While most of the threads of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have found their footing, the Thor films are the only ones that have genuinely struggled. The two standalone films were forgettable at best, and even with Chris Hemsworth's enormous charm as the God of Thunder, the character was totally mishandling by Joss Whedon in both 'Avengers' films. However, in a move that took everyone by surprise, Marvel handed the reigns of the third attempt to New Zealand director Taika Waititi, whose albeit-superb indie comedies did not suggest that he had the skills to handle a massive Hollywood blockbuster. It was a choice so crazy and inspired that it instantly put 'Thor: Rangnarok' on the cinematic radar. Could this be the move both Thor and Marvel desperately needed?
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is having one hell of a family reunion. For one thing, his mischievous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) isn't dead after all, and has been pretending to be their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). More shocking though is the arrival of Hela (Cate Blanchett), an older sister he never knew he had and the Goddess of Death, hell-bent on destroying Asgard. Blasted out of the realm, he finds himself a gladiator for the flamboyant Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) on the isolated trash planet Sakaar. His only chances of returning to Asgard are his duplicitous brother, the only remaining (and constantly drunk) Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and an unexpected old friend and fellow gladiator, the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).
Even the better Marvel films still feel like they're ticking storytelling boxes, and 'Thor: Ragnarok' is no exception. The screenplay leaves a lot to be desired, with Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost striking an uneven balance between some lovely variations on familiar ideas (such as the gladiator stuff) and relying on tired clichés that prevent the film from offering any real narrative surprises. It's also an unexpectedly complicated set-up, making you feel as if you've missed a chapter in the story at some point, and it isn't until we reach Sakaar that you start to feel you can get your head around whatever the hell is going on. It also continues the trend of Marvel having no idea how to handle the villains in their films, a trend that's gone from frustrating to tiring, and while the shoehorning-in of unrelated characters and exposition to further along the major Marvel arc is getting a little smoother, it still feels uncomfortably like you're hitting a speed bump at a clipping pace without knowing it's coming.
I'm starting with this criticism though because that's really the only major criticism I have for 'Thor: Ragnarok'. In every other way, the film is an absolute delight, and under Waititi's shockingly confident hand, one of the most accomplished and flat-out entertaining Marvel films to date. His influence on the film cannot be understated, his distinct tone and humour pulsing through every shot and in most instances, improving on the problems with the screenplay. The Shakespearean pomposity of the previous films is jettisoned for an irreverence, cheekiness and couldn't-give-a-rats-ass-what-anyone-thinks attitude embraced by everyone involved.
The visuals are rich, sumptuous and detailed, finally finding a balance between the necessary mix of high fantasy and science fiction. The film owes as much to 'Lord of the Rings' as it does to 'Star Wars' or 'The Fifth Element', and Waititi knows how to use all these cinematic languages to make a film that feels cohesive, whole and singular. It's also ridiculously funny and surprisingly adult with its humour, filled with double-entendres and preposterous puns, even a distinctly Kiwi flavour. This might be a Marvel film, but it's undeniably Waititi's film, the parameters of the production giving him ample space to be as inventive and creative as he has been with his independent films. He also finds a wonderful match in cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, who finds a visual language that allows this to be both an epic fantasy film and a silly-as-hell buddy comedy all at once.
The cast are also (mostly) a blast. Hemsworth totally embraces the chance to finally be fast-and-loose with the character, injecting healthy doses of his devastatingly charming goofiness that's so perfectly in step with the tone of the film (and bless the film for giving him a haircut and an always-welcome extended shirtless scene). The same can be said of Tom Hiddleston - I've never liked his performance as Loki, but again, with the reigns loosened and fun encouraged, his natural charisma shines through. Tessa Thompson is a knockout as the Valkyrie, totally bad-ass and hilarious at every turn, and the film might as well be a celebration of all things Jeff Goldblum, the Grandmaster basically built to let him do whatever the hell he wants and to be rightly celebrated for it. If we're here to see anyone though, it's Cate Blanchett as a Marvel villain, and while the screenplay doesn't serve the character that well, Blanchett is just too damn good to let that worry her, having the time of her life eating every piece of scenery Waititi throws at her and spitting it out with relish. Hela might not be the best villain in the canon, but Blanchett makes a damn good argument to convince you otherwise.
The Shakespearean pomposity of the previous films is jettisoned for an irreverence, cheekiness and couldn't-give-a-rats-ass-what-anyone-thinks attitude embraced by everyone involved.
Others don't fare as well. Mark Ruffalo looks like he's not sure why he's in the film when he's Bruce Banner, though he has ample charm (and a damn nice butt) when he's the Hulk. Karl Urban is a bit lost as Hela's sidekick Skurge, and Idris Elba is just asked to stand and brood once again as Heimdall. Hopkins delivers some ponderous exposition at the start that he could do in his sleep, but is rewarded with some wonderfully irreverent cheek at the beginning that has him playing off three unexpected and delicious cameos, one of which is an absolute scream of intertextuality. Even Waititi and 'Hunter for the Wilderpeople' star Rachel House both pop up, making side characters that could have been a bore into little pockets of delight.
Dodgy screenplay aside, 'Thor: Ragnarok' is a bloody ripper of a film, beautifully made and tremendously funny, thanks to the assured and anarchic hand of Taika Waititi. Without his influence and single-minded vision, the film would never have worked as well as it has or attracted a cast of this calibre, and Marvel should be commended for not only bringing an auteur of his quality into the franchise, but allowing them to bring to it what makes him so special. 'Thor: Ragnarok' is one of the strongest steps the Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken so far, and hopefully it means great things to come with Ryan Coogler's 'Black Panther'. It's an 80s-fuelled, psychedelic, ridiculous, irreverent and preposterous thrill-ride, and one of the best blockbusters of the year.