As we traverse through the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, we find ourselves at a curious junction where each year is a mix of new characters and old, and as a result, new franchises as well as returns to older ones. Of those older ones, perhaps the most underwhelming has been those featuring Chris Hemsworth’s Thor. Beginning with a solid, if unspectacular first film directed by Kenneth Brannagh, Thor returned in a middling sequel (Thor: The Dark World) that featured some nifty innovations and decent performances, but lacked a solid villain (despite the casting of Christopher Eccleston) or a cohesive story. Thor has acquitted himself well enough in the two Avengers films, but as a standalone, never quite found his footing.
That all changed when Marvel decided to make another one of their weird, bold directorial choices and go with Taika Waititi to helm the third picture, Thor: Ragnarok. More importantly, they appear to have completely removed any semblance of a leash, and allowed Waititi to run wild with his unique, batty, and utterly delightful sense of style and characterization. The result is a complete departure from the sturm und drang of the previous films — Very Serious Films that were peppered with healthy doses of humor but also an excess of melodrama — and instead it’s the complete opposite. Thor: Ragnarok is instead an action-comedy film, more akin to James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy than anything else. I don’t know why it’s the intergalactic heroes who get to have the most fun, but goddamn is it fun.
The film features the invasion of Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death with a surprising connection to Thor’s past, invading and conquering Asgard and booting both Thor and Loki to another galaxy. They end up on the run-down, ramshackle planet Sakaar, which is ruled with a whimsical iron fist by The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who captures heroes and uses them as warriors in their gladiatorial games. Thor ends up in one such match, and eventually discovers that the Hulk — now apparently fully stuck in green mode but with newfound limited speech — is there as well. He also discovers a long-lost Asgardian, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), one of the long-gone legendary female warriors, working as a salvager and kidnapper. Eventually Thor, Valkyrie, Hulk/Banner, and even his conflicted, villainous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) team up to escape Sakaar, return to Asgard and depose Hela (who is fighting a resistance movement led by Idris Elba’s Heimdall).
There’s more to it than that — much more, in fact — but let’s leave it there so you can discover it for yourself. What’s more important to note is that Thor: Ragnarok is easily going to be one of the more important films in the MCU. Not because it’s of vital importance to the long-coming endgame that we’ll finally get in Avengers: Infinity War, but because it, like Guardians, the forthcoming Black Panther and even Spider-Man: Homecoming to a certain degree, changes the way we see superhero movies. It’s so wild and weird and hilarious that it becomes a joyous, fantastical adventure to sit through. There’s never a dull moment in Ragnarok, and that’s in large part due to the strong pedigree of a solid writing team (Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost are both comic book writers, and Eric Pearson wrote several of the Marvel One-Shot shorts as well as episodes of Agent Carter), and the vivid, colorful, lush cinematography of Javier Aguirresarobe. But it’s Waikiti who brings it all together, and he’s created a universe that is warm, beautiful to look at, with subtle background interactions and a wild narrative flow that never slows down, but also never overwhelms.
He also brings out some amazing performances from his actors. Blanchett is of course a legend, and here she’s having the time of her life. Full of seductive glowers and half-smiles, she revels in her spandex-clad villainy, but never overplays it. Hemsworth and Hiddlesworth are more comfortable than ever as Thor and Loki, but they’re both allowed to stretch a good bit more, giving a strong comedic spin to the characters and having a ball with their up-and-down rapport. They’re more brotherly than ever here, sometimes almost sweetly so, but also resigned to their fates as antagonists. Goldblum is in Full Goldblum mode here, milking every ounce of strange, goofy charm out of his peculiar patois and style. There are several other great performances — Elba finally gets to do something as Heimdall, and he does it quite well, and there are smaller, delightful performances such as Rachel House as the Grandmaster’s bodyguard and Waikiti himself as the voice of the giant rock-alien Korg. But the standout is unquestionably Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie. She kills in the role. She’s a drunken, wild, cynical hardass who takes what she wants and gives no fucks. She’s amazing, and the character needs to be a regular part of the MCU. Hell, give her a solo film.
Thor: Ragnarok also does a great job at defying the typical MCU conventions, taking all of their formulas and shaking them up until something utterly crazy bubbles out. In this, Banner and Thor are often emotional wrecks, trying to figure out their place in the world, played with a bizarre yet amusingly cute insecurity. Hulk is finally loved as a gladiator — or some approximation of love — and doesn’t want to give it up. Thor finds himself adrift, hair shorn, hammer gone, family fractured, and all he knows is he needs help. Meanwhile, Valkyrie is wickedly charming, full of drunken swagger, caring little for their plights and just out to get hers. It’s a fabulous twist on how characters like these are typically depicted, and those kinds of ideas are threaded throughout the film, upending the usual tropes and creating something far more engaging.
That’s ultimately why Thor: Ragnarok is so damn fun. It’s unconventional — it changes the way we look at the characters. As a result, it feels fresh and exciting again. Obviously, this is the best Thor film to-date, with the best depiction of the character. But it also easily breaks into the top five in the MCU pantheon. It’s the funniest of them all, even more than Guardians, and the action is breathtaking and nutty and set to a killer soundtrack, and it never lets off the gas. I felt like I needed a smoke afterwards, like instead of sitting in a dark theater I was sitting in a bed with the sheets ripped in half and the pillows hurled across the room. It’s just that satisfying.