Thor: Ragnarok began its international release this week, and looks poised for a big haul at the box office. Of course, at this point Marvel is running such a well-oiled money-printing machine that even their competition knows it's pointless to resist. The question is no longer whether their tent-poles will be smash hits, but how many hundreds of millions they will pull in. This has been accomplished by empowering talented directors, creating a unifying franchise vision where most of the broad creative choices turned out to be solid, and throwing Disney money at the whole thing. In the past couple of years the Marvel brand has been so rock solid that it's actually giving the studio the freedom to get weirder with the stories they tell, and to dive into some of the trippier and more nonsensical material in Marvel's archives.
This started with Guardians of the Galaxy, a space adventure set inside the giant floating head of an ancient, mystic alien. Guardians was a genuine gamble, as it had no obvious connection with the wider universe of the Avengers or Iron Man, but it paid off. The studio then doubled down exploring the weirder corners of the MCU with Doctor Strange and a Guardians sequel, and finally with this week's third Thor movie. With soaring box office revenue at their back, these films got weirder and sillier - living planets, manipulation of space-time, sticks that melt people. Freed from the constraints of origin stories, these films can indulge gorgeous visuals and bizarre spectacle, letting their imaginations run wild breathing life into the funkier neighborhoods in the Marvel world. This is a good thing - by being sillier, looser and embracing the weird, these movies end up being the most fun.
In this film, Thor essentially teams up with the Hulk for a bit of a buddy comedy as they are trapped on a planet called Sakaar, located in the rectum of the universe and governed by a delightfully unhinged Jeff Goldblum. Meanwhile, a parallel story unfolds in Asgard, where Cate Blanchett does her best to drive the plot and create some stakes, succeeding to the extent that she is a world class actress who can make clunky exposition seem like poetry (see: Lord of the Rings prologue). Eventually this leads to a big melty CGI climax that, while it forgoes the Giant Death Beam in the Sky, doesn't do much to differentiate itself from every other loud, bright and boring comic book show down.
The strength of this movie is really in the Sakaar sections. Tessa Thompson's character is introduced here, and she is great. Director Taika Waititi plays a hilariously up-beat rock creature, and the Hulk and Thor face off in a gladiator match accompanied by a pulsating retro 80s synth score. The movie is full of great jokes, has a loose comic sensibility, and even a few truly sublime visuals (if your breath doesn't catch during the slow-motion, painterly Valkyrie scene or another one late in the film featuring Thor and lightning, you may have no soul). But really, the movie just shines because it is fun. The jokes come fast and the situation is silly - and everybody involved knows it.
Freed from fear of box office failure, Marvel is becoming ever more confident in indulging the strange and the bizarre, and this is a good thing. The film does move some pieces around to set up Infinity War, but mostly it's just two god-like buddies riffing on one another while they hang out on a trash planet. I watched this movie in Indonesia, and the audience was in stitches throughout, even if some of the jokes went over their head. That is a sign that the filmmakers did their job well. There is something universally appealing about watching the Hulk sulk like a baby. Marvel has tapped into that and they are going to continue riding it all the way to the bank.