Thor: Ragnarok review: 'When they get it right, these Marvel superhero adventures are a real blast'
I'm normally the first to moan about the awful ubiquity of the superhero genre, but when they get these things right, one has to admit they can be fun.
When Thor was first introduced to the Marvel cinematic universe in 2011, some wise soul realised the that the bombastic Norse god would only be palatable to modern audiences if he was also, to some extent, a figure of fun. And so Chris Hemsworth and the writers made Thor a conceited peacock who fancied himself rotten and was too slick for his own good.
Life lessons would knock some of that nonsense out of him, but Thor (2011) and The Dark World (2013) didn't always manage to pull this comic routine off, and got lost in moments of mind-numbing Cgi banality. More focussed and self-assured, Thor: Ragnarok embraces japes and slapstick to such an extent that it could almost be called an out-an-out comedy. It's certainly funnier than any actual comedy I've seen this year.
Two years after the Avengers' heroic defeat of Ultron, Thor has returned to Asgard and now finds himself in a spot of bother. As Ragnarok opens, our hero dangles from a chain in a smouldering underworld, while a fiery giant called Surtur laboriously explains to him how he's doing to destroy Asgard in vengeance for some slight or other. Thor listens politely before summoning his mighty hammer, Mjolnir, and laying waste to Surtur and his armies.
But when he arrives back at his father's palace, all is not well. Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has disappeared, while Thor's mischievous half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has returned, and when they track their father down in the wilds of Norway, they discover they have a sister who's about to cause a whole lot of trouble.
Hela (Cate Blanchett, above left) was banished by Odin after revealing fascistic tendencies, but has now reappeared and plans to become Asgard's not especially benevolent ruler. She announces her intentions by smashing Thor's hammer and pulverising the brothers, who end up beaten and bloodied on a distant planet called Sakaar.
There, a shorn and hammerless Thor will be forced to take part in gladiatorial fights against a local champion whose fearsome reputation precedes him. It turns out to be Hulk, who at first is not especially pleased to see his fellow Avenger, but gradually realises he'll have to help him escape.
Thor: Ragnarok is teeming with guest appearances and winning cameos. Matt Damon and Sam Neill turn up as Asgardian ham actors re-enacting a piece of Loki-inspired propaganda, Benedict Cumberbatch's Doctor Strange persistently patronises Thor and Loki before pointing them in the direction of their missing father, and Mark Ruffalo gets to show off his impeccable comic timing whenever Hulk turns back into Bruce Banner.
I particularly enjoyed Korg, an affable giant stone warrior portrayed through motion capture by the film's director, Taika Waititi. Korg's a scene-stealer, a laid-back Kiwi philosopher who refuses to worry no matter how apocalyptic a situation he's presented with. As a director, Waititi brings a light touch to the Thor sub-franchise, but the film's script is the real delight. Every time Thor and friends face an existential threat, writers Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost throw in an undercutting joke. Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston are the Morecambe and Wise of the Marvel world, and their rivalry is a constant source of mirth.
But everyone seems to be in on the joke in Thor: Ragnarok: Cate Blanchett's Hela initially seems like your average grandiose super-villain, but her exasperation with the stooges that surround her is hilarious. Hulk, more than ever, comes across like a giant five-year-old child and starts throwing stuff and sulking whenever things don't go his way.
And Taika Waititi had the good sense to stand back and let Jeff Goldblum do his own, gloriously eccentric thing as Grandmaster, the politest and most cheerful despot in the universe. His performance is one of the many highlights of this thoroughly winning film, which is released next Tuesday.
Films coming soon...
Breathe (Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Tom Hollander, Hugh Bonneville); Call Me By Your Name (Arnie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Timothee Chamalet); Grace Jones: Bloodlight And Bami (Grace Jones); Property Of The State (Elaine Cassidy, Aisling Loftus).