The Marvel movies use laughter as their secret weapon, walking a fine line between comic relief and outright self-spoofing. Comedy bridges the gap between lifelong fans and those who are just along for the ride; you don't have to know what the Infinity Stones are (I didn't) to enjoy jokes at the expense of tropes like the heroic charge and the talky villain.
So it's no surprise that the studio hired Taika Waititi, director of the low-budget mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, to helm the enormous vessel that is the third Thor movie. With his breakout film, he demonstrated that he could take a tired concept — vampire spoof! — and make it hilarious by sheer dint of commitment and timing.
Waititi's approach turns out to be a fine match for Marvel's version of the Norse god Thor (Chris Hemsworth) — who, with his pecs, tankard-quaffing bravado and pseudo-archaic diction, already verges on self-parody. The film's core conflict — an existential threat to Thor's home — is rote stuff, yet even those who couldn't care less about superhero battles and Asgardian family dynamics will find plenty of incidentals to enjoy.
In his Avengers outings, Thor is more of a straight man, but in Thor: Ragnarok, he gets in on the self-aware quipping from his very first scene. Dangling from a chain while a skull-crowned fire giant natters on about the prophesized apocalypse of the title, the Thunder God keeps interrupting to apologize for rotating out of earshot. It's a Terry Gilliam gag, juxtaposing the sublime and the silly, and there will be many more.
Back home, Thor stumbles into a playhouse where gloriously hammy thespians are reenacting the events of the previous film (Thor: The Dark World) with a suspicious bias toward Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Besides featuring a savory celebrity cameo, the scene pokes fun at the grandiosity of superhero films in general, reminding us of their roots in stage spectacle.
The villain of this particular spectacle is Hela (Cate Blanchett), an antler-crowned death goddess with a fetish for fascist warrior culture. While Blanchett clearly relishes her chance to camp it up, the Hela/Ragnarok plot that bookends the film proves way less interesting than the sizable digression that occupies its midsection.
Stripped of his hammer and tossed through space and time, Thor lands on a candy-colored "garbage planet" straight out of Guardians of the Galaxy, where he's forced into arena combat with an old ally. If you've seen the trailer, you know who it is.
But what makes this absurdist sci-fi twist on Gladiator so much fun are, again, the incidentals: Jeff Goldblum as a megalomaniac sporting Dr. Seuss-style blue hair; Waititi himself voicing a mild-mannered alien Spartacus made of rocks; the '80s-tastic exuberance of the production design. It all has squat to do with Norse mythology, and that's fine.
We're lucky to have such distractions, because Ragnarok, when it arrives, offers none of the eerie grandeur of the descent into primal chaos chronicled in the Poetic Edda. It's your standard world-threatening superhero conflict, complete with anonymous extras to represent common humanity.
By the end, Thor has learned that he can be pretty mighty even without his hammer, just as Peter Parker learned last summer in Spider-Man: Homecoming that he can be super without his suit. Marvel continues to remind us that being an ethical, self-realized human is more important than being a superhuman. Which is a nice takeaway and all, but my takeaway is that, as the Hulk might put it, "Funny Marvel good."