I think it’s safe to say that the Thor movies have never been anybody’s favorite Marvel adaptations. They’ve been beset by a bunch of weird and different factors — consumer unease, suit fears about said consumer unease, mediocre directors, bad acting — and that adds up to, say, the inverse of the Captain America movies, which are pretty much universally beloved amongst both nerds and film critics while also being cornerstones of the MCU’s evolution.

Now, with Thor: Ragnarok, Marvel’s looking to shake some stuff up, perhaps emboldened by the massive success of Guardians of the Galaxy, and they’ve hired Taika Waititi, director of small comedies What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, with whom they’ve given carte blanche to do whatever the hell he wants to. In turn, he’s crafted a delightful little film that’s full of real, honest-to-Christ stakes and import, with lasting and real changes for the MCU. The result is, to say the very least, entertaining, and it may very well be the best buddy comedy of the year.

A blend of the Ragnarok and Planet Hulk storylines from their respective comics, the opening finds our hero Thor (Chris Hemsworth) attempting to prevent the end of the world by slaying a gigantic demon, and afterwards, going to Asgard to re-secure the throne from his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who had taken the form of Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and shuffled him off to some corner of the world in order to consolidate power for himself. The two brothers set off to Midgard (Earth, dummy) to find their father, and in a blink of an eye, everything changes by the appearance of a long-forgotten foe. Thor’s hammer is destroyed after the goddess of death Hela (Cate Blanchett) comes to claim what she thinks is her rightful place on the throne of Asgard, and the God of Thunder is sent to a bizarre world of gladiator battles, odd-ass aliens, and old friends.

He’ll have to unite his friends in order to save Asgard and believe in himself in order to save the world, and you’ve heard most of this story before. That is, until you haven’t — the ending of this film being one of the most ballsy in the entire Marvel canon — and it’s free of a lot of the cameo horseshit or sequel-establishing that’s sullied other excellent movies in this cinematic universe. You’ll see some fun nods to other stuff, but let’s just say that we won’t have a 40-minute diversion to hang out with Thanos in the middle of this one.

It’s funny how little this particular sequel resembles the films that came before it, and Waititi shows flagrant disregard for the prior films in terms of their specifics or characters or their prior arcs. Lady Sif is totally absent, Odin’s impersonation by Loki is resolved implausibly quickly, and with all of the time and service given to the Warriors Three in the prior films, you’d be stunned at how quickly they disappear from the screen. These are all good things: Waititi gets to keep the Kirby-esque golden heights of Asgard and the essential elements of the franchise (the three H’s: Hemsworth, Hiddleston, Hopkins) while expanding the MCU in different and more interesting cosmic directions. That means very, very little of the film takes place on Earth, and outside of a brief cameo at the residence of some Bleecker Street-based sorcerer, we’re in the wildest vistas ever seen outside of James Gunn’s Guardians movies.

You have places like the Grandmaster’s planet, Sakaar, which is the exact opposite of its comic origins — as opposed to a sparsely inhabited rock-world, in Waititi’s hands it’s a gigantic trash-heap beset by dimensional portals spewing their garbage into the planet’s atmosphere — which take glances from its cosmic cousins and puts a swell and silly spin upon them, and places like Hela’s domain or the hell-like domain of Surtur (Clancy Brown), a demon bent on causing Ragnarok itself, which feel ripped straight off of the cover of your favorite metal record.

Also absent are Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster and her screen-hogging pals Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard, and thank Christ for that. Waititi’s able to quickly establish a new group dynamic that’s an odd mirror of the one that came before it. Of course you have Thor at the core, whose journeys these are, of course, the central story of the series, but he’s joined by Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, a hard-drinking and rough-and-tumble scrapper and soldier of fortune that couldn’t be further from Portman’s straight-laced scientist. There are few, if any, inklings of a romantic relationship between the two, and Waititi deserves limitless praise for keeping that pace-kill out of the way of his lean-and-mean action picture. Skarsgard’s kooky scientist is replaced by Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who is even more of a nebbish and goof than he has been in any of the Avengers films, and with good reason, given that he’s been trapped inside of his giant green alter-ego since the events of Age of Ultron. The Hulk’s a fun foil for Thor, as they’re both hyper-masculine warrior types and Waititi takes great delight at poking fun at the both of them. Finally, we’ve got Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in the Dennings role, as the wry sarcasm of her character is absolutely not a match for the MCU’s premier villain and his subtle comedic stylings (Loki’s reaction to seeing the Hulk in the arena for the first time is absolutely priceless). It’s a very fun group to spend two hours joking around with.

