In Norse mythology, Ragnarok is a series of events and battles that lead to the destruction of most of the gods. But different from Apocalyptic stories, it leads to rebirth for the Earth. After natural disasters wipe out all humans but two (Lif & Lifthrasir), the land submerges beneath the sea only to reemerge renewed and refreshed. The two humans repopulate the world, living with the help of the surviving gods. In Judeo-Christian terms, it’s closer to the story of Noah than Revelations. Ragnarok has been translated to English as “The Twilight of the Gods,” and as “Gotterdammerung” in German, where it served as the basis for the last of Wagner’s operas in the Ring series. In the Marvel Universe, though, Ragnarok means the regeneration of the Thor franchise.
The original Thor in 2011 was fun, with director Kenneth Branagh contrasting the operatic heights of Asgard with fish-out-of-water humor when Thor is banished to Earth. But Thor’s later appearances in the two Avengers movies as well as Thor: The Dark World (2013) were more standard smash-‘em-up superhero fare. Overall, Thor was a bit of a prig with all the “only he who is worthy can wield the hammer” stuff and his impossibly sculpted muscles. Star Chris Hemsworth was getting so bored with the franchise he was ready to bail out.
Enter writer/director Taika Waititi. The part-Maori New Zealander has a wonderfully cockeyed sense of humor that’s been displayed in his projects like What We Do In the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and he brings that sensibility to Thor: Ragnarok. While three screenwriters got credit for the Ragnarok script, including Dark World screenwriter Christopher L. Yost, Waititi encouraged his cast to improvise – something that usually does not happen in the Marvel Universe. The story also gives Thor a fresh dose of humanity.
After the events of Age of Ultron, Thor battles Surtur, a huge demon beast who plans to destroy Asgard. He defeats Surtur and returns to Asgard, where Thor discovers Loki is now celebrated after his supposed death during the Dark World battles. He finds Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and many Asgardians watching a stage re-enactment of Loki’s death. (The cast of the actors is fun, with Chris’s brother Luke Hemsworth playing the actor Thor, Sam Neill [Jurassic Park] as the actor Odin, and the actor playing Loki is an uncredited Matt Damon.) The tag at the end of Dark World revealed Loki (Tom Hiddleston) was alive and disguised as Odin, and Thor finds a particularly Thor-ish way to make the trickster reveal himself.
Loki takes Thor to where he dumped Odin – a retirement home in New York City – only to find the home has been demolished. But with the help of Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, in an extension of the tag at the end of Doctor Strange) they find Odin sitting on a bluff in Norway overlooking the ocean, awaiting his imminent passing. Odin warns Thor that his death will release Thor’s first-born sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death. Hela had been at Odin’s side as he conquered worlds, but couldn’t accept peace, so she was banished by the Valkyries. When Odin slips away, Hela appears. She destroys Thor’s hammer, then catches a ride on the rainbow bridge to Asgard, tossing Thor and Loki into space on the way. Thor wakes on a junk-strewn planet where he’s captured by a mysterious woman warrior (Tessa Thompson) and pressed into gladiatorial combat by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). His first bout is against the Hulk, who landed on the planet after he flew off at the end of Ultron.
The plot of Ragnarok is fairly thin and straightforward. What makes it soar is the humor and characterizations, especially with some smaller roles. You have an almost unrecognizable Karl Urban (Bones in the rebooted Star Trek and the remorseless killer in The Bourne Supremacy) as Skurge, an opportunist who’s taken over running the rainbow bridge from Heimdall (Idris Elba). There’s also the blue rock warrior Korg, with a truly unexpected voice provided by director Waititi.
This movie gives the most screen-time yet to Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, and it makes you wish for a full Hulk movie, even after the two misfires with Eric Bana and Edward Norton. (Seeing Thor try to play the Black Widow role to calm the Hulk is almost too bizarre to believe.) But the one who steals the movie whenever she’s onscreen is Blanchett as the first female big bad villain in the Marvel Universe. She gives Thor and the Asgardians hell, even as she looks divine doing it.
You usually don’t go to a superhero movie to laugh out loud (with the exception of Ant-Man), but this movie will garner that reaction several times. Yet it still works perfectly as a Marvel film. Hemsworth’s Thor is rejuvenated by his trials, while the actor himself is reinvigorated by this take on the character. While the story may look at the “Twilight of the Gods,” this film is a delightful romp in the mid-day sun.