“Thor: Ragnarok” gives the long-running franchise a fresh bloom of health, fertilizing the comic book roots of the Marvel film universe like a dose of satirical Miracle-Gro.
It’s a delightful surprise because, let’s face it, the obligatory ingredients for superhero films have the potential to feel dated and cheap (ahem, DC). We return to a land where we already know almost everyone and can diagnose any new arrivals by character type in an instant. We’re watching humongous battles with outlandish weapons and one-on-one showdowns that we more or less saw in earlier episodes.
Yet, “Thor” deftly avoids the hazards. It spends most of its 130 minutes comfortably between “catchy idea” and “whoa, this is awesome.” What lifts the movie to an almost irresistible level of fun is its oddball sense of humor. Viewed through the prism of irony, the fight sequences feel super-spectacular and the figures on-screen are extra entertaining. Shaped with handmade charm by New Zealand director Taika Waititi, this is the best, fastest-paced Thor film of the three and darned close to the funniest Marvel movie yet.
The setup is standard doomsday stuff. Asgard, home of the Norse gods, is under siege by Hela (Cate Blanchett), the daughter that Odin (Anthony Hopkins) never talked about much. The campy, vampy villainess is willing to lay waste to the kingdom to seize his throne, rule as the goddess of death and go back to the family’s old habit of decimating other worlds.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who hasn’t been home in ages, can’t hold her off on his own. Big sister is powerful enough to shatter his hammer Mjøllnir with a squeeze of one hand, and without it Thor isn’t batting a thousand. Unfortunately, persuading people to join his team and directly face death is a pretty hard sell.
The film is at heart a series of buddy comedies with Thor trying to get a little help from his frenemies. Earlier films have proved that Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston as Loki, the resentful adopted brother of the equally narcissistic god of thunder, are a natural comedy duo. Here they add a new level of slapstick comedy to their shtick, with the funniest use of colliding bodies and rebounding basketballs that I have ever seen.
The casting in the current crop of Marvel films has been reliably top-notch, and this entry maintains those high standards. Hopkins is his funniest in ages, playing a ridiculous dual role at a theatrical parody staged to honor Loki’s “noble sacrifice” in the previous Thor film. It’s all the funnier since the trio performing the drama onstage are recognizable stars on Earth in cameos.
Blanchett stabs deliciously sarcastic line readings into every evil utterance. Tessa Thompson (from “Dear White People” and “Selma”) is outstanding as a boozy but unbeatable mercenary who captures Thor for gladiatorial combat on the garbage-strewn, disco nightclub-ish planet Sakaar.
Jeff Goldblum is at his peculiar best in the role of Grandmaster, the eccentric monarch of that realm, who is not really interested in the origins of his new play toy and calls Asgard “Ass-place.” That’s a naughty double entendre, but the name of the intergalactic wormhole that transports the players across infinity is a lot sassier. Mark Ruffalo is in top form whether playing Thor’s combat opponent the Hulk via motion capture or nervous, excitable Bruce Banner.
Waititi is a terrific director of his actors and even adds his own supporting performance as a Kiwi-accented pile of stones named Korg. Waititi, who made the zany vampire farce “What We Do in the Shadows” and the delightful all-ages comedy “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” builds cartoony frameworks for weird, witty work by the entire cast and crew.
But there are several coats of impressive imagination in countless screen details. The visuals spin like a kaleidoscope between vistas that could have come from the Michaelango of Marvel, comic artist Jack Kirby, or been repurposed from the cover of Journey’s album “Escape” or Meat Loaf’s “Bat out of Hell.” There’s a lot to enjoy, from the deliberately cheesy look of the control wheels of the spaceships, to Dr. Banner’s truly awful outfit borrowed from Tony Stark, to the spot-on soundtrack created by Devo alum Mark Mothersbaugh. When even the compulsory Stan Lee cameo is a hoot, you know you’re in for a very good time.