IN THOR LORE, and also Norse mythology, “Ragnarok” means the end of days. It’s fire-and-brimstone, Book-of-Revelation type stuff. Conceptually, that means any movie based on it has the potential to be heavier than Mjölnir. Which is why Thor: Ragnarok is such a wonderful surprise, and the most effortlessly enjoyable hangout movie to emerge from the Marvel Cinematic Universe—despite the presence of the goddess of death.
And really, pulling off a feat like this in the current Marvel movie universe might be Thor’s most heroic feat yet. For years now, pretty much ever since 2012's The Avengers, movies in the MCU have been increasingly over-stuffed, weighed down by introducing new characters (Doctor Strange, Ant-Man) and/or churning through the many machinations of maintaining the ever-blossoming MCU plot (Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Age of Ultron). The latest Thor, however, seems utterly unconcerned with any of that, instead delivering a light-on-its-feet story that could just as easily be called Thor and Friends’ Big Fun Offworld Adventure. It's a movie that (get ready) actually reminds you why you liked hanging out with these people in the first place.
Credit for this goes in large part to director Taika Waititi. The New Zealand native got his start in TV comedies (he’s probably most recognizable in the US for his work on Flight of the Conchords) and movies that marry dense, dry humor with an emotional core (Boy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople). All of that shows up in Thor: Ragnarok, which takes the most painfully awkward family dynamic in the MCU—that between Thor (Chris Hemsworth), his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins)—and turns it into an action-packed two hours about a bunch of weirdos who only show love through wisecracks and royally screw up as much as they succeed. It’s what the Guardians of the Galaxy would look like if they took themselves half as seriously—a superhero Seinfeld that’s actually about something.
A little backstory: At the start of Ragnarok, Thor—who hasn’t been doing Avengers stuff since Age of Ultron—returns to his Asgardian home to find that his presumed-dead brother has taken over as king by impersonating their father. Then, thanks to Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, blessedly the only superhero pseudo-cameo here), Loki and Thor are delivered to Norway to retrieve Odin, who warns them that their sister, Hela (the aforementioned goddess of death played by Cate Blanchett), will be returning to rule/destroy Asgard and bring about Ragnarok. When they return to their home planet to try to stop her, a Bifröst malfunction causes them to be, to borrow a phrase from another Blanchett character, flung out of space. They end up on Sakaar, a planet ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, being his Jeff Goldblumiest), who uses his power to lord over gladiatorial fights. Loki, naturally, curries his favor, while Thor gets kidnapped by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, who steals the whole movie one curl-lipped quip at a time), sold to the Grandmaster, and forced to fight his “friend from work” Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).
This is what happens when a movie gets some much-needed wiggle room.
Seem like a lot? It is, but that’s only the first half and it breezes right by, leaving a back end that’s a joyride of action sequences, comedic asides (the burgeoning bromance between Hulk/Bruce Banner and Thor is particularly charming), and troop-rallying as Thor tries to get Loki, Hulk, and Valkyrie—once an Asgardian female warrior—to band together to defeat Hela. It’s nice, neat, free of references to Hydra, Thanos, or any other MCU baggage, and is just a good time. You know, the way superhero movies can be when they’re not busy checking narrative boxes.
But there’s another reason Ragnarok is able to bring the thunder: its cast. From Oscar-winner Blanchett, playing the first female villain to grace a Marvel movie, to returning antihero Hiddleston, everyone onscreen is a gem. And, likely encouraged by Waititi, they all seem to be playing their roles, rightfully, like theater geeks who got to don capes and go nuts, relishing every bit but never taking it too seriously. They’d all be overacting if it wasn’t obvious they were fighting over a world drowned in rainbows where it’s impossible to overact anything. Like, I don’t even know if Goldblum is anything like the Grandmaster of the comics or if Valkyrie needed to be a swaggering drunk, but I don’t want either of them any other way. Even Waititi’s own turn as Kronan gladiator Korg is endearing. As for Blanchett, it’s impossible to be sure what accent she was trying for, but when I looked over my notes from Ragnarok the only thing that was perfectly legible was “I’m already obsessed with how Cate says ‘cosmos.’” (You’ll see.)
Marvel movies have always been funny, but in more recent installments they’ve been so busy with political intrigue and exposition the laughs have seemed fewer and further between. Ragnarok, based on the presence of Waititi alone, promised to be one of the franchise’s funnier installments; and after the movie got LoLs this year’s Comic-Con International, he actually went back and put in even more jokes. If Marvel Studios learns anything from this Thor installment, it ought to be that a little levity goes a long way and not every movie needs to collapse under the weight of its own interconnectedness to the universe—a lesson their counterparts at DC Entertainment are already taking to heart.
Thor: Ragnarok is currently pulling in a 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. That makes it one of the most critically adored films of the entire Marvel franchise, even better than Joss Whedon’s first Avengers. It’s likely to make more than $100 million domestically at the box office this weekend. It’ll be a big deal, as all Marvel movies are. Will it be one of the most critical movies in the MCU? Probably not, but that doesn’t matter—it’ll easily be one of the most beloved.