“Thor: Ragnorak” (the latest entry in the ever expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe) is at its most fun when the action takes place two or three realms away from the usual noise and CGI chaos that plagues the MCU. The middle chunk of the film (directed by New Zeland born up and comer Taika Waititi) takes place in a bizarre alien settlement known as Sakaar. There’s a massive junk pile wherein garbage from other realms are dumped via portal as well as a futuristic city with skyscrapers.
After a slightly tedious set up that prepares us for the predictable MCU movie “Thor: Ragnorak” is inevitably going to turn into, the God of thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth) finds himself in a Sakaar. He’s hammerless, fatherless and in the captive hands of Grandmaster, (Jeff Goldblum being his usual Jeff Goldblum-y self) a kooky, deranged fellow with jelled grey hair, a blue soul patch and a gold bathrobe. Thor faces off in a gladiator style death match against his old friend and co Avenger The Incredible Hulk, aka Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) who has, since the last “Avengers” film, gone mad and become a Sakaarian gladiator legend. At one point, Sakaarian citizens dance in the street wearing Hulk costumes and blow green powder into the air. “Dear White People” actress Tessa Thompson also makes her superhero film debut as an alcoholic Valkyrie warrior that downs half gallons like water.
Like the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies, “Thor: Ragnorak” benefits from being gleefully weird and isolated from the rest of the MCU. Amidst the political intrigue involving Captain America and Tony Stark, it’s nice to be blasted off into a strange new world where Jeff Goldblum portrays a flamboyant weirdo tyrant that forcefully pits two Avengers against each other. In these scenes, the picture plays like a goofy, freewheeling spinoff adventure in the Marvel universe: “Thor’s Trip to the Outer Rim.” There aren’t any blatant attempts to set up future “Avenger” films or characters.
The movie also benefits from the hotheaded comedic chemistry of Thor and Hulk, an excellent comic duo you probably hadn’t considered before. “Thor: Ragnorak” goes full on comedy, which is for the best considering these films involve literal Nordic Gods and other mythical beings fighting one other. Waititi and screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost keep the jokes coming at rapid-fire speed. Everyone is so casual and snarky about everything. Yet to the filmmakers’ credit, the humor never hinders the action or stalls the pace.
Unfortunately, it’s not long before Thor, Hulk, the Valkyrie and Thor’s mischievous brother Loki (oh yes, Loki’s back and Tom Hiddleson is back to play him) must team up and go back to Asgard to save the universe from a supervillian and her undead horde. That villain is Thor’s spiteful older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett, whose black eyeliner, armor and headdress gives her the appearance of a gothic deer) who wants to conquer Asgard and take over the rest of the universe. Why do these movies always have to come back to the world being in danger? Why can’t Thor just be tired of doing Avenger stuff, go soul searching in the universe somewhere and end up as a gladiator slave? Why couldn’t the film be an offbeat, intergalactic, superhero riff on “Spartacus”? Why couldn’t there be a final confrontation between Thor and bizarro Jeff Goldblum? I wanted Waititi to stay in Sakaar and explore its eccentric texture and junk piles a little more. It’s far more exciting than the massive CGI battle that occupies the final third of this movie.
Aside from being rote, there’s no dramatic weight behind Hela’s threat to Asgard. Making a full on superhero comedy is great but you’re not going to also convince me that an entire race of people (the common folk of Asgard) is in any sort of real danger. I imagine Waititi knows that and yet he still has to go through the bland motions out of professional obligation. The film goes from being silly and spontaneous to exhaustingly predictable. I felt like I could have got up and left the movie during this climax and not really missed anything. “Thor: Ragnorak” is a fun diversion until it has to turn into the same old superhero film.