The newest Marvel movie, at its brightest, slides neatly into New Zealand director Taika Waititi’s stable of flippant, pungent comedy freak shows, and “at its brightest” is entirely a function of how cheerfully indifferent the film is to the strictures of Marvel cinema. A much more frivolous, foolhardy film than its two ambivalent predecessors, the mostly personality-stricken Thor and the Game of Thrones costume-swap Thor: The Dark World, Thor: Ragnarok’s ear for the rash and reckless, even the carnival-esque, is inimitably appealing. When his Thor film stops its tracks and stifles its narrative, choosing to hang out, loosen up, limber up, and drunkenly stagger through its paces rather than locking into place or filing in line, Ragnarok is a devilish little curio, a genuine blockbuster oddity even more bent and wicked than either of the Guardians of the Galaxy films. While Justice League was an attempt to mediate (and Marvel-ize) the abnormally pretentious and out-sized histrionics of Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Ragnarok is the genuine anti-Batman, an impish little sidewinder of a film that stands almost defiantly against introspection.
As I said, that’s when the film works. But Thor: Ragnarok is an exercise in mocking franchise solemnity without actually dislocating the Marvel Universe, which would have been too interesting for this kind of film, or locating any point of view for that matter. Part of the problem – or the problem, really – is that Thor: Ragnarok is thoroughly content, giddy even, to undercut the Marvel Machine without actually undermining it. The limitations of the moments that inspire, provoke, amuse, and perk up are only drawn into relief when they are so easily contained by the film’s middle-of-the-road conclusion, a mess of sound and fury signifying not only nothing but that the film has wasted a divinely demonic Cate Blanchett as Hela, the world-conquering hell-queen ready to take on all comers. For a film about the end of days, Ragnarok is just not a bad-tempered enough party.
But before we arrive at Ragnarok – an Asgardian apocalypse, basically – we find our hero Thor (Chris Hemsworth, never better or more casually carefree in this cheerily self-deprecating role) captured by a strange prima donna world ruler named the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, a great joke of a casting decision complemented but a plucky, discombobulated performance). Forced to fight in a tournament, Thor’s surprising opponent (surprising to him, but not so much for brand synergy) is none other than the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, dazed, but that’s what the role calls for). He also meets his meddlesome brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, still slimy), a prisoner-advisor for the Grandmaster, and a heavily-inebriated once-Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, terrifically swaggering), frowning on her old commitments to the people of Asgard and the only survivor of her kind after a long-ago conflict with Hela.
They all team up, escape, and fight Hela, and that’s it. But that’s to be expected for a film more invested in amusing itself in fits and spurts than inverting its franchise’s generally easy-going heroic bent. Thor: Ragnarok is, at moments, an effervescent bubble of cotton-candy delight, a candy-coated and vaguely-drugged-out tribute to the snidely, trippy, none-too-complicated days of pop culture in the ‘80s and ‘90s currently laying dormant underneath industrial-grade prison of “maturity”. Waititi’s world-building is admirably scatterbrained, cross-pollinating references from ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s pulp fiction not merely as a display of B-movie credentials but as an ode of sorts to the analog refuse of pop cinema of yore. His palate combats the putrid greens of the DC Universe with a more psychedelic tint, a polychromatic canvas of greens, purples, and pinks that come in every shade of hallucinogenic. Admittedly more cheeky than cunning, when Ragnarok really hits its stride, it comes off like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai in the 9th Dimension. And if you get the reference, you’re in the movie’s target audience.
And you’re also, perhaps, liable to remember that many of the inspirations for Waititi’s film never repressed their lower-slung, less-ostentatious pleasures, their cheery asides, their off-hand tangents discourteous to narrative rules. Compared to the low-key, nonchalant pleasures they offered, Ragnarok is a much more coked-up affair, probably too spirited and spunky to relax and breathe when it can mop up a few more bodies, down a few more beers, and pleasure us with its many breeds and brands of emissions for one more scene. At the heart of Ragnarok is an oddly heartfelt mismatched buddy comedy between Thor and Hulk, the two-shortest-named of the Avengers, as well as a rather striking attempt to create a fish out of water comedy when the fish are two galaxy-traversing dudes who’ve seen – or in Thor’s case, thinks he has seen – every type of water and land known to man. But the film has little time to stop and enjoy the company it keeps when it’s so busy trying to prove itself to its audience, or to show that it keeps every kind of tonal company in the galaxy, from serious drama to mythology-razing action to pop-culture-post-modernism.
It’s a very busy film, basically, and irreverent almost to a fault, so much so that when the conclusion quells all the mischief, forcing the comedy to take a seat and accommodate the leaden dramatics, one confronts the dawning realization that the film has accomplished little more than showing off for over two hours. For a while, Ragnarok does its best impression of a rogue element, an insurgent in the Marvel Universe in the form of a constantly inflating balloon that simultaneously effuses helium-infused laughing gas and merry mayhem. But when the just-another-apocalypse conclusion ruptures the balloon and deflates the film’s ambitions (by revealing that its ambitions really are exactly the same as every other film of this vintage), we realize, with mild heartbreak, that the film is really just full of air.