space oddity

at the movies: Thor: Ragnarok

Plenty of Marvel movies have dealt in the art of the quip, but Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok is only the second to effectively weaponize irony. The first was James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), in which a newly buff Chris Pratt stood out in front of the action, mugging for the camera like Jim Halpert with a laser gun. In Waititi’s film, it’s not any particular character that draws attention to the conventions and contrivances of the superhero movie; rather, the movie seems, in the best possible way, a parody of itself. Thor: Ragnarok is ridiculous, and no one is more aware of that than Thor: Ragnarok.

The story, by screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost, is largely irrelevant. There’s a baddie, Hela, played by Cate Blanchett, who seems to recognize that she can deliver a decent performance just by phoning it in. But the stretches we spend with her, establishing the urgency of Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) vaguely defined mission to defeat her, are the weakest of the film, even though they’re the only ones that are really plot-based. That’s because Ragnarok isn’t really a movie in any traditional sense. At this point, we’ve reached peak Marvel Cinematic Universe—every new installment by definition assumes full familiarity with every one of the innumerable strands of Marvel’s vast, vertically integrated storyline. Not episodic, but miles away from standalone, Ragnarok both demands the audience’s full attention and cheekily flouts it. In the first fifteen minutes of the film we zip by, then abandon, Benedict Cumberbatch, as Doctor Strange, and Anthony Hopkins, as Odin, plus cameos from, among others, Luke Hemsworth, Sam Neill, and Matt Damon. Blink-and-you-miss-it? Sure. But Waititi seems to reassure us that that’s okay.

Waititi is the manic Kiwi filmmaker who gave us 2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and now, as then, he has mastered cheerily busy pep and bright colors with a flair that goes beyond kitsch and comes out the other side. The film’s strength, then, is visual, a gonzo pop sensibility that aims no deeper than the surface. This trope is deployed nowhere better than in the film’s framing of the glorious Jeff Goldblum, who first appears, face filling the screen, in garish neon blue makeup, his hair arranged into an approximation of a bouffant. The powers that be will have you believe his character is a sort of a warlord called the Grandmaster, but any fool can see he’s playing himself. Late in the action, projected as a gargantuan hologram, he orders the citizens of his planet not to let Thor escape, wagging a finger and warning, half hesitatingly, half scoldingly, “Don’t let him leave this planet!” It’s the best line reading in the film.

The rest of the movie is mostly an accumulation of small pleasures. Mark Ruffalo finally hits his groove as Bruce Banner by playing him as a twitchy neurotic. Thor and Hela trade punches to the face inside a rainbow wormhole in a Kubickian joyride of a sequence. The director himself voices an alien rock monster with a chirpily sweet Flight of the Conchords accent. No one could argue that the result is anything meaty or viscerally satisfying; for Marvel, nothing since Iron Man (2008) really has been. But the film offers an experience democratically aligned between the tastes of the casual viewer and the diehard Marvel fanatic. There are consequences to Thor’s arc in Ragnarok: He suffers loss, permanent and jarring, that interrupts his world. But missing the film, while ill-advised, is consequence-less, even in a comic-book cinema landscape where skipping an episode is increasingly impermissible. Pop in and see how Thor’s doing, Ragnarok seems to suggest. But if you’re busy now, don’t worry, he’ll be back again soon enough.