You need only look at the non-superhero-like, technicolor-dreamcoat one-sheet for Thor: Ragnarok to get the sense that this third installment is going to be different. Director Taika Waititi, the New Zealander known for Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows, has taken the reins from Alan Taylor and ensured that Asgard and other realms would be dark worlds no more. Instead, bright places and things have been swapped for all the usual black and gray. And not only that: Thanks to a trio of scripters, Ragnarok is the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best comedy.
Yes, I said comedy. The yuks start with the opening line and don’t let up until the end, with some physical comedy thrown in as well. (Thor trying to look nonchalant while standing nearly rivals Ricky Bobby’s confusion about what to do with his hands during an interview.) Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher L. Yost—writers on lesser-known Marvel properties but none known for his comic chops—are responsible for the fun, freewheeling tone here, and you may be surprised at how goofy it gets, with the scripters not above even puerile, below-the-belt jokes. (One in three moviegoers will applaud. Will that person be you?)
Now on to the business side of things. As the film opens, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is wrapped in chains and locked in a cage. He’s been captured by a fiery being whose ornamental headdress will allow him to kickstart Ragnarok, or “the fall of Asgard,” Thor’s home planet. Naturally, our hero can’t let this happen, so to the propulsive beats of “Immigrant Song,” he lays waste to all the evildoers with the help of his trusty hammer, which he won’t have for much longer.
Enter Hela (Cate Blanchett). Hela is surprised that a dying Odin (Anthony Hopkins) lays on Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston). She’s their eldest sister, the one who fought beside a then-bloodthirsty Odin and whose powers are greater than her brothers’. Her name means “goddess of death,” and she doesn’t want her do-gooder siblings meddling in her revolutionary affairs. To help ensure this, she breaks Thor’s hammer like a human sister might break her little brother’s toy.
The arc of Ragnarok, therefore, involves stopping Hela and the Ragnarok itself. This takes Thor to an involuntarily lengthy stay in the Sakaar realm, where he meets the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), spies Loki currying favor, and accidentally becomes known as the “Lord of Thunder.” (“I didn’t see any thunder, but out of your fingers, was that sparkles?” the Grandmaster giddily asks.) As the Grandmaster’s prisoner, Thor is forced to meet a mighty opponent in Sakaar’s amphitheater, who turns out to be a well-lived-in Hulk.
Of course, you know how this ends, but the script, the cinematography, and the performances make this billionth Marvel entry seem fresh. Blanchett, hair blackened and wearing a Maleficent-ish headpiece, makes a frightening villain, her deep voice seemingly dropping a register to ensure an extra-evil package. Goldblum, who was encouraged to ad lib, brings a light-as-air quality to the Grandmaster, perpetually joking even when the character is doing something bad. And Hiddleston and Hemsworth are old hats at this, though not as experienced with the gags they’re asked to perform. (The phrase “Get help!” may no longer make you think of danger.)
That Waititi chooses to use “Immigrant Song” for another battle wasn’t the best move: It felt out of place the first time, so the second time really seems wrong. The rest of the soundtrack is synthesizer-heavy, with a blippy-bloop score reminiscent of an ’80s thriller—perhaps you’re meant to laugh at that, too. When a superhero film features items such as the Shake Weight, it’s fair to say that anything goes.
Thor: Ragnorak opens Friday in theaters everywhere.