Superhero comic book characters hardly get bigger on the page, in presence and personality, than Marvel’s Mighty Thor, prince of Asgard. Thor rules in a world of ancient myths and outlandish fantasy, and for 55 years, fans have thrilled to the other-worldly adventures of the brash, boastful Avenger.
It’s a testament to comic fans’ affinity for the lug, and to moviegoers taking to actor Chris Hemsworth as the hero, that audiences made a box-office hit of the demigod’s big-screen intro in 2011’s middling Thor. Although Hemsworth aptly embodied the role, the film was driven by the most anemic romance in superhero cinema — Cap and Bucky clearly have hotter chemistry — and the production design looked left over from an episode of The A-Team. The grander, yet murkier, Thor: The Dark World followed in 2013, earning more at the box office, despite exhibiting all the warmth and personality of a dead ice giant.
But hark, for the gods are with Marvel and live-wire director Taika Waititi this third go around, as Thor: Ragnarok (★★★★) is nothing if not bursting at the seams with style and vigor. Lush with epic-scale images that might have been, or soon will be, emblazoned along the sides of smoke-filled, Led Zeppelin-blaring party vans, Ragnarok is a flick that longs to be savored.
As the villainous Hela, the Asgardian Goddess of Death, Cate Blanchett appears to relish every last morsel of scenery, proving that at least one Oscar-winner can thrive around Thor. Natalie Portman’s Thor-adoring Dr. Jane Foster is not missed here; the couple is on a time-out, yielding Thor more time to battle against and alongside fellow Avenger the Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and fellow Asgardian warrior Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson).
Thor and the gang find themselves stuck on the trash planet of Sakaar, a teeming, urban junk heap ruled over by the Grandmaster, portrayed by Jeff Goldblum as a sort of fey, sarcastic weirdo, which is to say, like any other Goldblum character. The script, by Eric Pearson and Dark World alums Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost, supplies Goldblum, and the entire cast, with a fizzy mix of one-liners, space-jargon, and royal family intrigue.
Brotherly banter between Thor and his reliably unreliable sibling Loki (Tom Hiddleston, returning as the franchise’s not-so-secret weapon) does a fine job exploiting the relationship developed across the characters’ half a dozen film appearances. Their ongoing family drama helps ground this fantastical, multi-dimensional, gods and hulks and demons-featuring space opera in worthwhile feeling.
But seemingly there’s no getting around having to explain copious background details when navigating foreign planets strewn about the Nine Realms. Exposition flies in every direction, and more than once, Waititi cuts away from the excitement to service a parallel plotline, leaving several truly explosive moments to pass offscreen.
Still, the director compensates mightily with not one, but two visually stunning bad guys: Blanchett’s sylph-like world-beater Hela, and the flaming titan Surtur (voiced by the inimitable Clancy Brown).
The handiwork of more digital and visual effects artists than there are citizens of Asgard, Surtur is the first to warn of Ragnarok, but not the last to explain what it is. He’s just one comic fan favorite to make an appearance, including Thor arch-nemesis Skurge the Executioner (Karl Urban), and Benedict Cumberbatch’s snappy Dr. Strange.
Waititi knows his audience, and brings a daring vision for taking Thor on an intergalactic jaunt to a garbage planet. Hemsworth, Hiddleston, Blanchett, and company keep it light, yet big and suspenseful, and the story leaves the God of Thunder in a most intriguing position, presumably to be picked up in an upcoming cinematic appearance.
A story about potential planetary annihilation, Thor: Ragnarok aims for laughs and maximum action-movie enjoyment, and soundly delivers. There’s even brief Hulk rear nudity, if that’s your thing.
Thor: Ragnarok is rated PG-13, and opens in theaters everywhere on Friday, November 3. Visit fandango.com.
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