New Zealand director Taika Waititi brings his comic skills to the latest Marvel instalment Thor: Ragnarok – a gleefully rainbow-coloured romp that feels like a Saturday morning cartoon on a big budget, packed with the director’s brand of off-beat humour.
We begin with a laboured prologue explaining the film’s title, informing us that Asgard, the home of the gods, is heading for the end of days thanks to the return of Hela (Cate Blanchett), the heavily-horned goddess of death. Once this necessary, if slightly dull, plotting is out of the way Waititi is on more sure footing.
Waititi has a gift for dropping characters outside of their comfort zones for comic effect. First, it was vampires struggling to get along in their flat share in contemporary Wellington with What We Do in the Shadows. This was followed by placing the tubby city kid, Ricky (Julian Dennison), in the New Zealand bush with a cantankerous farmer (Sam Neill) in Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
Waititi takes the same approach in Ragnarok, ejecting the god of thunder (Chris Hemsworth) from his homeworld of Asgard, smashing his hammer, and dumping him on a world where he’s stripped of his royal status. Thor is then forced into gladiatorial combat against an old friend Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), for the entertainment of the Grandmaster (a wickedly comic turn from Jeff Goldblum). Waititi, and his screenwriting team, Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost and Eric Pearson, aren’t too worried about the plot, although there are a few obligatory nods and winks to previous instalments. Their focus lies squarely on laughs and comic situations, peppered with big action sequences.
Learning from the success of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films, Waititi and his team have added a great soundtrack – including the apt use of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, as well as a strong score from Mark Mothersbaugh. Also staying on trend, Waititi and co. have laced the film with plenty of pop culture references. These range from a trippy tunnel ride clearly inspired by the nightmarish scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, to all manner of oddball aliens that resemble He-Man action figures brought to life, including the hilariously plain-speaking rock-monster Korg (voiced by Waititi himself). There’s even a touch of The Princess Bride about it all.
Tessa Thompson offers up a great comic performance as the booze-hound bounty hunter, Valkyrie, proving she can give as good as she gets against Thor and Hulk. Waititi adds to the work done by Kenneth Branagh in the gleefully operatic Thor, taking Odenson and Hulk down a peg or two. In Ragnarok they are depicted as tantrum-throwing tots, yet to grow into their adult shoes. They hurl whatever is close to hand at each other only to make up minutes later, before being turned upside down again when Loki (Tom Hiddleston) enters the fray to make mischief.
Impressively, Waititi manages to retain his unique brand of humour while fulfilling his obligations to the franchise with Thor: Ragnarok. The result is a hilarious comic-adventure that will take many viewers back to Saturday mornings in pyjamas, cross-legged in front of the TV, eager to watch your favourite cartoon heroes smash the hell out of the bad guys.
Joseph Walsh | @JosephDAWalsh