In every sense, Thor needed a haircut. The Marvel movie universe—which, like the real universe, is pitiless and has no end—featured this character to passable effect in its Avengers movies and with lesser results in Thor’s starring vehicles. Something had to change, especially since a very funny actor, Chris Hemsworth, was visibly hamstrung by the Nordic gloom of his character.
A haircut—literally and figuratively—is exactly what Thor gets in Thor: Ragnarok, the latest Marvel thing. And like Samson in reverse, Thor thrives when his 1970s thrash-rock locks are shorn, finding new life as a comic character. In its best outings, Marvel keeps the humor going (casting Robert Downey, Jr., in the first Iron Man picture set the tone), although the gambit of meticulously assembling a superhero universe while at the same time kidding the idea of said universe can get a little tricky at times, especially when you expect the audience to care about grown men wearing tights. The inspiration of Thor: Ragnarok is that it decisively tips the scales: This is first and foremost a comedy, with a ration of action thrown in.
It might seem that a story about a muscle-bound galactic Norseman whose flying hammer makes him indestructible would not lend itself to wit, except of the Mel Brooks variety. But here, thanks to the expert guidance of director Taika Waititi, Thor himself is the chief jester. The opening sequence, in which our mighty hero hangs imprisoned in a net while being interrogated by a giant fiery horned demon, is interrupted when the hanging net twists so that Thor can’t see his tormentor. Even super-villainy has its logistical problems, you see, and the scene waits for Thor to sloowwly circle around before the conversation continues. Jokes about Thor’s hammer, a villain played by Jeff Goldblum, Mark Mothersbaugh’s tongue-in-cheek synthesizer score—everything here is a goof. Waititi, the New Zealand filmmaker who did the glorious vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows and the allegedly heartwarming Hunt for the Wilderpeople, knows how to hit the sweet spot between camp and cool. For instance, Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” which has always been somehow both propulsive and laughable (it’s fitting that Jack Black’s interpretation in School of Rock is the definitive rendition), gets deployed here as the soundtrack for a wild early battle, thus fulfilling its destiny.
The film has a plot, treated here as obligatory nonsense: Thor and his previously deceased brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) are summoned by their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, very much in on the gag) to fight their older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett, strictly in drag-queen mode). She is annoyed at being banished years ago, when Odin decided to quit the rapacious colonialism of his early reign, genocide that she appears to have greatly relished. For all the film’s frippery, Waititi (a half-Maori native of a small country with a brutal colonial past) makes a point of detailing beloved old Odin’s bloodthirsty history. Thor gathers up his Avengers pal Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and bounty hunter Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) to wage war—all of which is subordinate to the business of cracking wise and teasing each other.
I’m still not sure why Thor gets his hair cut, except that it struck somebody as funny (it also involves one of the film’s many amusing cameos). Waititi will halt the film for any passing gag, whether it’s a stage play that spoofs previous Marvel action or Goldblum’s insistence on calling Thor “Sparkles.” Waititi’s own performance as the voice of Korg, a bulky doofus made of blue rocks, is as casually larky as the rest of the film. The odd thing about this romp is the way it keeps reminding you about the sheer triviality of everything you’re watching, like a Mad magazine parody of itself. Five years from now, when Korg gets his own Marvel spin-off comedy, you’ll know things have tilted too far in the direction of slapstick—in the meantime, let ‘em laugh. Opens Friday, Nov. 3, at various theaters. Rated PG-13.