There was always a mischievous twinkle to the first two “Thor” films, as dumb and lumbering as they were. Think of the big Asgardian warrior (Chris Hemsworth) visiting a pet store and asking for a horse (“or a very large dog”) to ride into battle in the first movie, or crammed into a London Underground train in the second film, “The Dark World.”
But that twinkle turns into sparkles and fireworks in the new “Thor: Ragnarok,” which is less a superhero movie than a buddy comedy with occasional fighting. Letting director Taika Waititi of the indie comedies “Hunt For the Wilderpeople” and “What We Do in the Shadows” make a Marvel movie seemed like a nutty decision for both Waititi and Marvel. But the result is one of the most fun superhero movies in recent years.
There’s a plot, which is almost a shame, really, since the more the film indulges in offbeat characters and tangential humor, the better. The death of Thor’s father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has unshackled Thor’s banished older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett), who turns out to be hella evil. She’s bent on taking the throne of Asgard and turning the peaceful Norse world back into the bloodthirsty conquering empire of old.
Thor tries to stop her, but his beloved hammer is pulverized for his trouble and he ends up stranded on the colorful garbage planet Sakaar, the clearance bin of the galaxy. Sakaar is ruled by the Grandmaster, played by Jeff Goldblum at his absolute Goldblummiest, sighing and smirking and having a great old time. You find me another supervillain who interrupts his speech about his evil plans to do a little noodling on the keyboard.
Hemsworth, who proved his comic chops as the dim-witted receptionist in the “Ghostbusters” reboot, is more than game to cut Thor down to size, making him funnier and more fallible. Favorite characters return, including Thor’s trickster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and The Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), both giving more overt comic spins on their characters.
And there are some new members of the crew. Tessa Thompson (“Dear White People”) is fantastic as a swaggering, beer-swilling Valkyrie, and Waititi himself gets some of the biggest laughs as Korg, a disarmingly nice rock creature. A few other cameos are too good to spoil, although fans of “Wilderpeople” in particular should keep an eye out.
Blanchett has a blast as Hela, who smoothes her hair back into pointy antlers when she’s ready to cause some mayhem on Asgard. But we’re always itching a little to get back to Thor, the Hulkster and Goldblum’s Grandmaster — that’s where the fun is. Waititi has a knack for stopping an action scene absolutely dead for a funny visual or witty aside. He never really breaks the mold of the superhero movie, but he has a good time working within it.
Waititi’s commitment to fun extends to every corner of the film. Taking its cue from Asgard’s Rainbow Bridge, the movie uses every color in the 64-crayon Crayola box in designing its spaceships, costumes and worlds. And, instead of the usual thundering superhero movie score, someone had the bright idea to have composer Mark Mothersbaugh deliver a peppy, cheesy synth score that’s a throwback to his 1980s band Devo.
Marvel has had fun before, but it’s usually with characters somewhat peripheral to its universe, like Paul Rudd as the wry Ant-Man or the goofy antics of the Guardians of the Galaxy. But this is the first time that spirit has really invaded the core Avengers of that universe, and you can see Hemsworth, Ruffalo and even Hopkins relishing the change to loosen up a little bit.
That spirit probably won’t last in future Marvel movies — how much zany fun can a movie called “Avengers: Infinity War” really be? But right now, it’s a sight for Thor eyes.