'Thor: Ragnarok' (2017) is an American superhero film based on the Marvel Comics character Thor. It is the sequel to 2011's 'Thor' and 2013's 'Thor: The Dark World.' (Courtesy Marvel)

‘Thor: Ragnarok’ trades spark for spunk

A foretold apocalyptic event looms over Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth’s) kingdom, Asgard. The arrival of Hela (Cate Blanchett), the self-proclaimed goddess of death, prompts his journey to save Asgard from destruction and the universe from invasion. All of this sounds heavy, but doesn’t seem so when you actually sit down and watch.

“Thor: Ragnarok” (2017) cranks the punch line dispenser knob to 11: a clear change of pace for the Thor series after a tepid reception to the titular character’s previous outings. Taika Waititi takes the directorial reins and injects his jocular style into every scene, maybe too excessively. A retro ’80s feel similar to that of “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014) replaces the series’ traditional fantasy epic tone. He references past Marvel movies, poking fun at them at every corner while managing to ridicule a divisive element of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015) too. The hammer swinging and smashing is presented in full force, as expected, and will definitely appeal to those yearning for a tighter partnership between Thor and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).

The casting, as for most Marvel films, hits the mark. Hemsworth and Ruffalo create an entertaining back and forth dynamic that the “Avengers” films didn’t capitalize on. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) appears for the first time since “Thor: The Dark World” (2013), acting as a reluctant anti-hero rather than a mustache twirler, which is a welcome change of pace. A new hero is also introduced in crowd-pleaser Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), a renegade warrior who drinks, slashes and punches her way through every possible predicament. The show stealer is Thor’s newfound friend, Korg (Taika Waititi). Waititi, in motion capture, lets his improvisation run amok, conveying a dimwitted, but extremely amiable personality. Nonetheless, it is awkward that the best parts of a “Thor” movie outshine the titular character.

Despite a compelling team dynamic for the heroes, the villains and a couple of supporting characters receive the short end of the stick. Cate Blanchett gives her all, chewing the scenery as the nigh-invincible villainess, but lacks the necessary screen time to make a significant impression. Moreover, she spends a good portion of her scenes explaining her origin and sinister plan, compromising any character development. Karl Urban stands around as Asgardian turncoat Skurge and doesn’t do anything noteworthy until the climactic action scene. By far, the best villain is the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), and he’s a tertiary antagonist at best. Still, this portrayal of a hedonistic overlord features Jeff Goldblum at his most Jeff Goldblum, which doesn’t fail to amuse. “Thor” veterans Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and Heimdall (Idris Elba) are swept aside and only utilized when the plot demands it.

Abandoning self-seriousness, Waititi burrows into his actors’ comedic sensibilities and stresses Hemsworth’s charisma. The film’s colors are far more saturated and wacky, only topped by “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (2017) and “Doctor Strange” (2016) in terms of liveliness. Surprisingly, Waititi seamlessly integrates a few high-profile cameos into his film without coming off as forced. Though unrelentingly entertaining, “Ragnarok” doesn’t catch its breath or slow down to develop its storyline and emotions. Some scenes literally stop in their tracks to deliver more jokes, undercutting tension. Waititi also overplays a couple of gags that are initially funny, but later become off-putting. The film’s humor has been heavily praised in some circles, but the absence of a serious tone negatively affects the drama.

The bombastic orchestral score normally associated with the series plays rarely, making room for Mark Mothersbaugh’s technopunk-influenced compositions and a couple of action scenes set to Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” (1970). These changes, while exciting, are an overt abandonment of the series’ roots, which seems reactionary on Marvel’s part. It seems that Marvel was so ashamed of its lukewarm past efforts that they felt compelled to revamp the tone of “Ragnarok.”

While crowd-pleasing, these creative decisions impair the stakes in a film supposedly concerned with an apocalypse. Marvel is not only a well-oiled machine, but is also one that is clearly capable of taking risks and upping emotional stakes. The emphasis on comedy over serious drama prevents “Thor: Ragnarok” from being more than just popcorn entertainment.

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