Marvel’s seventeenth outing in its ever-expanding franchise carries a unique distinction from all the others. At the end of the day, it’s really, really dumb, but in its own enjoyable way. It isn’t entirely bad though; there hasn’t been a truly awful episode in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date, but none of them are masterpieces either (although “Captain America: Civil War” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” are a few leagues away from such greatness). More often than not, the MCU presents us with stories that are empty, if not terrible. In its gleefully stupid way, “Thor: Ragnarok” attempts to refresh one of the franchise’s lesser characters with “Guardians of the Galaxy” style tomfoolery and self-awareness. This is merely surface-level stuff, resulting in the emptiest MCU outing since “Iron Man 2,” though it tries its damnedest to convince you otherwise.
In his search for the all-powerful Infinity Stones, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) runs into Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, hellbent on taking the throne of Asgard and conquering the galaxy. In battle, Hela crushes Thor’s trusty hammer, Mjolnir, and sends him flying into the far reaches of space. Down but not out, Thor lands on the planet Sakaar, where he is taken prisoner by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and brought to the planet’s ruler, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who pits the God of Thunder against his gladiatorial champion. In the arena, Thor discovers that the Grandmaster’s champion is actually the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who hasn’t reverted to Bruce Banner in the two years since his departure from Earth in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Following their match, Thor plots to escape Sakaar with Banner in tow, and return to Asgard to defeat Hela.
Within the opening minutes, “Ragnarok” makes its mission statement clear, which is to changeup the pace from Thor’s first two solo adventures and inject a newfound hilarity into the proceedings. As expected, comedy maestro Taika Waititi (“What We Do in the Shadows”) weaves his madcap sensibilities into the film’s humor. Yet in its revitalization of the character, the film betrays nearly everything that was established in the earlier entries. Gone is Thor’s unflinching machismo in favor of traits and quirks that mirror Star-Lord’s too closely. The Shakespearean essence that grounded him and his world in mythological wonderment is tossed aside for “Deadpool” levels of self-deprication. Marvel can have as much fun with its characters as it wants, but when that fun comes at the expense of hours worth of character development and world-building, it is maddeningly difficult buy into anything that unfolds onscreen. In layman’s terms, Movie thinks I forgot about other movies, but Movie is sadly mistaken.
If that wasn’t enough, “Ragnarok” showcases Marvel’s worst tendencies in full force, specifically its preoccupation with propelling laugh-a-minute humor at the expense of story and character. This is a real shame when one considers how Waititi was able to employ comedy in service of narrative in his earlier work. It turns out that the director’s knack for comedy is the only thing Marvel noticed about him, and the result of their collaboration is disappointing. “Ragnarok” is so ferociously dedicated to comedy that it seems to play out like one of those “Road To…” episodes from “Family Guy,” minus all the cutaways. Some of humor does land, though. Sight gags are aplenty, particularly in the film’s integration of comedy in the action. One of the best laughs comes from the Grandmaster’s appropriately gratuitous introduction, which I will not spoil here. As for the action itself, it’s mostly old hat, but there is an irresistible quality to Thor’s throw down with the Hulk.
At this point, it’s safe to say that one should not expect a lot of variation in these movies. The villain is underused yet again (though Blanchett eats up every bit of dialogue she has), the explosive third act lacks urgency, and not one actor is given enough to stand out and connect with viewers. If anything, Thompson holds her own exceptionally well with her male counterparts, Ruffalo gets to have more fun as the big green guy, and Goldblum basically plays a Goldblum meme. There’s even a cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, but it is ultimately pointless.
None of this is to say that the film is totally devoid of inspiration. Taking a page from “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Waititi enriches Thor’s world with thick colors and retrograde sci-fi flourishes in its design. “Valerian & Laureline,” “He-Man,” and “Flash Gordon” are cited heavily. Even the score (composed by Mark Mothersbaugh) mixes a light synth with a traditional orchestra to good effect. Oh, and Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” is fired up for two undeniably kick-ass sequences. Nevertheless, moments of genuine flair are few and far between in this bewildering sequel that is simply too damn silly for its own good. “Thor: Ragnarok” may be fun, but it’s the kind of fun that is easily disposable once you’ve had your fill.