One of the joys of the old 1960s “Batman” TV series came from watching the reruns twice: eight-year-old me was enthralled with the excitement, suspense and heroics, but as a teenager, I understood that the show was arch, absurd and calculatedly ridiculous. It’s not hard to imagine a young audience completely losing their minds over the thrills and action of “Thor: Ragnarok,” and then loving it all over again when they realize how funny it is.
Directed by Taika Waititi (“Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” “What We Do in the Shadows”) with tongue firmly in cheek, this latest outing for the thunder god plays more to the giddy “Guardians of the Galaxy” crowd than to those who prefer their superheroes to be grim and gritty. But Waititi and screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher L. Yost know how to balance stakes and silliness, which is exactly what this movie needs. Audiences committed to the ongoing expansion of the Marvel screen universe will come away feeling respected for their devotion, while those who aren’t interested in the set-up for the next ten movies in the franchise can have fun and get on with their lives.
(Viewers who are here for the Norse mythology should have bailed on this series well before now. For a story about gods, there sure are a lot of aliens and spaceships here.)
We open on Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returning home to Asgard, where statues have been built and plays performed to praise the heroism of his trickster half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). It doesn’t take long for him to figure out that not only is Loki alive, he’s also been assuming the form of their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins).
After a quick sojourn to Earth to find where Loki has hidden the real Odin — a trip that involves a visit to a certain Master of the Mystic Arts’ Greenwich Village digs — Thor and Loki find themselves face-to-face with another of Odin’s children: Hela, Goddess of Death.
Hela (Cate Blanchett) belongs to Odin’s warrior past, and she’s bound and determined to overrule Asgard’s kinder, gentler ruler in favor of some good old murdering and pillaging of everyone else in the universe. And she’s got the power to do it: one squeeze of her fist turns Thor’s mighty hammer Mjolnir into so many cookie crumbs.
As Hela takes off to make Asgard her deadly base of operations, Thor and Loki find themselves on a planet run by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), where Thor must become a gladiator who faces off in the arena with the Grandmaster’s champion – none other than the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).
“Thor: Ragnarok” brings back the characters we know and love, including Heimdall (Idris Elba), while bringing plenty of new ones to the table; in addition to Hela and Grandmaster, we meet rock-encrusted alien Korg (voiced by a drily witty Waititi) and the Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, “Creed”), an Asgardian exile who is every much the fighter as Thor, not to mention his superior when it comes to snappy banter.
Both the banter and the fighting, it should be noted, are excellent, so whether you go to superhero movies for the glossy escapism or the pulse-pounding action, you’ll get your large soda’s worth. Editors Zene Baker (“Snatched”) and Joel Negron (“The Shallows”) keep the pace lively, with a delightfully self-aware score by Mark Mothersbaugh bolstering and exaggerating the grandeur at every corner. (Between this and “Brad’s Status,” Mothersbaugh has delivered two of the fall movie season’s most striking soundtracks.)
Hemsworth continues his streak (both in the Marvel movies and in the “Ghostbusters” remake) as a daft performer who knows how to use his almost exaggeratedly perfect physical features as part of the joke. (Balancing, and intertwining, sex and humor make him the 21st century version of Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield.) His comic rapport with Hiddleston, Ruffalo and especially Thompson goes a long way toward making the film such a screwball delight.
And if the old “Batman” gave us campy turns by Milton Berle as Louie the Lilac or Ethel Merman as Lola Lasagna, both Blanchett and Goldblum take full advantage of their Special Guest Villain status to go gloriously over the top. Goldblum’s trademark brand of stammering deadpan fits perfectly into this scenario, while Blanchett walks away with the movie; verbally, she plays like Dame Diana Rigg channeling both Joan Crawford and Eve Arden, and her physical slink (in one of Marvel Comics’ most wonderfully baroque costumes) calls to mind the sexy evil robot from “Metropolis.”
You don’t have to have seen the lead-ups to “Thor: Ragnarok” to enjoy yourself, nor will your delight depend upon another five future movies to be announced later. There’s little pomp and even less circumstance, but its goofy pleasures are more than enough.