At this point, the insular interplay between the titles in the Marvel Universe practically suggests to fans that they needn’t feel pressure to seek out any non-Marvel films at all. And that sense of wan interchangeability has come through even among the most supposedly leftfield offerings like James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy. With one exception. By the standards of its kinsmen, Thor: Ragnarok is the flamboyantly roller-disco entry in an already uncomplicatedly cartoonish side franchise, and not because the film contrives to relieve Thor (Chris Hemsworth) of his mangy mane so as to further sex him up. But of course that doesn’t hurt. Amazingly, Ragnarok breaks through the maxi-franchise’s cynical cycles by arguably embracing its own disposability, and reveling in its vintage Williams-pinball mise-en-scène.
Back on the rainbow road to Asgard, Thor arrives fresh from defeating an oversized pile of embers bent on bringing about Ragnarok, the apocalypse that would spell the end for the glittering Nordic fantasia. He figures out that his miscreant brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), has been impersonating their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), who he left imprisoned on Earth. The two set off on a journey to find him, by way of a visit paid to Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Marvel films have never shied away from exposition overload, but few have given it more panache and less respect than Taika Waititi.
Thor’s brief interlude with Strange has the feel of an early-season episode of The Venture Brothers, firmly embedded in the nerdishness of its subject matter but still compelled to smirk at itself. Waititi, who directed What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, was clearly brought aboard to provide comedic genre-mashing of an edgier variety than Joss Whedon or Peyton Reed. And he comes about as close as anyone yet has to overturning the natural, monotonous order of things in the Marvel Universe.
Once Thor and Loki learn that Odin is dead, they scarcely have time to mourn before their long-ago banished sister, Hela, the Norse goddess of death (Cate Blanchett, doing exactly what would be expected of the villainess from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), materializes and lays claim to the throne, projecting her brothers to a planet where metallic detritus is the precipitation and society is organized around a gladiator pit lorded over by Jeff Goldblum. (His character is named something else, but by now Goldblum is incapable of not playing himself and never gets cast not to.) Meanwhile, Hela starts tearing away the Asgardian Palace’s freshest coats of granite, revealing murals depicting the murderous, plunderous hidden history of the kingdom’s true legacy. Faster than you can say “Make Asgard Great Again,” she’s resurrecting the army of the dead and unchaining Fenris the wolf.
Even though the subtext here about the genocidal lies that great civilizations are invariably built upon threatens to deflate the film’s soufflé texture, the Marvel Universe’s unshakeable faith in the clear delineation between good and evil luckily prevents Ragnarok from ever truly buying what Hela’s selling. Who needs hard evidence these days anyway? Instead, Waititi attacks the material with the juvenile spirit of kids doing battle with their action figures. So when Hela sprouts tar-black horns, why not? When Goldblum uses a scepter to dispatch some amphibious stool pigeon who then melts into a puddle of aquamarine glop, why not? When Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) crash lands into the gladiator pit from out of nowhere to spar with Thor, why not? In fact, the only question that Waititi dares to answer, based on the evidence, is whether he believes any of it means anything at all in the first place.