Thor: Ragnarok review: Marvel’s skies brighten

Chris Hemsworth’s thunder god takes a cosmic hike in a properly weird, poppy and knowing rescue sequel that riffs on Thor’s 1980s comic outings, Planet Hulk and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Kim Newman

from our forthcoming December 2017 issue

Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Tom Hiddleston as Loki in Thor: Ragnarok

Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Tom Hiddleston as Loki in Thor: Ragnarok

Thor and the Hulk are, literally, the heaviest hitters in the Marvel Universe, but their solo films haven’t quite matched the stronger Iron Man or Captain America entries – so far, both have been best served when included in the assembly of Joss Whedon’s Avengers.

Thor: The Dark World (2013), a troubled production, made the prospect of another sequel iffy, but this more engaging effort is crafted along the lines of Shane Black’s franchise rescue operation Iron Man Three (2013). In plot terms, this means another arrogant good guy has his home destroyed and is flung far from most of his supporting cast to rebuild a streamlined heroic identity, while by-play with a comic villain (here, Jeff Goldblum’s amusingly mild-mannered tyrant the Grandmaster) fills in between first- and last-act confrontations with a serious menace. In creative terms, it involves hiring unexpected talent to put the whole thing together, with New Zealand writer-performer-director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Boy) the latest quirky indie creative to win a golden ticket to a big-budget tentpole movie.

As ever, upfront credit is given to Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby for creating the Thor comics, but significant special mention is earned by Walt Simonson, Greg Pak and Carlo Pagulayan. Writer-artist Simonson’s well-regarded 1980s Thor run is referenced throughout, from a throwaway line about the thunder god once being turned into a frog to a concise adaptation of a subplot in which Skurge, hitherto a cardboard villain, emerges as a tragic anti-hero with a magnificent exit scene (perfectly played by Karl Urban).

Cate Blanchett as Hela and Karl Urban as Skurge

Cate Blanchett as Hela and Karl Urban as Skurge

Pak and Pagulayan wrote and drew the 2006 Planet Hulk, which is retooled here as a co-starring vehicle for Thor (replacing the Silver Surfer from the comic and Simonson’s alternate Thor creation Beta Ray Bill from the 2010 animated Planet Hulk film) and the Hulk in between battles with Thor’s witchy elder sister Hela – Cate Blanchett carrying off one of Jack Kirby’s extreme helmet designs.

Ragnarok borrows Planet Hulk’s knowing riff on the alien-arena theme, which is associated in comics and film with Flash Gordon (Superman went there too in the Warworld storyline) but which derives – ironically, considering that this is a Disney release – from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars books. The spectre of the unjustly maligned John Carter, Disney’s 2012 stab at Burroughs, lingers in brawl sequences, which are staged with brio – and Guardians of the Galaxy rock accompaniment – but still feel like rote genre requirements until lightning is called down for an exciting, epic finale.

Hemsworth as Thor

Hemsworth as Thor

Marvel edged ahead of the Distinguished Competition in the 1960s by adding what were then unusual elements to superheroic battles – soap opera, cosmic weirdness and humour. All three are represented here. The circular trust-betrayal relationship of Thor and Loki edges out traditional romance (“Sorry Jane dumped you,” says a New Yorker grabbing a selfie with the god), and yet again father issues dominate (Hela is ticked off, like Loki before her, by Odin’s self-indulgent tendency to pamper his favoured heroic son after their ignoble deeds have secured his throne).

Even more than the Guardians films, this has the crowded, colourful, double-page-spread look of classic Marvel (Thor was Kirby’s favourite space-opera stage), with much eye-pleasing detail. And, after the introspective gloom of recent Avengers and Captain America entries, Ragnarok lets the cast have fun: Chris Hemsworth is an amusing faux-dumb Thor, good-natured even when facing a charging Hulk (“I know him – he’s a friend from work!”); Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch match supercilious put-downs as Loki is ensorcelled by Doctor Strange; Waititi himself voices an amiable, scene-stealing rock monster; and Mark Ruffalo is endearing as a petty, big-kid Hulk and a befuddled Bruce Banner.

 

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