Chris Hemsworth looks like he had a blast making “Eagle Vs Shark” director Taika Waititi’s colorful, tongue-in-cheek, superhero saga “Thor: Ragnarok” (**** OUT OF ****), the third—and best–entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe about the Asgardian God of Thunder. “Thor: Ragnarok” shares more in common with director Kenneth Branagh’s origins epic “Thor” (2011) rather than with Alan Taylor’s sequel “Thor: The Dark World.” Unlike the first and third entries,” “Thor: The Dark World” (2013) maintained a serious and straightforward tone. Basically, the second “Thor” spurned comedy, slaughtered Thor’s mom Frigga, and reformed Thor who had behaved like a blowhard. Comparatively, Waititi and his three scenarists, Eric Pearson of “Marvel One-Shot: Agent Carter,” Craig Kyle of “Planet Hulk,” and Christopher L. Yost of “Max Steel,” not only ridicule Thor, but they also challenge the Son of Odin as he has never been tested. Typically, superhero sagas qualify as predictable since you know the hero will vanquish all adversaries and restore order to the cosmos before the end credits. Although the original “Thor” was seldom surprising, our hero suffered the consequences of his hopeless arrogance. Odin deprived his son of his supernatural hammer Mjölnir and banished him to Earth without powers. Good movies run their heroes through a gauntlet, and “Thor: Ragnarok” pits the God of Thunder against a virtually invincible adversary–his heretofore unknown, elder sister Hela. While she is more than enough to keep him occupied, Waititi and his writers have added the Incredible Hulk. These adversaries keep Thor behind the eight-ball for three-quarters of its swiftly-paced 130 minutes. Thor tangles with enemies for the first time who can withstand the worst he can dish out. Hela ranks as one of his more memorable foes, and two-time Oscar winning Best Actress Cate Blanchett has a field day as Hela, the Goddess of Death. Decked out in a black, dominatrix outfit, this Goth-looking gal resembles Angelina Jolie’s “Maleficent,” and the antlers that spring from her head before combat make her appear genuinely sinister. When he isn’t dodging Hela, Thor tackles the gigantic Hulk in an off-world gladiatorial arena.
As “Thor: Ragnarok” unfolds, we learn the wicked fire demon Surtur (voice of Clancy Brown) has captured our eponymous hero and plans to execute him. The haughty Surtur informs Thor that Odin no longer sits on the throne of Asgard. Furthermore, he explains that a long, foretold prophecy referred to as ‘Ragnarok’ with bring about the impending destruction of Thor’s planet. Once he plunges his crown into the Eternal Flame in Odin’s vault, Sutur boasts that he will conquer Asgard! Trussed up like a turkey fit for a feast, Thor listens to Sutur’s boasts until the God of Thunder’s wayward hammer homes in on his location like a boomerang. Thor smashes the fire demon’s dreams to smithereens. He hastens to Asgard and discovers that his shape-shifting, half-brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston of “Kong: Skull Island”), has been impersonating Odin, who has been exiled to Earth. While he awaits death, Odin warns them that his first-born child, Hela (Cate Blanchett of “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”), will break out of her prison and attack Asgard. Earlier, Odin had incarcerated his daughter because she harbored ambitions far greater and destructive than his own! No sooner has Hela returned to Asgard than she shatters Mjölnir as if it were glass and drives Thor and Loki off. Afterward, Hela eliminates all of Thor’s compatriots, while the God of Thunder ends up on the remote planet Sakaar where gladiator combat is the rage.
The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum of “Independence Day”) rules Sakaar and conducts himself like the Roman Emperor Commodus. Commodus dictated which gladiator would triumph, even if he had to rig the outcome. The Grandmaster has acquired an unrivalled champion in the form of the Incredible Hulk who vanished under mysterious circumstances after the battle at Sokovia in “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015). Thor surprises everybody when he clocks Hulk. Previously, nobody left the arena alive after fighting Hulk, but Thor impresses the Grandmaster enough that the tyrant allows him to live. Thor tries to recruit the Hulk to accompany him back to Asgard to overthrow Hela. Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson of “Creed”), the bounty hunter who delivered Thor to the Grandmaster, keeps him restrained with a tazer. Eventually, Thor persuades her to join Hulk and he in a revolt against Sakaar’s founder. Further, Thor learns that Scraper 142 was a Valkyrie who fought against Hela and left after nearly dying in battle. Meantime, Hela has lain waste to Asgard, but this doesn’t dissuade Thor from returning to rescue his people and then take them to a new homeland. The scenes that depict thousands of Asgardians seeking refuge aboard a space freighter evoke memories of the British Army’s evacuation of Dunkirk during World War II.
For the record, since it doesn’t take place on Earth, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), and Jane’s assistant Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) are nowhere to be seen in this second sequel. Heimdall (Idris Elba), the gatekeeper of the Bifrost on Asgard, went missing in “Thor: The Dark World,” but he reappears in “Thor: Ragnarok” and plays a vital role in getting the people of Ragnarok in their ill-fated rebellion against Hela. Thor’s merry threesome: Fandral (Josh Dallas), Hogan (Tadanobu Asano), and Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) show up briefly for this apocalyptic opus, but Lady Sif isn’t around because actress Jaimie Alexander of “Blindspot” could not fit the third “Thor” into her schedule. Chronologically, “Thor: Ragnarok” occurs two years after the events in ““The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” while it happens four years after “Thor: The Dark World.” If you look closely at a skit staged in Asgard when Thor returns, you’ll spot Matt Damon of “The Bourne Identity” playing Loki in a play, while Chris Hemsworth’s older brother Luke Hemsworth impersonates him as Thor. Scarlett Johansson has a cameo as Black Widow, and Benedict Cumberbatch has a scene with Thor where the Son of Odin’s drinking stein replenishes itself mysteriously.
“Thor: Ragnarok” provides new perspectives on the franchise and exposes a wealth of untold backstory not only about Odin but also Asgard prior to Thor’s birth. The revelation about Odin’s bloodlust for the conquest of alien realms makes him appear unsavory rather than avuncular as he appeared in the first two “Thor” epics. Visually, Hela’s clash with the Valkyries resembles an Italian Renaissance painting come to life. A low-budget, little-known independent director, Waititi brings an entirely different vibe to the otherwise hackneyed material. Waititi and his writers rely on humor to give the lead character as well as several supporting characters a greater sense of depth. They have breathed new life into the franchise by cutting Asgard out from under the Thor, exiling Odin, and demolishing Mjölnir. Thor often behaves like a buffoon, and it feels liberating to laugh at his oafish antics. Comparatively, Cate Blanchett radiates a malevolent pugnacity as Odin’s first-born who lives to slay. She makes an unforgettable villain. The scenes where she massages her temples and antlers erupt is striking. Hela’s comeuppance is as spectacular as it is satisfying. The comic touches in “Thor: Ragnarok” may not sit well with some fans who will frown on such shenanigans, but this refreshing irreverence is long-overdue.