In the stand-alone films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Thor always seemed to get the short end of the stick. The Thor films were never as popular as Iron Man, and didn’t gain steam like Captain America. They were perhaps a little too serious and a little too dull — none of which was the fault of star Chris Hemsworth, whose performances in the role have been so seamless and charming that he almost doesn’t get enough credit.
But “Thor: Ragnarok” has been touted as a different take on the God of Thunder. Marvel Studios and The Walt Disney Co. signed up a voice-y director in New Zealand’s Taika Waititi, whose riotous vampire mockumentary “What We Do In The Shadows” displayed a unique comedic sensibility. They took away Thor’s hammer, gave him a haircut, added some Led Zeppelin and told the set designer the more neon rainbows the better.
The results are pretty decent, though perhaps not the total departure that had been hyped.
The bones of the story are preposterous as ever. It turns out Thor has a long lost older sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), who his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, who appears to have shot for about two hours) locked away because she was so dangerous. An event happens that releases Hela to the world. She’s really strong, like stronger than Thor strong, and really angry and basically punches Thor into another dimension and she heads off to Asgard to take the throne.
The movie literally splits in two at this point. Poor Blanchett, who has gone full vamp as Hela, is good as always but how lame it must be to be in the “fun” Thor movie and have to play one of the most blandly written villains ever. While she’s off waging her deathly serious takeover, Thor gets to join an irreverent comedy sideshow on the planet Sakaar — a sort of wasteland at the end of the universe run by a Grade-A weirdo who calls himself Grandmaster, played, fittingly, by Jeff Goldblum.
It’s this section that is pretty amusing and where Waititi’s irreverence really gets to shine with pratfalls and witty writing. It’s no surprise that this is right up Goldblum’s alley, but the real delight is Hemsworth who knows just how to subvert the Thor character without turning him into a total mockery. He’s a real comedic talent, which audiences got a taste of in “Ghostbusters.” And Tessa Thompson is fantastic as Valkyrie, a hard drinkin’ fighter with a secret past she’d rather forget.
I imagine “Thor: Ragnarok” is one that might improve on subsequent viewings, when you have a chance to relax with the jokes divorced from the pressure of juggling the silly/serious plot. But it’s a fairly flawed movie on the whole with egregious tonal shifts. Some of the gags go on too long with the Hulk with too little payoff and sometimes it seems as though there’s a mandate that every 25 minutes there will be a big fight no matter what. One particular army of the dead sequence seemed like it could have been lifted from a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie — which is not the most flattering comparison.
While Waititi’s energy and wit is apparent in the film, it still feels as though he had to operate from the same Marvel “base flavor” and was allowed on occasion to sprinkle a few of his own original toppings on.
“Thor: Ragnarok” is the most fun of the Thor movies by a long shot, but it is still very much a Thor movie for better or worse.
“Thor,” a Walt Disney Studios release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material.” Running time: 130 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr