The Thor movies have never been as strong as the other "solo" character adventures within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but they have do have a key weapon that allows them to ultimately work: Chris Hemsworth not only has the good looks and muscular body build for leading action blockbusters, but also tremendous comedic timing. Both Kenneth Branagh's Thor and Alan Taylor's Thor: The Dark World swing for fantastical drama, but connect best when they're just trying to have fun -- be it the titular hero's rough adjustment to the ways of Earth, or his bizarre portal-hoping battle against the Dark Elves. Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok is finally the film in the series that leans into its greatest strength, and while its comedic leanings do have the effect of undercutting some of the more dramatic aspects, it's also the best of the Thor features and impressively one of the better MCU offerings.
While not exactly a household name just yet, Taika Waititi has made incredible strides maturing as a filmmaker over the last decade; and in the same way that Marvel Studios gave blockbuster newcomers James Gunn and the Russo brothers freedom to make movies with their own voices, Thor: Ragnarok shines with Waititi's blunt-yet-silly comedic sensibility. It's a presence that has both a monumental tonal influence, and also permits totally new avenues of presentation for the character. In the same way that being brought to the present transformed Captain America during his Winter Soldier adventure after The First Avenger, the new Thor title primarily takes place far, far away from the common human squabbles of Earth, allowing for reinvention. Separated from his powerful hammer, stranded on a colorful literal garbage planet, and paired with the only fellow Avenger who makes him truly insecure, the hero has an entirely new light cast on him in this film, and he shines.
As far as a deeper connection to the larger, multi-tiered franchise goes, Thor: Ragnarok is very much on the "self-contained" side of spectrum -- even going as far as to make multiple jokes out of would-be tie-in elements that fans have been speculating about for years. Rather than being on the hunt for Infinity Stones, as suggested at the end of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has instead been on a different mission, trying to prevent the fabled destruction of Asgard known as Ragnarok. After seemingly accomplishing this task, he returns home to his magical realm, but discovers that things aren't as he left them. As those who remember the end of Thor: The Dark World know, this is because his brother, the mischievous Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has spent years impersonating his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and ruling as king.
Thor uncovers the ruse and forces his sibling to reveal his true identity, and the location of the real Odin. Unfortunately, this little adventure shutters a little early thanks to the surprise appearance of an incredibly deadly new foe: Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett). Mjolnir (which is sadly never referred to as meow-meow in the movie) is obliterated, and after Asgard is promised the same fate, even the attempt to run away goes horribly wrong. While Hela successfully brings her campaign of doom to the gates of the royal realm, Thor and Loki are separately stranded on the planet Sakaar -- a portal dumping ground ruled by an oddball dictator called The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). The God of Thunder knows he has to get back home to stop Hela, but doing so means earning his freedom in the Grandmaster's gladiator games against his personal champion... who just so happens to be the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), lost since the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The essence of great comedic blockbusters is the character work, and this is where the film excels. Given the legwork of nine-years-worth of exciting and well-cast Marvel Cinematic Universe features, it might not seem like much of a challenge to get us to like these heroes, but what's utmost exciting is that Thor: Ragnarok still continues to add dimensions to personalities we've never seen before. More than just having a spike in witty lines, Thor is free of the weight of whether or not to take Odin's crown, as well as his obligations to Earth, and instead gets to use this sequel to stand up as the proud defender of Asgard in time of crisis. Hulk has literally evolved, going from mindless beast to a syntax-challenged meathead who can finally start to articulate his side of his inner-conflict with Bruce Banner. And then there's Loki, who actually proves everyone wrong by being a somewhat effective leader of his realm -- even if it means letting everywhere else descend into chaos. As much as we've seen a lot of these heroes and villains over the last decade, this story successfully never feels stale.
Admittedly the new characters are more of a mixed bag, but there are certainly some big winners among them. Specifically, if it weren't for Hulk really getting the opportunity to swing his weight around, Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie would be the film's key scene-stealer. An unapologetically flawed former Asgardian warrior who has moved her game to Sakaar capturing potential gladiators, she has some meaty personal stuff to overcome through her arc in the film, and has some fantastic back-and-forth with Thor, Hulk and Bruce Banner.
In comparison, the trio of Cate Blanchett's Hela, Jeff Goldblum's Grandmaster, and Karl Urban's Skurge unfortunately don't operate quite as well in the background of these looming figures, despite each of them bringing their all in terms of screen presence. Hela's story stalls out when she gets to Asgard and is held up by her need for a particular MacGuffin to continue her plans; Grandmaster's role is far more about presentation and capitalizing on Jeff Goldblum's wonderfully genuine weirdness than any kind of real arc; and Skurge is given a nice dose of emotional conflict and personality, but quite simply doesn't have enough screentime to feel entirely meaningful.
Looking at Thor: Ragnarok from a macro perspective, it's also key to recognize the clear trade-off that it accepted as it moved through development. While Taika Waititi has developed an impressive eye as a filmmaker, evident in work like Boy, What We Do In The Shadows, and The Hunt For The Wilderpeople, Marvel Studios clearly hired the guy to hyper-elevate the entertainment levels of the Thor series, and that is exactly what he has done. That said, it does have its drawbacks, particularly when it comes to the more serious drama the narrative offers. Ragnarok may not have incredibly close ties to the bigger plot developments of the Marvel franchise, but there are some important, cataclysmic events that go down, but they don't quite get to carry the gravity that they may have otherwise had. On the whole, it's a trade-off that works in the movie's favor, but it does detract from it too.
Thor: Ragnarok isn't what could be called the most substantial adventure in the Marvel canon, but it unequivocally is one of the most entertaining. It's a sequel that takes a hard look at its series' past and separates wheat from chaff, and produces a wonderful road movie with some brilliant character work as a result. It's not the groundbreaker that some of its franchise cousins are, but you'll be challenged to find a blockbuster more fun this season.