“THOR: RAGNAROK” — 3 ½ stars — Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Idris Elba; PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material); in general release
“Thor: Ragnarok” is the kind of film that makes you feel like the director is getting away with something. Taika Waititi’s effort is bursting with personality, and beyond being the best of the Thor franchise, it may be one of the best Marvel efforts yet. It’s certainly one of the funniest.
“Ragnarok” is the third standalone to focus on Chris Hemsworth’s blond hammer-wielding demigod. His last appearance came in 2015’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and “Ragnarok” has him following up on the nightmarish visions that he started having while the Avengers were fighting James Spader’s megalomaniacal artificial intelligence.
The visions are tied to an apocalyptic prophecy from Thor’s homeworld, Asgard, where a fiery beast called Surtur (Clancy Brown) leads a destructive overthrow called Ragnarok. But when Thor makes short work of Surtur early in the film, the pieces just don’t seem to add up.
The math starts to make a little sense once we meet Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, who also happens to be the true firstborn of Thor’s father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Hela is miffed that Odin turned his back on the ruthless lust for conquest that brought Asgard’s nine realms into submission — largely thanks to Hela’s help — and her homecoming is anything but nostalgic.
Hela casually destroys Thor’s hammer and sends him and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) off to a bizarre trash planet named Sakaar, where our hero runs into the other, much greener Avenger who flew off into the sunset after the fight with Ultron. But before they can head home and deal with Hela, Thor and The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) have to fight their way out of a gladiator-style battle royale headed up by Sakaar’s colorful Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), then win over an exiled Asgard Valkyrie warrior, played by Tessa Thompson.
All things considered, “Ragnarok’s” plot isn’t all that far off from the kind of fare fans encountered in the first two Thor movies. But this film is a drastic departure from those two, thanks to the efforts of its director. Waititi was the man behind 2014’s “What We Do in the Shadows” and 2016’s wonderful “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” and he brings the same deadpan New Zealand humor that he used in those films into “Ragnarok,” even providing voiceover for a comic CGI character named Korg.
The result may be off-putting to diehard Thor purists, as Waititi’s persistent irreverence makes “Ragnarok” feel more akin to the Guardians of the Galaxy films than the first two Thor films. But others may feel that Waititi has given the franchise a much-needed and very successful kick in the pants that delivers some unexpected fun.
Keep in mind, though, that in spite of all the humor, “Ragnarok” still delivers some fantastic action sequences — this is still very much a comic book movie — and the dazzling visuals are enhanced by a fun techno-retro sci-fi soundtrack from ex-Devo musician Mark Mothersbaugh (which also benefits from some timely Led Zeppelin cues).
Hemsworth and Ruffalo seem to be having a great time with their roles, and Hiddleston’s presence as Loki is always welcome — it’s difficult to think of a better villain in any of the Marvel films to date. Speaking of which, it also helps to have someone of Blanchett’s caliber as the heavy, even if this particular role doesn’t give her all that much to do.
As is Marvel tradition, “Ragnarok” also offers up a pair of fan-pleasing after credits scenes, one a couple of minutes in, and another after we’re done seeing all the myriad effects artists and production company logos.
Altogether, “Thor: Ragnarok” is one of the most unique films of Marvel’s now extensive lineup. It may be an unexpected combination, but this blend of star, director and style is a big winner.
“Thor: Ragnarok” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material; running time: 130 minutes.