" close as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has gotten to a full-on screwball comedy."

Thor Hammers in the Laughs

(111017) I have a suspicion that "Thor: Ragnarok" wouldn't exist in quite the same form were it not for the breakout, pop-infused success of 2014's "Guardians of the Galaxy." From the prominent bookending use of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," to its comic tone, to its gathering-together of a ragtag team of outsiders and underdogs, the film—the third installment in Marvel's series centering around the God of Thunder—has James Gunn's imprint all over it. What the film largely lacks that "Guardians of the Galaxy" had in spades is an emotional core to offset the laughs. Instead, director Taika Waititi (2016's "Hunt for the Wilderpeople") and screenwriters Eric Pearson (TV's "Agent Carter"), Craig Kyle, and Christopher L. Yost (2013's "Thor: The Dark World") embrace the power of the quirk. Full of one-liners, bon mots and pratfalls, "Thor: Ragnarok" is as close as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has gotten to a full-on screwball comedy.

No sooner has Thor (Chris Hemsworth) escaped capture, saved the world from fiery demon Surtur (voiced by Clancy Brown), and returned to his planet of Asgard does he learn wayward brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has banished father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to Earth and taken the reins. His sibling rivalry with shifting ally/antagonist Loki is small potatoes, however, next to the rise of Odin's indomitable first-born Hela (Cate Blanchett). The so-called Goddess of Death, she is unleashed from imprisonment just in time to overtake the throne and prepare to bring about Ragnarok—that is, the prophesied demise of their homeland and all Asgardians living there. "It's not possible," Thor says upon witnessing Hela destroy his mighty hammer without breaking a sweat. "Darling," she replies, "you have no idea what's possible."

"Thor: Ragnarok" is colorful. Even if it strains at times to be so. It is better to try too hard, though, than to not try enough. The film is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny is eager-to-please and amusing. More than ever before, Thor and Bruce Banner's Hulk (Mark Ruffalo)—featured most prominently of the other Avengers—are given the time to better develop their broad, affable personalities. Chris Hemsworth (2016's "Ghostbusters"), his long locks shorn early on, looks to be having a grand time in the role, perhaps further emboldened by Taika Waititi's offbeat style. Also making big impressions are Tessa Thompson (2015's "Creed"), confident and charismatic as the headstrong, hard-drinking Valkyrie, an Asgardian-warrior-turned-bounty-hunter, and Jeff Goldblum (2014's "The Grand Budapest Hotel"), stealing scenes as the flamboyantly depraved Grandmaster, ruler of planet Sakaar.

The big heavy of the piece has more potential than is ultimately delivered. The appearance of an elder, evil sister Thor never knew he had naturally opens itself to a fresh dynamic, but little is done with it and Hela too frequently disappears for long stretches. Cate Blanchett (2015's "Carol") snarls her way to believable, malevolent badassery, but this is a stock villain that, as written, lets this supremely fine actor down. Also disappointing is the choppy way in which the third-act battle between Thor and Hela is edited, breaking up the momentum by intercutting between other characters and their concurrent travails. On the whole, action sequences are competent but unmemorable; there's a whole lot of our heroes swinging swords and hammers around as mobs of bad guys approach from all sides. We've seen this kind of thing before.

What we haven't seen before in the MCU is a virtual slapstick in comic-book form, and this is where "Thor: Ragnarok" carves out its own niche. After 2013's dreary, dour "Thor: The Dark World," it was imperative that some newfound life be injected into this character and property. In those regards, director Taika Waititi proves the right person for the job. Attractively lensed by Javier Aguirresarobe and scored with unique synth-heavy riffs by Mark Mothersbaugh, the film's plotting is familiar but its approach to said material is unapologetically weird. A nod to 1971's "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," for example, is inspired, as is a Bleecker Street meeting between Thor and Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). "Thor: Ragnarok" is missing the depth and dramatic texture of the best Marvel features—"Guardians of the Galaxy 2" and "Captain America: Civil War" immediately come to mind—but it does entertain, and should please fans and general audiences accordingly.

Directed by:    Taika Waititi
Written by:    Screenplay by: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle &
 Christopher Yost. Based on the Marvel Comics by
 Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby
Starring:    Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett
Released:    110317
Length:    130 minutes
Rating:    Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi
 violence and action, and brief suggestive material

THOR RAGNAROK ©  2017 Walt Disney Pictures
Review © 2017 Alternate Reality, Inc.