Marvel has a gift for repeatedly giving its fans the unexpected. Who would have dreamed that Thor, one of their most stoic characters, would star in one of the studio’s goofiest films? Thor Ragnarok opens with the mighty warrior in smartass mode, spewing wisecracks at a hellish fire monster. What’s more, Chris Hemsworth is fully up to the task.

This sets the stage for a wild and woolly adventure that has the fingerprints of its director, Taika Waititi, all over it. Eric Pearson, Chris Kyle, and Christopher L. Yost are the credited screenwriters, but the Kiwi filmmaker and performer who made Boy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and the hilarious vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (in which he also starred) is the dominant force behind this singular entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Waititi has an irreverent sense of humor that permeates every aspect of this spectacular production. (He also provides the distinctive voice and personality of a rock-figure named Korg.)

That’s not to underestimate the writers’ work crafting a complex story. Thor returns to Asgard and finds his brother Loki in command, but when they confront their father Odin, he warns them that their sister Hela, the goddess of death, is heading for their homeland and hell-bent on destruction. It’s surely no spoiler (by now) that she deprives Thor of his mighty hammer and his golden locks. How can Thor survive without them?

It’s just like Marvel to give one of its superheroes a potentially crushing challenge like this, forcing him to think his way out of the situation and form new alliances. Even Loki (as played by Tom Hiddleston) takes on new shading in this latest installment. He still can’t be trusted, but he and his (half-)brother join forces to protect the people of Asgard.

There is a colorful gallery of characters, both familiar and new, to add to the fun: Cate Blanchett clearly relishes her role as Hela. Tessa Thompson is the cocky warrior Valkyrie, Karl Urban is the fierce warrior Skurge, and Jeff Goldblum brings his very best Jeff Goldblum interpretation to the role of Grandmaster, who presides over deadly games as the Roman emperors did in days of old. And who should Thor find himself pitted against in the great arena, filled with thousands of spectators? None other than The Hulk. Mark Ruffalo manages to make the big green guy human even before he calms down enough to revert to the form of Bruce Banner. Benedict Cumberbatch makes a brief appearance as Dr. Strange and Idris Elba commands the screen in his few moments as Heimdal.

Marvel is too smart to completely undermine the serious matters at stake for its stable of characters, but confident enough to play with them a bit. That’s what sets Thor Ragnarok apart in the constantly evolving MCU: it has a personality all its own, and I suspect Marvel fans will love every minute.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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April 2024