Who figured that the goofiest Marvel superhero movie would be the one that stars the thunder god instead of the talking raccoon?
By far the best of the solo films starring Chris Hemsworth as the hammer-wielding warrior, Thor: Ragnarok (*** out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters Nov. 3) is a fantasy romp infused with director Taika Waititi's signature goofiness (Hunt for the Wilderpeople). It’s zany to a fault, though: The adventure leans hard into the campy Flash Gordon vibe and slapstick humor, so much so that when the third act save-the-world stuff comes, it doesn’t feel completely earned.
Exclusive trailer: See Chris Hemsworth ride into battle as a horse soldier in '12 Strong'
In Ragnarok, Thor returns to his extraordinary, fancy home realm of Asgard to see his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and learns what fans have known since Thor: The Dark World, that the mischievous Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been ruling disguised as their dad, who was banished to Earth. Thor and his trickster brother go in search of their pops and discover that Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death, has been released from her mystic prison, the result of her own power play eons ago. She’s still hell-bent on ruling Asgard, and some interdimensional shenanigans send Thor and Loki to the planet Sakaar with a gladiator circuit run by the extremely odd Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum at his Goldblumiest).
There, Thor runs into his old Avengers pal the Hulk — as well as his puny alter ego, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) — and meets Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), a hard-drinking woman trying to forget her battle-hardened past. Of course, they all team up to figure out a way to stop Hela from her nefarious plans, and the second half of the movie features everything from speedy spaceship chases to one very large wolf.
Thor movies have always looked cool in terms of eye-popping locales, but Waititi takes it to the next level: Everything on Sakaar is like a trippy 1960s Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Thor comic book come to life, while the more fantastic environments are akin to Led Zeppelin putting a Frank Frazetta painting to song. (The needle-drop of Immigrant Song is fitting both musically and thematically.)
Ragnarok is also the closest The House That Iron Man Built has come to a pure comedy. The Guardians of the Galaxy movies, Spider-Man: Homecoming and even Ant-Man struck an enjoyable balance between the absurd and the serious that Ragnarok just doesn’t quite nail. It does give Hemsworth a welcome chance to show off his comedic muscles as well as his beefy biceps, though it’s weird to see Thor take a bouncy ball to the face.
As far as the new additions go, Blanchett's Hela has a strut as outrageous as her pointy headwear, though there’s not nearly enough of Marvel’s first cinematic supervillainess. Karl Urban gets a noteworthy character arc as janitor-turned-executioner Skurge, Goldblum plays Grandmaster as a combo of Richard Dawson and Skrillex, and Thompson is the rookie standout as Valkyrie, who definitely needs to be around the next time Avengers assemble.
The best surprise of Ragnarok? Both sides of Hulk, the rage monster and the insecure genius, get more to do than in their prior two Avengers appearances. Even tonal issues can’t upend the magic this movie taps into putting Thor and Hulk together as new best buddies, whether they’re throwing down in an arena or having a bromantic heart-to-heart.