Review: 'Thor: Ragnarok'

This war of the titans has fun with epic, world-rattling battles
Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth, is made to fight as a gladiator for the evil Grandmaster's amusement.

A comedy of outsized figures bashing at one another, punching their frenemies into the next county. The idea in Thor: Ragnarok is that the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth) has been leaning too hard on his invincible hammer Mjölnir and his superb head of hair. In this chapter, the former is smashed and the latter cropped.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) spirited away Odin (Anthony Hopkins), king of Asgard, to an old-folks home on Midgard (Earth). A testy Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) intervenes. Odin's daughter, Hela, the god of death (Cate Blanchett) is unloosed. This sooty-eyed Maleficent clone, helmeted with antlers that look like they were designed by Erté plots to slay the universe. Meanwhile, she oppresses the peasantry of Asgard, which, in previous films, we hadn't really known existed.

Thor: Ragnarok parallels two bad monarchs—the action switches from Hela's misrule to the planet of the cruel, fey Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, with a goatee of blue paint). He diverts the subjects of his junkyard planet with fights at a million-seat arena; armored like Mars, The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) has been dispatching all comers as a mixed martial artist. Thor, transported here by a wormhole accident, is caught by a bounty hunter (Tessa Thompson) from his old neighborhood and forced to become a gladiator.

As a director, perhaps also as a Maori, Taika Waititi seems allergic to European-style royal pomp. He keenly underscores the way aristocracy legitimizes itself through art and theater. Catch here a hammy performance of "The Tragedy of Loki of Asgard." Glimpse a statue of Goldblum in a Boris Vallejo pose, brandishing a weapon as a kneeling girl clings apprehensively to his thigh. Key to Hela's wrath is how Odin has gold-washed, so to speak, his own bloody history of conquest. She even asks Thor how he supposes the treasure of Asgard got there in the first place. These sharp lines were like Ambrose Bierce's definition: "Hovel: the fruit of a flower called the Palace." While Thor: Ragnarok leads to uprising in two realms, it's not as thrilling a hymn to uprising as War for the Planet of the Apes. We see them making the call to revolution, but we don't really feel it.

Waititi shows an occasional indifference to composition, not noticeable in his marvelous Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Still, Thor: Ragnarok has scenes of offbeat wit: Dr. Bruce Banner isn't just a rager, but an anxiety case. He's as nebbish as Woody Allen. Waititi plays up the disproportion in height between the towering god and the smaller doctor. Banner is worried that he'll revert: a green vein in his temple throbs at the very thought.

The movie isn't as spirited as its circuslike promo poster. The clashes are loud and diverting, but not amazing, even with their terrifically apropos use of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song." A battle on the rainbow bridge stops in slow-mo, Zack Snyder-wise. Spaceship chases are the car chases of today's cinema, done well in the Star Wars opuses, they signal for a pee-break everywhere else.

Superhero films are best when you have a moment of real fear for the seemingly invincible characters. That doesn't happen here. Our hero is defiant, even in quiet moments—there's a fine small scene of the imprisoned Thor chucking pebbles at Loki's hologram. But Waititi's determination to keep it light means that there's nothing here quite like that moment in The Avengers when it looked as if Tony Stark was about to be marooned in another galaxy. Also missing is any hint of romance, beyond a grudging reference to Natalie Portman's Jane Foster. The only girls that seem interested in Thor are the slave girls massaging him.

If Hemsworth is tired of playing Thor a fifth time, either he's showing no evidence of weariness, or else he's a better actor than most people say he is. Hemsworth's stalwartness holds these super-ratpack movies together. The actor is easy not to take seriously, because of that almost ridiculous physique—the tunic comes off, and it's like, are you kidding me? But it would have been nice if they'd given Thor someone to squeeze in those tremendous triceps—besides the threatened bro-hug with fellow heroes and brotherly villains.

Thor: Ragnarok
PG-13, 2 hrs, 10 min.

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