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Marvel Aims for Laughs in Thor: Ragnarok, Gets Them

“Last time we saw you, you were trying to kill everyone. What are you up to these days?”

— Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Rufalo) to Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

 

It’s been four years since Chris Hemsworth’s last solo outing as Marvel’s “Thor,” but since Disney’s apparent business plan seems to be two films a year, one for the spring/summer season, another for the fall/winter, it’s entirely time to catch up with Thor’s life outside his affiliation with the Avengers. However, the wrathful thunder god in director Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok isn’t quite the same hammer-slinger that we’ve grown used to, and the change goes beyond his brand new ‘doo.

Pretty much shorn of the palace intrigue with brother Loki always trying to kill him or their father, or both, Thor’s more comfortable in both his skin and in his Asgardian raiment, a little less pompous, a little quicker to see the humor in situations, even lethal ones. It’s nice to see that he’s mellowed a little along with Loki, and while their new relationship doesn’t have the same dramatic potential as in the previous films, actors Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, after some 7 years of playing siblings, do indeed have an easy rapport which makes them fun to be with, and that’s the key word in Ragnarok: Fun with a capital F. The Marvel Universe might indeed be at stake again, but by Odin that’s not going to stop Waititi, his actors, or his audience from enjoying it.

There is a plot, sort of, not that it really matters. The mighty Thor and his mischievous brother Loki, on their way back to Asgard to rescue their father’s realm from their sister Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett), are captured by alien wrestling promoter the GrandMaster (Jeff Goldblum), who promptly makes the mistake of throwing Thor into the arena with an old green friend from the New York days. The rest of the movie is pretty much computer-generated mayhem, but our familiarity and affection for Hemsworth and Hiddleston sweeps us along for the ride. The happy plus is that all the new characters fit right into the Marvel Universe as though they’ve always been there, from Goldblum to Tessa Thompson as a remorseful Valkyrie to Karl Urban as Hela’s reluctant henchman to Waititi himself, virtually stealing the show in a CGI performance as one of the GrandMaster’s other gladiators.

Nevertheless, Thor: Ragnarok is probably the worst film yet for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The good news is, it doesn’t matter a bit.

The screenplay is fractured and disjointed, and consistently shoots for the lowest common denominator. Established characters behave completely unlike themselves. If there’s a choice between injecting any kind of verisimilitude into the nonsense and going for the cheap laugh, Waititi goes for the cheap laugh. It’ll make zillions and inject new life into Marvel, propelling the franchise forward into its “Phase III” where we’ll supposedly say goodbye to some of the characters worldwide audiences have come to love over the past decade.

How can this be? It’s a little like one of my favorite movies from the early ’80s, Dino De Laurentiis’s Flash Gordon. By the Bifrost, what a hideous film, but I do love it so. Virtually every single element in Flash Gordon is absolutely wrong, yet the actors were having so much fun delivering their cornball lines, the costumes were so colorful and wacky, and Queen’s music so — well, loud — that it was a welcome relief from the ponderous gravity of the oh-so-serious Star Wars franchise. Thor: Ragnarok is exactly the same thing. When you think about it all, it’s really kind of a terrible film, deserving of the bad things snooty critics have said about all the other Marvel movies. But, with all the real-world warfare and refugees and famine and thirst and hurricanes and earthquakes and wildfires and crime and everything else, I suspect audiences can use a good laugh right about now.

Thor: Ragnarok is an awful film, but it’s still a great movie. Those things aren’t the same and they don’t have to be.

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