'Thor: Ragnarok' ****
When Cate Blanchett, as Hela the Goddess of Death, strides through the treasure storehouse of her father, Odin in “Thor: Ragnarok,” she casts her eye about. One by one, the film's black-antlered villainess assesses the artifacts – which include the highly sought-after blue “infinity stone” – with a series of blunt dismissals: “Fake!” “Weak!” “Smaller than I thought it would be!”
Such Twitter-worthy put-downs are not the only wisecracks that may remind viewers of a certain occupant of the White House. Somewhat later, in this cheekily self-aware and richly entertaining live-action comic book, we meet the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who, as fans of the “Avengers” franchise will recall, has been missing in action since the end of “Age of Ultron.” “Whatcha been up to, big guy?” he is asked, to which the taciturn green giant replies: “Winning.”
In his case, it's not hyperbole.
Don't worry, the latest movie from Marvel Entertainment isn't exactly political, although it does involve palace intrigue. Hela, the evil sister of the movie's God-of-Thunder hero, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), wants to take over the celestial realm of Asgard, stepping into the power vacuum created by the absence of their father (Anthony Hopkins), who, as the movie opens, appears to have been exiled to a senior-living facility on Midgard, aka Earth.
Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) makes a brief crossover appearance to help Thor find his father. That's not the film's only delightful cameo. In one funny sequence early on, Thor witnesses an Asgardian stage play featuring costumed actors portraying him, Odin and Thor's adopted brother, Loki. The casting, which is best kept secret, features two delightful surprises – and one that's very meta.
The real Thor, for his part, means to put a stop to Hela's ambitions, while the real Loki (Tom Hiddleston), must decide whose side he's going to fight on – other than his own, as is his opportunistic habit.
That's the internecine setup, in a nutshell: Thor, like Abraham Lincoln before him, must put together a team of rivals to take out Hela, who has used her powers to reanimate Asgard's dead warriors, long laid to rest. Much of the film centers on our hero's efforts to recruit an Avengers-like version of Seal Team 6 – efforts that are hampered by the fact that he has been imprisoned on the planet Sakaar, where he is forced to participate in the gladiatorial Contest of Champions by that world's ruler, known as the Grandmaster (a deliciously effete yet cruel Jeff Goldblum). There, he meets a fellow refugee from Asagard, Valkyrie (“Creed's” Tessa Thompson), and Korg, a CGI character made out of rocks who is voiced by the film's director, Taika Waititi, in one of filmdom's most satisfying examples of self-dealing.
Waititi, a New Zealand actor and filmmaker known for such small, irreverent, indie charmers as “What We Do in the Shadows,” brings exactly the right balance of meaty action and sauciness to “Ragnarok,” which, although big, avoids the bloated, cartoon-noir ponderousness that has, until “Wonder Woman,” plagued movies from the film arm of Marvel's rival, DC Comics. “Everything always seems to work out,” Thor reminds us – blithely – not just once, but twice, in a screenplay (by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost) that elevates “Ragnarok” to the giddy heights of “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Deadpool” in its refusal to take itself seriously.
Perhaps “elevate” is not the best word here. Much of the humor is sublimely silly, as in a scene in which Thor tries to explain to Korg how his magical hammer, Mjolnir, enables him to fly. (It ends up sounding like he has a sexual relationship with it.) At another point, Thor learns that the only way back to Asgard from Sakaar is through an interdimensional portal called the Devil's Anus.
It may sound as if the movie is only for 13-year-old boys, or the Marvel faithful, but it isn't. In these times of heightened stress and anxiety, “Ragnarok” – a word from Norse mythology that refers to both the end of the old world and the rebirth of a better, new one – could not come at a more opportune time. It's a movie that, to put it in terms that the film's screenwriters might appreciate, is Thor-ly needed.