Thor: Ragnarok,
directed by Taiki Waititi
(Marvel/Disney Pictures, 2017)

Thor: Ragnarok is a perfect buddy flick for the Marvel age, putting two muscle-bound heroes on the road to Asgard as they seek to escape gladiatorial slavery on a distant planet and free the oppressed people of Thor's homeworld from a brutal invader.

It's funnier than the two previous Thor movies. In fact, I saw one reviewer refer to this one as a "screwball comedy."

And that's a problem.

Marvel movies have always succeeded in one big way that the DC moviemakers haven't figured out yet: how to blend humor with action in just the right amounts. Here, though, I had to pause -- Ragnarok might just be the funniest Marvel movie to date, and yet it seemed somehow inappropriate to be laughing so hard at scenes that punctuate so massive a body count.

Bear in mind that the vast majority of Asgard's population -- including the popular Warriors Three: Fandral, Hogun and Volstagg -- dies in this movie. (Sorry if that comes as a surprise, but if you've seen the trailers, you know it's coming.) There is a lot of death in this film, including nearly all of Asgard's warrior class and, in one spectacular scene, all but one of the elite Valkyrie warriors. Even the Hulk, whose actions have caused innumerable off-screen deaths through rage and carelessness in the past, has spent the past two years (in movie time, since his disappearance at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron) slaying opponents with malice and intention, gladiator-style.

Certainly a certain amount of death is to be expected in a film whose primary antagonist is the Goddess of Death, and one of the major settings is a planet-sized coliseum. And all of that mayhem works in the context of this story; it's just an odd juxtaposition beside so much jolly good humor.

That caveat aside, Thor: Ragnarok is a hell of a ride.

It begins with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) battling the fire demon Surtur (voiced by Clancy Brown) to stave off the end of days for Asgard. Successful, Thor heads home with Surtur's horned skull to find his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, back for one last outing in the role) replaced and banished by the shapeshifter Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who didn't really die after all in the last movie. (Big surprise.)

But Odin's absence causes the release of his long-hidden first-born daughter, Hela (Cate Blanchett), who acted as Odin's primary enforcer until her ambition outstripped his own. Now, back from long exile, this sinewy Goddess of Death quickly proves herself well named, destroying Thor's mystical hammer, Mjolnir, and casting Thor and Loki from the Rainbow Bridge into the far reaches of space. Then Hela returns to Asgard and, well, kills pretty much everyone who opposes her.

Thor and Loki, meanwhile, find themselves pawns on a Battle Royale-style planet, where the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) rules as one of the most likable and comical villains in recent memory. Damn, someone should give the Grandmaster his own film series!

Thor and Loki, of course, want to escape and return to Asgard, where Heimdall (Idris Elba) is leading the resistance and Skurge (Karl Urban) is marching in step with Hela's new world order. They find allies along the way, including the suddenly chatty Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Rufulo), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and a bevy of misfit gladiators led by the immensely affable Korg (a CGI creation voiced by director Taiki Waititi).

There's even a brief but excellent appearance by Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch).

I have to admit, I loved this movie. The action is excellent, the pacing is great, the humor is over the top. Only the death toll gave me pause.

review by
Tom Knapp

16 December 2017

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