There’s a supporting character in Thor: Ragnarok, a giant rock monster named Korg. Korg is immense and intimidating, an effect hilariously undermined by Taika Waititi’s soft New Zealand accent. Korg represents everything that makes Ragnarok an irreverent delight. He has a habit of turning up, whenever things look to be getting too serious, too portentous, too unselfconsciously “epic” – in other words, too Marvel – and bringing the tone crashing back down to ironic earth with an absurdly banal remark. Unlike the preceding two Asgardian outings, Thor: Ragnarok doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s fun, entirely preposterous, and all kinds of silly.
Taika Waititi is best known to cinephiles as a maker of shrewdly observed Kiwi comedies, the kind of films in which the minutiae of life is discussed exhaustively, and big moments are deflated by bizarre mundanities. Marvel are a studio notorious for their curtailing of directors’ visions (Edgar Wright, Patty Jenkins, and Joss Whedon all left their respective films over creative differences); but here they’ve relented and allowed Waititi to make the film he wanted to make. And, what do you know? He made a shrewdly observed comedy in which the minutiae of life is discussed exhaustively and big moments are deflated by bizarre mundanities. Usually by Korg.
Ragnarok picks up after Avengers: Age of Ultron, with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) investigating the apocalyptic visions he’s been having. He discovers that he’s been seeing Ragnarok, the prophesied end of days, and swiftly puts a stop to it by beating up Surtur (a big man made of fire) and taking his crown. Returning victorious to Asgard, Thor finds that his naughty brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has usurped the throne and is masquerading as their father Odin. Unmasked, Loki joins Thor in searching for Odin, whom they find in Norway. Odin (Anthony Hopkins) tells his sons that he is coming to the end of his life, and that his dying will unleash Hela, goddess of death. Odin promptly dies, and Hela (Cate Blanchett) promptly appears, with designs on the Asgardian throne. Thor and Loki battle Hela, but are defeated and sent hurtling to the furthest corner of the universe. Thor finds himself on Sacaar, where he is shanghaied into fighting as a gladiator. His opponent, and the current champion, is none other than the Incredible Hulk.
Whew. That’s a lot of setup for what is essentially your basic “get home and save the day” plot.
If there’s a criticism to be aimed at Thor: Ragnarok, it’s to be aimed at the scenes of Hela conquering Asgard. Blanchett is wonderful as the goddess of death. She’s The Devil Wears Prada’s Meryl Streep with unimaginable destructive power, a slithery, nigh-pantomime villain who’s evil just for the sheer immoral joy of it. But, plot-wise, her scenes are the closest Ragnarok comes to mimicking the dour, wannabe-Wagnerian tone of its predecessors. Karl Urban’s Scourge, whom Hela recruits as her executioner, helps matters somewhat; despite his character arc being telegraphed from the other side of the nine realms, he injects some humanising pathos into the proceedings. Still, the Asgardian scenes feel like a different, lesser film compared to the oddball silliness to be found throughout the rest of Ragnarok.
The bulk of that oddball silliness is to be found with Thor on Sacaar. This is where Ragnarok reveals itself to be as much a Taika Waititi film as it is the latest Marvel fireworks display. The gleeful joy of Ragnarok is in its dialogue. Hilariously meandering conversations abound, between Thor and Loki; between Thor and the badass boozehag Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, who I think I’m in love with); between Thor and Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster, Sacaar’s vainglorious showman-king (and between the Grandmaster and his advisor Topaz, played by Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s Rachel House at her most brilliantly surly); and of course between Thor and Hulk. One of Ragnarok’s many strokes of genius is transforming Hulk from a bad-tempered toddler into a spoilt five year old. He’s learnt to string together rudimentary sentences, and they mostly consist of whinging when he doesn’t get his own way. And let’s not forget Korg, who is sure to join Groot as the firmest, and funniest, of fan favourites.
Outside of the sometimes witty, sometimes wonderfully awkward dialogue, Waititi displays the same flair he showed in Wilderpeople. The boringly uniform golds of Asgard have been shunted to the sidelines, replaced with the dazzling primary colours of Sacaar. Mark Mothersbaugh’s retro score is shot through with exuberant synths, harkening back to a time when this sort of thing was free of the grim darkness that has come to dominate the genre. When the talking’s done and the action begins, Waititi continues to develop his own style. Ragnarok’s setpieces are spectacular and exciting, without indulging in flash for the sake of flash. There’s an inventiveness, too, that produces delight after delight: orgy spaceships, rocket dragons, giant wolves. It’s all just so much preposterous fun. And why not? We know who’s going to win, and Taika Waititi knows too, so we might as well have some actual fun. It’s a lesson I wish other blockbusters would learn.
There are times, especially in the climactic showdown, when the film is in danger of being overwhelmed by apocalyptic pomposity. Never fear: Korg is just around the corner, ready to ruin the moment with some bizarre banality. That Taika Waititi should be the voice of Thor: Ragnarok’s ironic undercurrent is fabulously apt. Because that’s what this is: the ironic undercurrent to the MCU. As the Iron Mans and Captain Americas become increasingly solemn and sober, here’s Thor: Ragnarok, ludicrously silly and absurdly fun.
Now where’s my Korg solo movie?