No, I mean, literally: Thor is capable of going to hell, just for a visit, which is where he is at the opening of Ragnarok. Actually, it’s Muspelheim, the extradimensional realm of fire. But it’s pretty hellish, and the fire demon Surtur is fairly satanic: extremely large and scary, aflame, and determined to destroy Asgard itself — all the usual apocalyptic stuff. But if Thor can only steal his horned crown, the source of his power, all this talk of armageddon will be reduced to nothing more than talk.
Thor’s battle with Surtur (the voice of Clancy Brown) is exciting and intense, especially if you see it in 3D IMAX, as I did. But you’d expect that from a Marvel flick. What makes this opening sequence — which sets up the tone for the entire movie — so extra-special, so geeky, so hilarious, is Thor’s casual humor in dealing with Surtur. Chris Hemsworth nails the offhand insouciance a badass divine celestial being like him should have, and finally here is a Thor script (by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost) that lets him exhibit that. That verve also comes via the nerdy impudence of director Taika Waititi setting the battle to Led Zeppelin’s prog-rock classic “Immigrant Song” (that’s the one with all the Norse-mythic lyrics, “We come from the land of the ice and snow,” etc.) It’s a heavy-metal black-light album cover come to life and yet — miraculously — not in any cheesy way. It’s just genuinely cool and freaky-funny.
Thor: Ragnarok, basically, is everything Guardians of the Galaxy (both volumes) wanted to be: breezy and jokey, crammed with clever science-fiction ideas, populated by intriguing, entertaining aliens. Except GotG’s vanilla deployment of retro pop culture pales next to, say, the gladiator disco madness of Ragnarok’s middle segment, in which Thor is shanghaied into a trial by combat against the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). (It eventually makes sense that the big green guy is there.) His host is the Grandmaster, a movie-stealing Jeff Goldblum who lords over what is essentially the decadence and violence of ancient Rome reconceived as a Studio 54 theme party in 1977. It’s hilarious.
I keep using that word: hilarious. This is hands down the funniest movie yet in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, not just because it’s got lots of jokes that actually make you laugh out loud (though only, often, if you’re steeped in the MCU) but because it exudes a unifying cheeky personality that isn’t like anything we’ve seen in the series before. Waititi’s unique style — see also his outrageously funny vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows — is almost shocking to see in a series that has previously maintained a visually even keel, ironing out whatever individual panache its directors might have brought to the films. There’s a sense here that Marvel cut Waititi loose to do whatever he wanted ... and the result is a kind of vision, an imaginative sweep, that could re-enliven a franchise that — it seems suddenly, in retrospect — it needs. I’ve been loving the Marvel movies. I didn’t know I could love them this much more.