In its broad strokes, however, the setup is not so different from the standard-issue comic book movie. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), god of thunder and key member of the Avengers, discovers that his heretofore-unknown-to-him older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett), the god of death, has been freed from her cosmic prison and is coming to claim her throne at their home world of Asgard. But his first attempt to stop her fails: He’s deprived of his all-powerful hammer, and winds up imprisoned on Sakaar, a distant planet where he’s forced into gladiatorial combat against his old friend the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who doesn’t seem to recognize him. As Hela subjugates the people of Asgard and grows more powerful, our hero has to find a way back. It’s basically The Dark Knight Rises, with a bit of Gladiator thrown in.
A kind of low-level trickster god of indie cinema himself, Waititi lets his film go a little crazy: He’s outfitted it with garish colors and costumes and set designs, some not-entirely-perfect special effects, and a synthesized Mark Mothersbaugh score that sounds like it was lifted from an early period Jean-Claude Van Damme flick. There’s a constant sense of play and dress-up, with characters constantly changing in and out of fresh outfits — sometimes to get out of different scrapes, sometimes to hide and sometimes for no real reason at all.
This could get tedious, if the film didn’t feel like it was ambling toward an idea with all this clever cosplay. Early on, Thor arrives at Asgard to find someone staging an impromptu play based on the supposed final moments between him and his brother (and occasional arch-villain) Loki from a past battle. In a trio of goofy cameos, Matt Damon plays the fake Loki, Chris’ brother Luke Hemsworth plays the fake Thor and Sam Neill plays their fake father Odin; meanwhile, the real Odin (Anthony Hopkins) watches the players from nearby, only it turns out he’s not Odin at all, but the real Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in disguise, attempting to rewrite his own sordid history and present himself as a hero. (Got all that?) Later, Waititi depicts the Grandmaster’s world of Sakaar as one where the flashy strongman constantly keeps his subjects entertained and docile with gaudy spectacle and competitive combat.
It makes an interesting contrast, as the film intercuts between the grim, shadowy enslavement of the people of Asgard and the decadent, brightly lit, there’s-a-party-going-on enslavement of the people of Sakaar. (As if to underline this duality, Thor has to help spark concurrent revolutions in both worlds.) So that, even as the picture piles on the retro stylizations and the goofy one-liners, the undercurrent of oppression is inescapable. In its own weird little way, Thor: Ragnarok manages to poke fun at the constant churn of myth and entertainment of which the movie itself is a part. It’s a candy-colored cage of delights, but it is a cage nevertheless — and it doesn’t hide that fact.