaction shots that you may wonder — as you might with Thompson — whether the best bits got cut for pacing.
In the run-up to release, much was made of the allegedly drastic shift in tone that would make this project unique. It was sold as a light, funky, largely comedic effort — practically a spoof of Marvel’s usual, with Thor and the Hulk serving as the anchor of, basically, a buddy movie, like the kind Bob Hope and Bing Crosby used to churn out. There are times when it gets close to that promised film, and when it hits pay dirt, it is delightful — especially during very broad slapstick moments, as when The Hulk enters the ring and Thor laughs with relief and exclaims, “I know him from work!”; and during events of relatively subdued character development, as when Thor and Hulk commiserate in private and we realize that the big green guy loves it on Sakaar because the folks treat him as an athletic superstar and hero, on contrary to the pariah treatment he gets back on Earth. (When you’re mainly good at Hulk Smash, it’s a relief to land a job that asks you to do nothing but.)
When Hulk turns back into Bruce Banner, Ruffalo keeps us reminded that he’s giving two performances here, both incredible. He revels in the impressive physicality of Hulk — a motion capture performance on par with Andy Serkis’ best — but when he turns back into an ordinary man, he appears to shrink within himself. He’s unafraid to use his shortness for laughs, appearing side-by-side against the towering Hemsworth in wide shots like the superhero answer to Laurel and Hardy. Banner’s complaints are minor, too — and still they aren’t, due to their recognizable humanity: “You’re just using me to get to Hulk,” he groans. “It’s gross. You’re a bad friend.”
Unfortunately, as is often the case with Marvel films, the adventurous aspects aren’t adventurous enough, and the more predictable aspects — the CGI-saturated fight scenes, with bodies whirling through the air; the wide shots of cities burning and giant creatures on the rampage; the images of whooshing, twisting star gates and bodies falling from the sky like meteors — are more frenzied and loud than inspired, and eventually become monotonous. The movie’s final third, yet another Marvel Big Battle, is as tedious as the first two-thirds are endearing.
Solely the amazing chemistry of our main fantastic four — Hemsworth, Hiddleston, Thompson and Ruffalo — stops Thor Ragnarok from devolving into another standard-issue superhero crash-and-bash fest, and a climactic twist, which I won’t spoil here, is delivered in such a tonally inappropriate way that it calls the movie’s entire approach into question. (Ant-Man’s title as the best off-brand MCU movie stays unchallenged.)