It has taken three movies to get here, but Marvel has fully embraced the transformation of Thor into a genuine comedy star. There's always been a sly sense of humor to the studio's stories centered around the Norse thunder god, even in Kenneth Branagh's more operatic first outing. But with each subsequent installment, tongue was wedged further and further into cheek.
"Thor: Ragnarok" is helmed by gifted New Zealand director Taika Waititi ("What We Do in the Shadows," "Hunt for the Wilderpeople"), and the filmmaker injects his unique brand of humor into the proceedings, making it the first "Thor" film to qualify more as an outright comedy than an action flick.
With a candy-colored aesthetic and a joke-a-minute tone, the film is frequently hilarious. But that jovial, slapstick-y attitude too often seems to come at the expense of its story, which finds Thor imprisoned on the planet of Sakaar, where he's forced to compete in a deadly gladiatorial contest against his old friend the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). In his absence, Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett, clearly having a time), sets about her plans to lay waste to Asgard. Naturally, Tom Hiddleston's Loki is also back, alternately ready to help or hinder his heroic brother as it suits him.
The motivations and machinations involved in all of this are the weakest aspect of the script, credited to Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost. There are certainly stakes in the film's multi-stranded plot, but they lack weight. The potential destruction of Asgard doesn't feel like any more serious than Thor's flowing locks being shorn off during his gladiator makeover. The result is plenty fun, but in the end, this feels like the least of the three Marvel movies released this year -- after "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" and "Spider-Man: Homecoming."
The scenes set on Sakaar are obviously where Waititi's heart truly lies, and that section finds the film at its freewheeling best. The planet is ruled over by The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), a droll and arbitrarily sadistic leader. Goldblum has a knack for the film's jokey dialogue; he and Waititi are a natural fit, and I hope the two work together on something else down the line.
The film's other key player is Tessa Thompson ("Dear White People," "Creed") as another denizen of Sakaar, the hard-drinking, warrior-turned-mercenary Valkyrie -- a role that should finally turn the gifted actress into a household name. And Waititi himself nearly walks off with the film, providing the voice of Korg, a daftly good-natured rock beast who's one of The Grandmaster's prisoners.
Blanchett is a slinky joy, hamming it up as Hela (and looking amazing in her goth eye makeup and antler headdress), though the character lacks the shading the actress was able to bring to the Wicked Stepmother in "Cinderella," her last outing as a deliciously over-the-top Disney villain. Hela talks a good game and definitely brings the carnage, but she doesn't add up to much.
Hemsworth has proved himself to be an exceptionally adept comedic actor, after "Vacation" and the "Ghostbusters" reboot. A performer with the pleasing ability to poke fun at himself, his goofy charisma holds the film together. He's in on the joke of his ridiculous, practically inhuman perfection, and that makes him somehow even more charming. It's delightful to watch him play off Thompson, Ruffalo, and Hiddleston in any and all of their various pairings.
The film is filled with striking visuals and inventive production design inspired equally by comic artist Jack Kirby and "Flash Gordon." Valkyrie's gorgeously stylized flashback to a previous encounter with Hela is a particular highlight. Mark Mothersbaugh's score, combining typical Marvel bombast with the musician's signature synths, adds a zippy energy, and the soundtrack also makes excellent use Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" at several key points.
"Thor: Ragnarok" doesn't take itself too seriously, but there are a few intriguing ideas bubbling under the surface, including the idea that Hela represents a reckoning with Asgard's colonialist past -- implications that it's not hard to imagine may have sprung from the filmmaker's Maori heritage. The film doesn't dwell on those details, though; it's much more interested in providing a good time.
The film's ability to poke fun at itself is only a problem when it deflates any attempt to build up tension: It's hard to get too worried about the fate of our heroes when they themselves don't appear concerned. Under the guidance of Waititi, "Thor: Ragnarok" achieves it modest aims, even if in the grand scheme of the extended Marvel Cinematic Universe, it sometimes feels like it's treading water.
Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including a review of the "Wonderstruck," from director Todd Haynes.