Taika Waititi’s highly self-aware Thor: Ragnarok is a fitting response to the pomposity and pretentiousness that mark most movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The third part in the Thor franchise is less The Avengers and more of the Guardians of the Galaxy in its parodic tone and treatment of shock-and-awe spectacle. Rangarok swells and hums with campy, hammy humour, self-deprecation and memorable characters that combine to enliven the mandatory boom-boom action sequences. It never resorts to irony for its own sake.
The plot is kept to a minimum – Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his mischievous and untrustworthy brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) team up to save their kingdom Asgard from their recently discovered evil sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) with some help from the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Waititi displays immense control over the premise, smoothly transitioning between various CGI-led set pieces and locales and maintaining a hold over the tone throughout. The tongue never leaves the side of the cheek, and the eye is never taken off the detailing and visual effects that are par for the course in a big-budget fantasy genre movie.
The movie opens with a bang: Thor, a captive of the fire demon Surtur, breaks free to the pulsating strains of the barnstorming Led Zeppelin track Immigrant Song and makes his way to Asgard to prevent a prophecy of annihilation from coming true. In the first of several meta-moments, Thor finds Loki impersonating their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) while watching a play based on the previous movie, Thor: The Dark World (2013). The vainglorious Loki, naturally, is the hero of this fiction within the fiction.
Loki faces serious competition in the self-delusion department from Hela, the Goddess of Death (and Camp), played with eye-rolling relish by Cate Blanchett who seems to be channelling Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. Thor takes refuge on the planet Sakaar, where he runs into his old friend the Hulk and the movie’s best character, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), whose vivid rags, nonsensical patter, peacock-like strutting and tendency to address his subjects through massive holograms make Loki look dignified.
How many preening personages can a single movie take? Waititi takes his chances with the Hulk, who gets to crack a few jokes at Thor’s expense, and voices the gladiator Korg, who comprises rocks and a Polynesian accent. By divesting Thor of his faithful hammer and his hair Waititi strips the character of his mythical Norse roots and allows Hemsworth to explore his comic side.
The real battle isn’t between Thor and Hela or Thor and the Hulk. The frequently off-kilter and unpredictable humour and refusal to treat Thor’s strivings as anything more than a wacky popcorn-friendly adventure might actually threaten the prospects of future Marvel movies, including one in which Spider-Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy denizens and Doctor Strange will be made to assemble for the 2019 release Avengers: Infinity War. (Doctor Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, makes a suitably sly appearance in Thor: Ragnarok, without any of the world-in-peril angst that characterised his standalone movie).
By treating the Thor sequel and the Marvel movie juggernaut itself as one big joke, Waititi has upended the very logic on which franchise stands. If there is any message in the cheerfully preachiness-free Thor: Rangarok, the director and screenplay writers Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost suggest, it is that the Marvel movies need saving from themselves rather than arch-enemies and adversaries of Earth.