In the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s frisky new installment, “Thor: Ragnarok,” the Norse thunder god gets his ego punctured with the sharpest jolt of humor the franchise has ever seen.
Thor, though always played with rakish charm by Chris Hemsworth, has always been a problematic figure in Marvel’s cavalcade of superheroes. He’s one of the few Marvel figures who are not from Earth, and his epic quests through Asgard feel a bit like Tolkien sagas with beefier characters.
New Zealand director Taika Waititi, maker of the indie comedies “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and “What We Do in the Shadows,” has kicked the stuffiness out of Thor, sending him on an interstellar adventure loaded with fast-paced action, eye-popping effects and heaps of sly humor.
The story begins with Thor imprisoned, wrapped up in and dangling from chains in the underground lair of the hell-beast Surtur (voiced by Clancy Brown), a creature so fearsome his theme song is a Led Zeppelin riff. A sign of how unseriously Waititi takes all this: When Surtur launches into his world-domination monologue, he’s interrupted when Thor, slowly rotating in his chains, tells him to wait until he comes back around to face him.
Thor soon gets out of his predicament, but into another one: Back on Asgard, he finds his scheming brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), has usurped the throne of their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), who’s enjoying peaceful exile on Earth. It’s there where Thor and Loki learn they have an older sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death, who shatters Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, and sends him and Loki hurtling through the cosmos.
They land on a distant planet ruled by the Grand Master (Jeff Goldblum), a garrulous but menacing dictator who runs gladiatorial games for his people’s amusement. That’s how Thor ends up in the arena against the Grand Master’s champion: The Hulk. (If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen Thor’s happy reaction: “We know each other. He’s a friend from work.”)
The reunion of the two most musclebound Avengers prompts a slew of funny jokes from the movie’s three screenwriters — Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost — through the movie’s midsection, with Hulk in his big green form and as nervous scientist Bruce Banner (both performed by Mark Ruffalo). Matching Thor and Hulk also sets in motion a powerhouse climax that includes some other notable Asgardians: the noble gatekeeper Heimdall (Idris Elba) and the jaded Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson).
Waititi brings a wealth of hilarious touches, from a cameo-laden Asgardian theater production to his own computer-generated character, Korg, who dispenses battle advice to the imprisoned Thor. By making “Thor: Ragnarok” as much a comedy as an action movie, Waititi brings some needed lightness to Marvel’s storyline — something it will need before the universe-sized threat that’s looming next year in “Avengers: Infinity War.”
* * * 1/2
The god of thunder gets a breath of fresh air in this comedy-filled chapter in the Marvel saga.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Nov. 3.
Rating • PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material.
Running time • 130 minutes.