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 Twilight of the Marvel Gods 

Chris Hemsworth
Chris Hemsworth
Walt Disney Studios
 130 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Taika Waititi
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo 
Thor: Ragnarok

Comic book superhero movies, and especially Marvel comic book superhero movies, have always walked a fine line between, on the one hand, the inherent silliness of grown men and women dressing up every day in Halloween outfits and performing outlandish feats of strength, and, on the other, the realization of just how severe consequences of wielding superpowers can be (or, as Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben used to say, “with great power comes great responsibility”). While, in recent years, DC Comics films from Warner Brothers have erred on the side of doom and gloom, Disney’s Marvel efforts have been rewarded handsomely at the box office for successfully striking the right balance. Perhaps the gloomiest of Marvel superheroes has been Thor, a Norse god whose backstory recalls the often bloody mythology from which it originates. So, it comes as rather of a surprise, and a usually enjoyable one, that Marvel has turned the god of thunder into perhaps its biggest quipster in the newest entry into the Marvel cinematic universe, Thor: Ragnarok.


The screenplay for Thor: Ragnarok contains perhaps the most detailed and convoluted backstory of any of the Marvel films, as it tries, with mixed success to combine elements of classic Norse mythology and Marvel’s own mythology. After a lengthy absence from Earth, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard to find his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) gone to parts unknown and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in charge. Thor and Loki eventually find Odin dying, but before he goes, Odin tells the brothers about their older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death, who has been held in limbo by Odin for ages due to her rather antisocial proclivities and enormous power.


Shortly after Odin’s death, Hela returns and (in the scene shown below) destroys Thor’s hammer and manages to send both Thor and Loki to the distant planet of Sakaar, which is ruled by a despot named the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Taking a page from the Roman emperor Nero, the Grandmaster keeps his people in line by entertaining them with gladiatorial combats. Thor winds up becoming an unwilling contestant in the fights, where he is pitted against the Grandmaster’s champion, the Incredible Hulk, who has also somehow made his way to Sakaar.


While Thor is fighting the Hulk in the Grandmaster’s staged combat and Loki is weaseling his way into the Grandmaster’s favor, Hela is back on Asgard consolidating her power and threatening to take over the entire universe. Thor eventually discovers what she is up to and is able to get the Hulk’s alter ego Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to reappear and, along with Loki and one of Asgard’s Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), who was also on Sakaar, return to Asgard to do battle with Hela.


On paper, this plot description sounds overly ornate and rather foolish. Actually, as it plays out in Thor: Ragnarok, it sounds even more foolish and, even worse, serves to slow down the story in order to get all the exposition out of the way. Indeed, other than the battle between Thor and the Hulk, which is well staged, the middle hour or so of the movie meanders quite a bit. The culprit in this is the screenplay, which tries to be faithful to the Marvel canon (almost all the characters in the movie are well known to fans of the comics in which Thor has appeared in over the years.


Surprisingly, however, despite a screenplay that is unwieldy in places, Thor: Ragnarok manages to be one of the more entertaining Marvel epics yet, thanks to a healthy dose of humor, rivaling Guardians of the Galaxy in that regard. No small measure of thanks goes to director Taika Waititi, a New Zealander making his major studio debut, who turns Chris Hemsworth into a slightly younger version of Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill. Waititi sets the tone quickly in the opening scene, in which Thor is held captive, bound and dangling upside down, by a giant demon, yet still finds the time to banter with the demon. Hemsworth keeps the jokes coming, even when Thor is in trouble (as frequently occurs in the movie). The jokes don’t all work, but a high percentage of them do, and there is a considerably lower bar on such humor when it comes in unlikely situations.


Of course, every good lead comic needs sidekicks, and Thor: Ragnarok has a number of them. Cate Blanchett is in fine form, overacting like crazy and chewing every bit of scenery as the power-mad Hela. The various Marvel series have always recognized the need for strong villains, and, the more powerful the villain, the greater the need to imbue a quirky personality. James Spader’s Ultron was by far the best aspect of the most recent Avengers movie, and Blanchett’s Hela is easily Ultron’s match. A side benefit to Blanchett’s just-short-of-campy performance is that it helps disguise the fact that her character is slaughtering hundreds of CGI extras in the name of conquest. Despite this implied carnage, Thor: Ragnarok never adopts a funereal tone.


Beyond Blanchett, however, the movie boasts some other comic gems. Jeff Goldblum is perfectly cast in the type of snidely sarcastic role at which he excels, and he is simply playing himself, and to great effect, here. Tom Hiddleston, on the other hand, has spent several movies crafting the character of Loki, and he embodies the Norse concept of the god of mischief perfectly. The script requires Loki to change allegiances and pull off double crosses at the drop of a hat (or helmet in this case), and Hiddleston deftly does so without ever becoming actively dislikable. Other characters have smaller but crucial roles, including a return appearance by Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange, who more than holds his own in terms of deadpan humor in a brief sequence early in the movie.


No matter how much humor a Marvel movie has, at some point, it has to deliver the goods in terms of action, and the results here are mixed. The early gladiatorial battle between Thor and the Hulk is good, but the final battle for Asgard, pitting the various heroes against Hela and her army of zombie minions, is even better. Waititi handles the set pieces better than most of the novice directors of major franchise movies have in recent years, never quite losing sight of the human element, even as the combatants threaten to destroy an entire world. The presence of Idris Elba, a veteran of the earlier Thor movies, in the role of Heimdall, the god who tries to protect Asgard’s citizens until Thor returns, is a big plus in this regard.


Despite its proliferation of A-list acting talent, Thor: Ragnarok could easily have gone the route of so many other superhero epics, and an overblown screenplay could easily have overwhelmed a director inexperienced in projects of this magnitude. But Taika Waititi and his ensemble are up to the task in a movie that’s heavy on the humor and decent enough on the heroics. Thor: Ragnarok is a superhero movie worthy of the gods themselves.

In this scene, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston meet Cate Blanchett for the first time.

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Thor: Ragnarok (2017) on IMDb