Other new additions are a little more hit-or-miss. Blanchett’s not given that much to do aside from snarl a few diva-esque threats towards our heroes, and many of Hela’s scenes are made up of her crappy CGI stunt double fighting lots of anonymous soldiers in the courts of Asgard. Sure, we get that she’s super powerful early on and that she’ll fuck a god up if she needs to, but she’s never given that extra spark, and her motivations are silly, especially in comparison to Thor’s over the last few films (I’m talking around a spoiler or two here, but if you think of the first Thor film and his arc, it’s basically the same except that it’s a woman seeking something and that’s bad, I guess). It doesn’t help that she’s paired with Karl Urban’s Skurge the Executioner, whose role isn’t much more than an egregious homage to the terrific Walt Simonson comics he came from and isn’t deserving of the heaps of screen time that he gets. Why spend another minute with him when you can spend a few more with Jeff Goldblum? This is a question I often ask myself about most things, and Ragnarok perhaps poses it the best. Playing the hedonistic immortal being the Grandmaster, Goldblum’s just allowed to be totally sleazy and corny in an utterly delightful way and, aside perhaps from the character that Waititi himself plays (Korg, a dense — literally! — man made of rock), he’s the biggest indicator of the changes that have come to the franchise. Hell, could you imagine a character in either of the two prior movies crack a joke about how “Asgard” sounds a lot like “ass guard?” I think not. He is unquestionably the MVP of the film, and it’s utterly joyous to see him in a role like this.

Waititi’s total comfort with his ensemble is easy to see, but when it comes to the action required for a big-budget movie, one might expect that comfort level to dip significantly. This is a dude, after all, who made micro-budget movies that hit streaming services quickly with indie-head comedy stars, and now he’s in charge of a $200 million film from one of the world’s biggest franchises and one of its biggest entertainment companies. And I’m pleased to say that he handles it quite well, and by Marvel standards it probably has the best action of any given film since the first Avengers or Winter Soldier.

The Hulk/Thor showdown that’s been the spotlight of pretty much every trailer released for Ragnarok doesn’t disappoint — it’s got a pretty incredible blend of humor and PG-13 brutality, and it’s definitely a lot of fun to watch the size difference between the two play out at large. However, Waititi saves his personal best for the final sequence between Thor and his gang and a large army of the undead and a giant fucking wolf on the rainbow bridge that connects Asgard with the rest of the universe, and there’s some slow-mo joy to be had, especially with the little touches that Waititi throws in there- the fireworks exploding behind Valkyrie as she enters the fray, for one. It may be the one of the most competent traditional ensemble action scenes Marvel’s put out over the last few years, and it’s a great harbinger for things to come for Waititi.

I feel like I’ve understated to you just exactly how funny this movie is out of fear of spoiling all the best laughs for you, but if you need another critic’s word for it, here you go: It may be the funniest Marvel movie ever released. Hemsworth honestly may be the funniest Chris (remember a billion years ago when that as a thing?), and he gives Pratt a run for a money here. He’s just so damn charming in a meat-headed way that he can sell all of the slapstick required to properly embarrass himself without looking like he’s been demeaned. Also, Waititi’s breadth of humor here is incredible as well — he throws out one of the best one-liners I’ve ever heard, seemingly ripped from the missing pages of the Dad Joke Bible and then transitions to some raunchy humor and then quickly back around for a gross-out gag that’ll make the kids squirm. That’s Thor: Ragnarok’s greatest success: It has something entertaining for everyone within its two hours and 10 minutes and yet it never panders. It makes Thor, well, mighty, for the first time on-screen.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Still courtesy of MoviestillsDB.

 

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