Of all the standalone Marvel franchises, the Thor franchise has been the most lacking. Despite the solid performances of Chris Hemsworth as the brawny, braggy Thor and Tom Hiddleston as the conniving Loki, the first two movies have not lived up to the admittedly high standards of the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
With its third attempt at a Thor standalone in Thor: Ragnarok, Marvel seems to have told director Taika Waititi to go nuts, to let's get crazy and see what happens. Such is the risk a studio can afford to take when almost everything it's touched to this point has turned to gold. It's remarkable that so much of Waititi's essence has made it intact into the final cut, and the result is a buddy comedy—because yes, this is a pure comedy—that is as screwball as anything Marvel has ever done.
(By the way, can we stop saying that Marvel shackles and undermines all its directors by now? That may have been true when it was launching the ship, but Phase 3 has clearly shown it no longer does.)
You know the story from the trailers by now: Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, gets loose and is hellbent on conquering Asgard—or utterly destroying it if its people don't fall in line. Meanwhile, Thor and Loki wind up on the distant planet Sakaar—a real inconvenience considering that whole "imminent destruction of Asgard" thing. Thor is kept imprisoned and forced into gladiatorial combat at the whims of the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), the ruler of the alien planet. Loki, meanwhile...well, he's Loki, so he somehow manages to ingratiate himself with the Grandmaster and become an honored guest. You have to hand it to the God of Mischief—he's nothing if not an excellent grifter.
While on Sakaar, the two lost princes of Asgard stumble across an old face in the form of Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has been completely up in his Hulk business for two years now. They also make a new ally in the form of Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), a former member of Asgard's Valkyrie forces. Together, the cobbled-together team hatches a plan to retake Asgard, if they can get their dysfunction to function long enough to take Hela down.
In Ragnarok, Waititi gives Hemsworth the license to lean into the funny as much as he wants, and it pays off. Under the blond beauty and bulging biceps is an actor who's always had some serious comedic chops just waiting to be unleashed. I personally find Thor to be a boring character, even in the comics, but Hemsworth is at his best when embracing the well-meaning idiot version of the normally too self-important God of Thunder. He's on the pointy end of more than a few jokes in Ragnarok, and it's great. I'd love to see Hemsworth in a traditional comedy after this; I suspect he would take people by surprise. The same goes for Hiddleston's Loki, who, for once, is not in a position where he is the only one making the jokes at the expense of others, but is often the butt of the joke himself. It's a new twist for the usually unflappable trickster, and there are a few truly funny moments involving him and some bad flashbacks to the time he got his ass whooped by the Hulk, who himself offers a brand-new dynamic thanks to an expanded vocabulary and ability to talk.
As the villain, Blanchett's Hela suffers from a touch of the same curse of two-dimension that most Marvel villains suffer from. But Blanchett is a phenomenal enough actress that she takes a thin character and injects a deliciously diabolical vibe into the role. There has never been a sultrier, sassier villain, and Blanchett clearly relishes the opportunity to play a baddie. As her reluctant second, Karl Urban does as much as he can with the role of Skurge the Executioner, but seriously, can we please get this man some roles befitting his talent already? He deserves more, people. He deserves more.
While I'm giving shout-outs to Urban's underrated role here, I should take this moment to throw some love at unsung heroes Mark Mothersbaugh and Javier Aguirresarobe. Marvel's scores have gotten almost as much flak for being forgettable as its villains. I'd argue that that's a byproduct of the scores being absolutely buried in the mix rather than them being boring, but Mothersbaugh's orchestral techno-disco score is a genuine delight to the ears. Likewise, Aguirresarobe gets credit (along with the rest of the design and VFX crew) for creating some truly stunning sequences. Marvel's Phase 3 has been a riot of color, and Ragnarok continues that trend with visuals your eyeballs drink up rather than gloss over.
Getting back to the actors, it's Tessa Thompson who is the true revelation of the movie as Valkyrie. She plays the character with an insouciant sort of swagger that is reminiscent of most Michelle Rodriguez roles. It's a really refreshing take to see Thompson play Valkyrie not as a noble demigoddess but as a hard-drinking former soldier with survivor's guilt.
It's a necessary thing that the cast is so charming and engaging to watch, however, because the story itself is often meandering and suffers from the fast and loose style of a director who is more interested in seeing where a joke takes us than sticking to a tight script. In a finite run time, something has to be sacrificed somewhere for the sake of balance. In the case of Thor: Ragnarok, it's great to see Waititi letting his actors off the leash, but it means that gags last a bit too long, and improv and riffing that should be cut sooner sometimes go a beat too far. It also means that scenes that could have had some legitimate emotional impact are undermined by a joke. Had the film just let those moments rest, they might have provided deep resonance, but as it is, the tonal flippancy occasionally lands awkwardly in a movie that's about preventing the genocide of an entire race of people.
Ultimately, though, it's so damn entertaining that you're never bored in its 130 minute runtime. Team Thor are still big damn heroes who save their world—even if they're laughing all the way. If the greatest directorial sin that Taika Waititi commits with Ragnarok is that he gets us to laugh a little too hard a little too often, that's a tradeoff I'm very much willing to take in the dire straits of 2017.
Thor: Ragnarok is in theaters Friday, November 3rd.