Stranger in a Strange Storyline
Chris Hemsworth is in the odd position of being one of those people who can command a huge salary, get his name in big letters on a movie poster, and sit on top of a massive opening box-office weekend, and yet he's not really what you'd call a proper movie star: people don't go and see a Chris Hemsworth movie, they go and see Thor movies, and it's just Hemsworth's good fortune that he's the guy who gets to play Thor at the moment. Once he steps away from the magic circle of the Marvel Studios franchise – well, it's not as if he doesn't make any other movies, and it's not as if they don't make money (although he has notched up a couple of significant bombs), nor is it the case that he is routinely bad in them, but they tend not to make the same kind of impression, no matter their quality. For the time being I'm sure this isn't a major issue for the big lad, but he surely can't carry on playing Thor forever, and what is he going to do then? (To be fair, this isn't problem isn't limited to Hemsworth, as a number of Marvel's other big names also seem to struggle to find success in other roles.)
Anyway, Hemsworth is back giving us his God of Thunder once again, in Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok, umpteenth entry in the all-conquering Marvel Studios megafranchise. This is their third release of 2017, but – as you might expect by this point – they make it all look very easy indeed.
Things get under way with a rather busy and somewhat convoluted opening section, but this is surely forgivable given that it allows for a brief appearance by Cumbersome Bandersnatch as Dr Strange and an uncredited cameo from an extremely game Major Movie Star, all played very much for laughs. (To be honest, the vast majority of the movie is essentially played for laughs on some level or other, so we can take that as read from this point on.)
Well, basically, the machinations of Thor's devious adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) bring about the return of the banished Asgardian Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), who is intent on seizing the throne for herself and reinventing Asgard as an aggressively imperial force in the universe. Thor and Loki take exception to this plan, but in the course of their tussle with Hela and her eye-catching headwear, find themselves dumped far from home on the junkheap planet Sakaar.
While Hela tightens her grip on Asgard with the help of Skurge (Karl Urban), an unscrupulous warrior, the brothers have to survive on this new alien world, which is ruled by the alien Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who is part despotic emperor, part superstar DJ. Thor is nabbed by the slightly boozy Asgardian renegade Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and consigned to the gladiatorial pits where he must battle to survive. Bereft of his magic hammer and his flowing locks, can Thor still summon up enough of his mojo to escape and save the universe...?
I think it is fair to say that not many people would rate the first two Thor movies amongst the top flight of the Marvel series – it's not that they're actually bad, but they are slightly ponderous in a way that most of the studio's other films are not. Clearly the people at the top of Marvel feel the same way, for there has obviously been a rethink and a bit of a retooling of Thor and his particular corner of the universe, perhaps somewhat influenced by Chris Hemsworth's very effective comic turn in the All-Female Ghostbusters Reboot. Everything is much more laid back and comedic than it was in the first two films; Thor is positively chatty much of the time, and there are sight gags and pratfalls aplenty.
Marvel savants will already be aware that, in an attempt to add something new to the formula this time round, the writers of Ragnarok have borrowed a few elements from the Planet Hulk storyline (which ran in the comics over ten years ago). Presumably this is one reason why the Hulk himself has a major role in the story (he is played by Mark Ruffalo, as usual) – although in terms of the actual plot, Thor is in the Hulk role, while the Hulk is in the position originally occupied by the Silver Surfer (who, needless to say, isn't in the film). As I say, it's only a superficial take on Planet Hulk, but putting Thor and the Hulk in outer space together does open up some new possibilities.
If nothing else, it does allow the movie to move away from some of the more limiting elements of the previous movies – Anthony Hopkins has a much-reduced role, as do several other established characters. Natalie Portman isn't in it at all, and for a while it also looks like Idris Elba's voluble complaints about working for Marvel ('This is torture, I don't want to do this') have earned him the sack – but he's dragged back in front of the green screen before too much time has elapsed. In their place, Cate Blanchett is clearly having a whale of a time as an extremely camp villainess, closely followed by Goldblum. One of the film's most quietly impressive features is Karl Urban's performance as Skurge the Executioner – Urban takes a third-string Marvel villain and manages to turn him into someone who actually has a bit of a character arc in the course of the story.
It's one of the few elements of the film which takes itself (mostly) seriously, for the sense I get from Ragnarok is that Marvel's main directive to Waititi was 'Make it more Guardians of the Galaxy-y'. The playlist this time is more prog rock and disco, but the quotient of spaceships, ray guns, monsters, and cosmic nonsense is certainly much closer to a James Gunn movie than one by Kenneth Branagh. And, you know, it's all good fun, crowd-pleasing stuff, unless you happen to think that films about wisecracking alien gods and big green gamma monsters are actually the stuff of heavy drama and should be taken terribly, terribly seriously.
On the other hand, I have generally been impressed by the way Marvel have negotiated the 'too silly-too serious' tightrope in the past, but all three of the films they've released this year have arguably been primarily comedic in tone. It's certainly worked for them, but I'm not sure it's sustainable – on the other hand, the next film off the conveyor belt, Black Panther, looks like it will be more down to earth in most respects. Normally at this point one would say 'this could be a challenging change of tone, it'll be interesting to see if Marvel manage it', but seventeen films into the series it certainly seems like Marvel's main challenge will be to keep finding new challenges for themselves. Thor: Ragnarok is not the greatest Marvel movie ever, but certainly not the worst: it moves the story along in interesting and unexpected ways, and you're never more than a few minutes away from a genuinely good gag or some well-executed crash-bang-wallop, or both. A very safe bet for a good time.