As part of its generally welcome comic strategy, “Thor: Ragnarok” heckles itself for two hours and 10 minutes and lets Jeff Goldblum, skittering around as master of the death-match revels on the planet Sakaar, get away with murder. Nobody else in the known universe works on Goldblum’s wavelength. The deadpan verbal shtick he’s relying on in this inventive if increasingly duty-bound sequel will be royally amusing to 20 percent of the opening-weekend multiplex audience, and “Huh? Wha?” to the rest, especially to those too young to remember “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.”
Speaking of 20 percent: I’d say roughly 20 percent of “Thor: Ragnarok” is terrific and 20 percent is a drag, leaving 60 percent in the comfortable, predictable middle. A lot of these Marvel movies have a way of flattening out your responses, but director Taika Waititi’s frisky “Thor” outing is not one of them.
I loved the mere fact of a seriously inspired comic sensibility getting hired to direct a Marvel movie. Waititi, lately of “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and the fantastic vampire parody “What We Do in the Shadows,” has no discernible interest in delivering the usual CGI action blowouts (more on those later). He’s jazzed, rather, by repartee among tetchy, vain, insecure superheroes, and in finding the right medium shot for slapstick dependent on Thor throwing something against a glass wall and then getting clocked in the head via rebound.
My favorite 10 minutes in “Thor: Ragnarok” combine all the film’s strengths. Around the midpoint, a most welcome new character, Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, engages in superfast martial-arts combat with Tom Hiddleston’s ever-sly Asgardian weasel, Loki. They’re wonderfully matched, and when Waititi flashes back to a purely visual explication of Valkyrie’s battles of old, it’s stirring and beautiful. This abuts a scene in which Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, an endearing blend of godly hunk and earthly klutz, is trying to convince Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to un-Hulk himself and get back to his inner Bruce Banner. It’s a weirdly touching push-pull between friends, one of whom can’t really trust the other’s motives. It all works, and in Thompson (“Dear White People,” “Westworld”) the movie boasts a newly minted action heroine you find yourself wishing could get her own franchise going right away, no waiting.
Not that I cared about the plot, but the plot: Written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost, “Thor: Ragnarok” begins with Thor breaking free from the clutches of fire demon Surtur. Thor’s home planet, Asgard, is due to be zeroed out in Ragnarok, which is the apocalypse with one fewer syllable. Cate Blanchett, with sleek antlers of doom and the witty air of a bored runway model, plays Hela, Thor’s hella fierce sister and the unruly daughter of Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and self-proclaimed leader of Asgard, brooking no resistance, tolerating no guff, threatening many a resistance fighter led by Idris Elba.
There’s more than a whiff of “Guardians of the Galaxy” to Waititi’s comic burlesque. The serious/serious/funny rhythms relate also to Edgar Wright’s parodic work. With a budget of this size, though, and studio stockholders breathing down its neck, “Thor: Ragnarok” eventually caves into a climax or three of profoundly uninteresting “excitement.” The movie wages an internal struggle between the loopy, Hope & Crosby “Road to Sakaar” vibe and protracted scenes of destruction and death. Would anyone miss the latter if they went away? The typical Marvel (or DC) movie climax has become the ideal time to hit the concessions counter. They’re mapped out to bore, not entice. I hate to sound like Harvey Weinstein (Job One for any male on planet Earth in 2017: Do not think, sound or behave anything like Harvey Weinstein), but the movie cries out for a 20-minute trim. Any of 20 of the final 40-45 would do.
So it’s uneven, but the good stuff’s unusually lively and buoyant. The Marvel Fatigue factor continues, to be sure. But hiring Waititi, and letting the right actors lean into the comedy, constitutes not a marvel, but a qualified victory.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
"Thor: Ragnarok" -- 3 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material)
Running time: 2:10
Opens: Thursday evening