The New Zealand director Taika Waititi brings his oddball sense of humor to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with “Thor: Ragnarok,” the 17th film in the interconnected superhero saga that shows no signs of slowing its big-screen domination. The result is another crowdpleaser, but the seams are showing just a bit.
This third solo outing for Thor (Chris Hemsworth), following two prior “Thor” films and his appearances in “The Avengers,” caps off Marvel’s astoundingly successful year with more of the bright outer space action that characterized “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2.” In “Thor: Ragnarok,” the God of Thunder returns home after an unsuccessful two-year trip searching for the remaining Infinity Stones, only to discover his mischievous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) faked his death and has been impersonating their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), on the throne of Asgard.
With the power of the throne diminished, this paves the way for the return of the Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), who shatters Thor’s hammer, seizes power and banishes the two bickering brothers to exile. Thor is captured by the bounty hunter Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and brought to the flamboyant ruler the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) to fight in gladiatorial combat on an alien garbage planet called Sakaar. His opponent: The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), of course, who fled Earth after the end of “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
There are the requisite appearances from other Marvel characters throughout — Heimdall (Idris Elba) plays a noteworthy supporting role in fighting back against the tyranny of Hela, while a brief and early sojourn to Earth brings Thor and Loki to the Sanctum Sanctorum of Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). But “Thor: Ragnarok” is most alive on the bizarre planet of Sakaar, where Waititi, the director of comedies including “What We Do in the Shadows” and last year’s marvelous “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” lets his freak flag fly. (Waititi also provides the voice of the scene-stealing rock person Korg.)
The production design and costuming of “Thor: Ragnarok” is among the most exemplary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far; Sakaar’s cluttered bright colors and Hela’s battle helmet are striking images, and coupled with judicious uses of Mark Mothersbaugh’s synth-heavy score and Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” at times “Thor: Ragnarok” feels like the cinematic adaptation of a particularly badass metal band’s record cover from the 1980s.
Waititi also knows how to use the natural comic charisma of Hemsworth, which he put to great use in the recent “Ghostbusters” remake, in ways that many of the other Marvel films haven’t quite. He undercuts his persona quite amusingly, and plays nicely off Thompson and Ruffalo in a hilarious and increasingly frantic manner.
Now for the not so good stuff. “Thor: Ragnarok” is certainly likable and fun — and it features some killer jokes — but it might be the most substance-free Marvel movie yet, the least tethered to any genuine drama, weighty stakes or dramatic heft. It has the Teflon quality, ultimately, of a Looney Tunes cartoon. This might be to the taste of many, and it is amusing, make no mistake, but even the previous “Thor” movies had buried within their superheroics a genuine concern for the Shakespearean familial drama surrounding the throne of Asgard. Those movies were often too swamped in melodrama, sure — but “Thor: Ragnarok” overcorrects and steers into completely weightless, fancy-free comic territory to the detriment of the plot at its core.
And while its plot nominally follows the previous two “Thor” films (minus the Earthbound elements of Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster, whose absence is addressed brusquely and with little fanfare considering how central her story has previously been), it’s drawn and developed almost as an afterthought — Blanchett’s Hela no more compelling than many of these franchise’s other flat villains, when there was some real potential there for interesting storytelling.
So it happens that when matters truly grow urgent in the final act of the film — when Asgard and the God of Thunder himself face a true existential threat — this feels no more significant or foreboding than any of the other gags from earlier in the film. If you want to make a goofball “Thor,” do so! But don’t try to graft onto this an end-of-the-world plot that isn’t well-served by the goofball tone, because the result, as genuinely funny and entertaining as “Thor: Ragnarok” is, is a bit of a mess. Sure, if all messes were this fun to watch, we’d be in better shape cinematically — but still.