Movie-goers who believe Marvel blockbusters are too generic or feel factory-made really ought to watch 2017's Thor: Ragnarok, as it confidently defies those labels and feels like the work of a genuine auteur. Insanely fun and distinctively quirky, with gorgeously colourful visuals and wittiness aplenty, Ragnarok is the shot in the arm that the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed at this point to remind us why we fell in love with this ambitious franchise in the first place. Overseen by Kiwi filmmaker Taika Waititi (2016's Hunt for the Wilderpeople), this threequel manages to be both thrilling and gut-bustingly funny whilst adding serious scope to the series, and the material is infused with so much endearing energy that it's never a chore to sit through. Leave it to the director of What We Do in the Shadows to create the most wild, entertaining MCU blockbuster to date.
When Thor (Chris Hemsworth) defeats the fire demon Surtur (Clancy Brown) in the fiery realm of Muspelheim, he believes that his actions have prevented the prophesied world-destroying event known as Ragnarok. But upon his return to his home of Asgard, Thor realises that his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is missing, and his wayward brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has claimed the throne. Setting out with Loki to find Odin, Thor is instead confronted with the return of Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, who seeks to take the Asgardian throne that she was denied many years ago. With Thor's hammer Mjolnir destroyed and the brothers cast out, the God of Thunder finds himself on the garbage planet of Sakaar, which is ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). In Sakaar's gladiatorial arena, Thor comes face to face with the reigning champion, The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), while the planet is also home to a former Asgardian warrior, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). Assembling a team, Thor seeks to return to Asgard and overthrow Hela before she can destroy the Asgardian people.
Clocking in at a considerable 130 minutes, Ragnarok broadens the arcs of both Thor and Loki, and serves to re-introduce the Hulk back into the MCU by incorporating elements of the Planet Hulk comic book storyline. There is a lot of material to work through, but not a single moment feels dull or laboured under the careful eye of director Waititi, and the story elements are given sufficient breathing room to gain full traction. 2011's Thor in particular was Shakespearean in tone, but Ragnarok is an outright science fiction fantasy adventure, feeling closer to a road trip movie with shades of Big Trouble in Little China, which is a breath of fresh air after 2013's hit-and-miss Thor: The Dark World. This is also one of the funniest Marvel movies to date, and the humour almost seems effortless whilst never diminishing the very real stakes of the story. Although Ragnarok admittedly lacks the sheer emotional kick of something like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, there is enough dramatic resonance to prevent the movie from feeling too empty.
Selecting independent filmmakers for these huge projects has worked out well for Marvel in the past, and Waititi proves to be yet another inspired choice. Rather than relinquishing his artistic integrity, Waititi thankfully retains his terrific sense of mirth and quirkiness, having loads of fun finding his own vision - a fiery portal to Asgard is named "The Devil's Anus," for instance, and Waititi even steps in to play a goofy rock monster named Korg (complete with a thick Kiwi accent), scoring a lot of laughs in the process. The original score by Mark Mothersbaugh is retro and synth-heavy, giving the movie even more flavour. Other soundtrack choices are pure ecstasy, particularly when Led Zeppelin's "The Immigrant Song" is put to great use to get the adrenaline pumping and bring life to Thor's badass throwdowns. So much personality is visible in every frame of Thor: Ragnarok, standing in stark contrast to the painfully generic disposition of such other MCU movies as Doctor Strange and Ant-Man. Waititi's Ragnarok feels like its own entity, and even though it's stylistically different to the first two Thor movies, it's easy to embrace this bold new vision.
As to be expected from a motion picture carrying a reported $180 million price-tag, Ragnarok is a lavish, handsomely-mounted blockbuster, benefitting from competent technical specs across the board. Very little time is spent on Earth, as Waititi is more interested in exploring new areas of the Nine Realms, with special focus on Sakaar and Asgard. It should go without saying at this point, but the vibrant special effects consistently impress. There is computer-generated imagery in abundance to bring the many different worlds and creatures to life, as well as intricate costumes and ornate sets, but it doesn't all look too artificial or phoney - instead, the visuals are convincing and tangible. And despite his inexperience with action, Waititi acquits himself commendably, orchestrating thrilling skirmishes with the confidence of a seasoned veteran. The much-publicised showdown between Thor and Hulk in the gladiatorial arena is a total gas, and we also get to see Hulk in a more laid-back environment, casually enjoying his luxurious apartment which includes a hot tub. It's a treat to watch Hulk - whose mental capacity is that of a toddler - interact with Thor, delivering comedic dialogue that's consistently on-point.
It was actually Hemsworth who wanted such a radical change for Thor; his hammer is destroyed and his blonde locks are cut, not to mention silliness is foregrounded, allowing for a fresh take on the established character. The Australian actor clearly has a ball, while Hiddleston superbly slips back into the role of Loki (for the first time since The Dark World) as if no time has passed. Blanchett can do this type of role in her sleep, and she's expectedly excellent, but the show undeniably belongs to Goldblum. Relishing the opportunity to play the ostentatiously debauched Grandmaster, Goldblum steals scenes all over the place, proving to be the movie's secret weapon. Also making a positive impression is Thompson as the hard-drinking, tough-as-nails Valkyrie. Natalie Portman is apparently done with Marvel, and therefore her character of Jane Foster is completely absent for Ragnarok (along with Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgård and Chris O'Dowd). It's a tad jarring, especially after the post-credits scene for The Dark World, but Jane would not have a logical place in this space-set story anyway, and she isn't missed amid such an insanely talented ensemble.
In the end, rather than feeling like a generic superhero movie, Thor: Ragnarok feels closer to an independently-produced cosmic odyssey with traces of Flash Gordon and the aforementioned Big Trouble in Little China, and it's an oddly appropriate addition to Waititi's budding filmography. It's clear that everybody had a great time making this third Thor, as there's so much energy and enthusiasm on full display, and it never feels like it's going through the motions. We may be a decade (and seventeen movies) into the MCU, but with its top-notch 2017 release slate, it shows no signs of fatigue.