They're called comic books for a reason too many superhero movies neglect. Not Thor: Ragnarok, one keenly aware of how silly all this universe saving stuff is. Guardians of the Galaxy is fun; this movie's funny. There's a difference.
Chalk it up to the improbably apt choice of Taika Waititi to direct Thor's third solo outing. Nothing about the New Zealander's previous resume suggests he's right for directing a mega-budget Marvel flick. Waititi's What We Do in the Shadows is a droll vampire mockumentary and Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an eccentric outdoors adventure.
Such an askew view of convention is what the superhero genre has needed for a while. This is an anti-superhero movie, joshing everything in blockbusters taken too seriously too long. Waititi accomplishes what Edgar Wright was likely trying to do with Ant-Man before splitting over creative differences with Marvel brass. That was then, Thor: Ragnarok is now.
Honestly, I always believed the Norse god of thunder needed a better sense of humor. Too pseudo-questy Shakespearean for my teenage taste in comics. (Same goes for Doctor Strange; Waititi loosens him up, too.)
To that end, Thor: Ragnarok offers Chris Hemsworth a stage to flex comedic muscles as firm as his abs. This guy knows how to sell a joke. More importantly, he knows how to undersell jokes when they're dumb. Hemsworth's self-mockery is an amusing upgrade from Thor's previous vehicles.
Even so, Thor still plays straight man to many of the intergalactic weirdos encountered here. The mission is to save Thor's home planet Asgard from Ragnarok, a mythic holocaust being willed by Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death. Hela's the sister Thor and his bratty kid brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) never knew they had. Daddy Odin (Anthony Hopkins, in on the jokes) never mentioned her. There are artifacts to recover, sorcerers to meet. Thor winds up in gladiator games run by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum in Buckaroo Banzai mode).
The arena pits Thor against Hulk (Mark Ruffalo in CGI), one of several shoehorned encounters or references to other corners of Marvel's universe. Thor and Hulk's battle is a fanboy dream but Waititi's lighter style doesn't work as well in Ruffalo's live action work as Bruce Banner, overplaying weakness.
Blanchett is obviously having a ball as Hela, hissing menace and CGI-smoothing her long, jet-black hair into uber goth antlers. Same goes for Tessa Thompson (Westworld) as Grandmaster's gladiator talent scout, a scrapper with the movie's best entrance. Besides Hemsworth, Hiddleston gains most from Waititi's comedy. Loki always seemed funnier than Thor movies let him be.
One superhero habit Waititi's movie doesn't break is overstaying its welcome. Thor: Ragnarok runs out of clever ideas long before the pyro-toy box empties. The movie stays fun even as the funny fades. At least it's there for 90 minutes or so, longer than usual for this often grim genre. Why so serious, indeed?
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.