Thor and the Hulk have always been one of Marvel Comics’ best power couples, two extremely destructive allies, friends, and occasional enemies. This relationship has been enjoyably introduced in Joss Whedon’s Avengers films, but Thor Ragnarok is easily the duo’s best MCU showcase, a raucously fun buddy movie starring the universe’s strongest heroes. New franchise director Taika Waititi fully embraces the ridiculousness of the premise of a friendship between a Norse god and irradiated green giant in one of the most entertaining and unashamedly ‘comic book’ MCU entries yet.
It takes a while for Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to actually meet up though. Thor runs a gauntlet of Nordic obstacles before crash landing of Banner’s current home – the planet of Sakaar, where all the cosmos’ wayward things end up. First, he has to defeat fire demon Surtur and his horde of goblins and dragons in a joyously effortless battle, before returning home to Asgard to forcibly enlist the help of Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in finding the missing Odin (Anthony Hopkins). All these Asgardian antics are brought to a screeching halt, however, by the arrival of the long-imprisoned Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), who effortlessly swats Thor aside, destroying his hammer and sending him careering the dumping grounds of Sakaar.
From here, it’s a journey back to Asgard to save it from its new despot, Thor enlisting many unlikely helpers along the way. Sakaar is a visual masterclass in comic-to-screen adaptation, its bizarre structures and denizens straight out of a Jack Kirby page, but also grimy and makeshift enough to feel really lived-in. Great swirls and plumes of vibrant colour fill every frame, brought to life through CG and practical effects, and there’s very little else on the blockbuster market that looks like Ragnarok.
These settings provide gorgeous backdrops through enormously fun action sequences, supported by the synthy ‘80s-style soundtrack from Mark Mothersbaugh. For the most part, there’s little in the way of actual meaningful threat, but it’s such a rollicking ride that it hardly matters. A brawl between Hulk and Thor is one of the MCU’s best ever one-on-one fights, and Thor’s electrified annihilation of undead armies is the kind of display of absurd comic-book power that is only possible after a near decade of work establishing this universe’s rules. Though underused, Blanchett’s Hela is still a vicious force of nature when she fights, and fellow franchise newcomer Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, magnetic) is an awe-inspiring warrior when she’s not toppling over drunk.
On top of all this spectacle, Ragnarok is also immensely funny, Waititi’s comedic sensibilities making the leap from his beloved indie fare in a wonderfully sharp script from Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost. Everyone gets a ton of hilarious jokes, though the show is constantly stolen by Jeff Goldblum as Sakaar’s dictator The Grandmaster and Waititi himself as the voice of benevolent rock monster Korg. Some of Korg’s lines feel as if they’re lifted straight from What We Do In the Shadows or Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and that they fit so well into the Marvel formula (and were even allowed in the first place) is a thrill.
This focus on silliness and laugh out loud gags elevates Ragnarok, the constant jokes feeling far more natural than in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 earlier this year, which ended up undermining its own emotional ambitions. Having no such dramatic aims frees Waititi and co up to tell a very funny story without worrying about this problem. It also lets Hemsworth give the best performance of his career so far, his enormous natural charisma and likability perfectly suiting the well-meaning, wise-cracking and increasingly savvy goof that Thor is in this film.
Previous Thor outings have felt melodramatic or stodgy, bogged down in unnecessary Earth-bound drama or high fantasy Elvish nonsense. Though there are still some clichéd lines, and the plot goes pretty much exactly as you’d expect it to, there’s a refreshing lack of repetition here, avoiding the now very stale beats that Thor has hit all too often in both his own series and Avengers appearances. It’s also the first time that he’s really felt he’s earned the billing of ‘God of Thunder’, introducing as yet unseen power levels into the MCU that are coherent and fun, which bodes well for Infinity War and Captain Marvel going forward.
By this point, the MCU, though still often possessing a strict house style, has become a playground for imaginative directors to take exciting risks within the confines of a multi-billion dollar franchise. In bringing in Waititi, Kevin Feige’s unstoppable superhero machine has gained easily the best Thor film so far and proof that they can deviate ever further from the comic-book-movie norm and still find great success. Marvel movies have truly changed the blockbuster game, and Ragnarok is one of the shining jewels in their ever-growing crown.