It’s hard to imagine a better director for “Thor: Ragnarok” than Taika Waititi (“Hunt for the Wilderpeople”). At first glance, the native New Zealander behind some of the best comedies of the last decade appears to fly in the face of everything the “Thor” movies have been set up to be so far, and that’s because he does. The first film in the franchise briefly benefitted from Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean influence in its opening act, but apart from that, it and the turgid “The Dark World” rank as two of the most forgettable films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While intermittently entertaining, they seem to labor under the delusion that they have far more gravitas than they actually do, and with the exceptions of Thor (Chris Hemsworth, “Ghostbusters”) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston, “Kong: Skull Island”), the characters are universally one-note and flat.
With “Ragnarok,” Waititi looks to best those films in finally leaning into the strengths of its leads and its characters. To that end, this “Thor” film plays much more like a buddy comedy than the faux-epic space operas of its predecessors. Hemsworth is allowed to stretch the comedic muscles he’s established outside the MCU — most recently by acting circles around the cast of “Ghostbusters” — and there’s an unending air of fun from the opening action sequence to the final post-credit stinger. Most importantly, it achieves this without ever sacrificing stakes for comedy, something not only the “Thor” films, but the MCU as a whole, have historically struggled with.
That’s not to say that there aren't bumps in the road. The first act must clean up the mess left by the cliffhanger to “The Dark World,” and so the script bounces from one plot point to another without giving any time for development. Scenes that should have great emotional weight are glossed over at a moment’s notice just to make room for the next big thing to happen. As a result, the first twenty minutes or so are incredibly uneven, and the burden is suddenly on the middle of the movie to actually begin the story.
Thankfully, the rest of the movie — which sees Thor banished to a gladiatorial contest on the world of Sakaar after Hela (Cate Blanchett, “Carol”), the goddess of death, invades his home, Asgard — is more than up to the task. Sakaar is a fantastical setting that immediately differentiates itself from any locale in the MCU so far thanks to Waititi’s unique sense of style and stellar production design work from “Lord of the Rings” veterans Dan Hennah and Ra Vincent. The garbage planet, a sort of intergalactic dump, suits the tone of the film perfectly.
Sakaar’s inhabitants and the rest of the supporting cast add further shades of idiosyncratic color. Blanchett is clearly having the time of her life devouring the scenery alongside Karl Urban (“Star Trek Beyond”) as her lackey, Skurge. She proves to be one of the best villains in the MCU thusfar thanks to her magnificently over-the-top performance alone. Her extravagance is matched only by Jeff Goldblum (“Independence Day: Resurgence”) as the Grandmaster, ruler of Sakaar, in what can only be described as the most Goldblum performance to ever have been Goldblummed. It’s self-satirization at its best. Still, its Waititi himself who steals the show in his part as Korg, an alien life form who Thor meets in the arena and who “tried to start a revolution but didn’t print enough pamphlets.”
But it’s “Ragnarok”’s ability to function as a suitable ending to Thor’s arc that is its greatest strength. It’s certainly entertaining throughout with only a few missteps to detract from its value, but as the movie wound to a close, I was struck by an appreciation for how far Thor has come in his three solo outings. The movies themselves haven’t always been perfect or even all that good, but the god of thunder himself has been a consistently compelling character. It’s a pity it took this long to give him a movie as engaging as he is, but if this really is the end of his story, then it's a solid note to go out on.