Everything audiences know walking in to Thor: Ragnarok should tell them that this is a movie intent on breaking its hero. There’s the title, of course: Ragnarok is the apocalypse of Norse mythology, the set of legends from which the Marvel Comics adventurer springs. There’s the trailer you might have seen, in which a deadly foe shatters Thor’s supposedly unbreakable hammer. Over the course of this third solo outing for the god of thunder, Thor will lose his allies, his freedom, those flowing golden locks, and also something more permanent, but none of these will be the most significant alteration to the character in Taika Waititi’s zippy, slightly tilted, often joyfully frenzied film: Thor is finally in on his own joke. Self-awareness is now his superpower.
Take the opening scene, which finds Thor trapped in a hellish underworld. “I know what you’re thinking,” he says in voice-over, feigning distress. “ ‘Oh, no, Thor’s in a cage. How did this happen?’ ” Soon, bound in shackles and hanging from chains, he is confronted by his adversary, a massive demon named Surtur, who begins to monologue in the way cackling villains must—until Thor, immobile and slowly spinning, cuts him off, asking Surtur to wait a moment until he’s completed the 360-degree turn and has returned to facing him. The old Thor might have punched first, quipped later; this Thor repeats the gag twice, flustering his enemy before he does what thunder gods do.
Thor: Ragnarok is a much goofier film than its 2011 and 2013 predecessors, and also a better one. That’s because Chris Hemsworth’s Thor remains the loutish, happy warrior he’s always been but is no longer the movie’s straight man, a muscled fish out of water. And he has a script and a director that are as funny as he is. With the exception of a brief Earthly pit stop, Waititi sets his film in the stranger, candy-colored corners of Marvel’s cosmos, where the action is pummeling but gleeful and Jeff Goldblum, playing a minor antagonist, wears floppy sandals and a blue painted-on goatee. Bright, banter-filled, and soundtracked by Led Zeppelin (they couldn’t resist that lyric about the “hammer of the gods”), Thor: Ragnarok feels like it takes place about a star system over from the Guardians of the Galaxy films. Even for the superhero-skeptical, it goes down easy.
The last time we saw Thor was in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, which set him off on a mysterious quest of universal import. Now back on Asgard, the rainbow-hued home of the Norse deities, he learns that his brother, the trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston), has squirreled away and supplanted their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). After a dutiful but fun cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange, the brothers find their aging parent, as well as something unexpected: their long-banished sister Hela, the goddess of death, who in Cate Blanchett’s devilish care uses every one of her grinning teeth to chew on lines like, “Darling, you have no idea what’s possible.” A deliciously exasperated tyrant, Hela will storm Asgard, but not before tossing Thor into the abyss, through which he will arrive on the planet Sakaar, a junkscape ruled by Goldblum’s Grandmaster, a hedonistic despot in search of gladiators to fight and die in the arena.
Though a final battle with Hela looms, this detour becomes Ragnarok’s centerpiece, and it’s where the distinctive hand of Waititi, a New Zealander known for his charming, emotionally resonant indies, is most recognizable. Like Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, Waititi filters sci-fi touchstones through his own oddball lens—witness the Day-Glo Tusken Raiders that take Thor into custody—and airdrops pop-cultural detritus that works precisely because it has no business being there. (In this case, he perfectly deploys Willy Wonka’s “Pure Imagination” for a Tunnel of Terror–esque trip.) It is here where we meet the swaggering, frequently sozzled Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, excellent), an Asgardian outcast who’s trying to drown her past in drink, and Korg (voiced in near-falsetto by Waititi himself), a gentle giant of a rock creature who might be the silliest, most likable thing in a movie full of them. And we will re-encounter the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, sympathy-inducing), who has become Sakaar’s champion, and who will complete the buddy comedy that the film becomes in its second half.
As it turns out, this pairing has real chemistry, even if most of Thor and the Hulk’s exchanges end with one of them slapping the other into a wall. That the film is so joke-dense, however, does eventually undercut its stakes, especially since this is the 16th Marvel Cinematic Universe film—literally the 16th—where the fate of a city, planet, universe, or all of reality is at stake. For all of the gonzo flourishes, Waititi is a fairly conventional plotter and stager of action scenes, and so eventually we must move on to a denouement we don’t quite care about, as well as a potentially weighty theme—Hela might represent the ugly origins that all prosperous societies bury—that stays too far out of focus. There’s a great Thor–Hulk interstellar road movie to be made, but this isn’t quite it.
It’s those broad jokes and small moments, from a director of small movies, that stick. That’s precisely what has made many of the better Marvel films, which feel like small pictures blown up into big ones, work so well. If you have a rock creature, why wouldn’t he make a rock-paper-scissors joke? Of course our heroes will return to Asgard via a portal known as “the devil’s anus.” And, why yes, I do want to see Hulk smash a giant serpent. Would that every superhero film had so light a touch. Not every job needs a hammer.