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Candy-colored Thor: Ragnarok is a retro, dimension-hopping hoot. Rambunctious, joyous and just plain fun to watch, Ragnarok is shellacked with vintage Taika Waititi style, the critical darling director behind such rollicking Rotten Tomatoes-adored comedy-adventures as Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows and Boy retaining his idiomatic filmmaking tactics even under the watchful eye of notoriously handsy Marvel producers. The best of the Thor films (and this coming from someone who actually admits to enjoying the previous two), Ragnarok employs Taika’s signature witty, irreverent approach to comedy and his knack for building genuine camaraderie among squirelly outcasts to craft the funniest blockbuster of the year, one that doubles as a hell of an odd-couple intergalactic road trip, even if it still barely breaks the lather-rinse-repeat nature of the Marvel Cinematic Universe mold. 

Hysterical first and foremost, Ragnarok starts with a joke and doesn’t let up until the credits have finished rolling. Thor (Chris Hemsworth, ripped and giggle-inducing as usual) has been searching the universe for Infinity Stones to no avail, with Taika and co-writers Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost cracking wise at these ludicrous overarching franchise MacGuffins destined to join together the many corners of the MCU in next year’s Infinity Wars. No pinnacle of the MCU is spared as Taika and company make haste to mock, directing audiences to point and laugh at the ludicrous nature of Earth’s preeminent shared universe, most specifically Thor and Co., rather than try to ground the helmet-wearing God of Thunder in the gritty, real world environs of say Captain America.

Thankfully, Ragnarok is anything but the super self-serious Thor and Heimdall (Idris Elba, here a golden-eyed, hazel-skinned Moses-type) prognosticating Dark Things to Come in a bathtub we bore witness to in Age of Ultron. In fact, it couldn’t be much further from it. Ragnarok smartly executes a 180 on the title character, amplifying his cocksure attitude and overt silliness to Mick Jagger-levels, applaudably dumping literally ball-and-chain Jane Foster and adding a much more exciting female foil in the form of Tessa Thompson’s boozy scoundrel Vaklyrie. Thor doesn’t sulk nor does he stare into the distance forlorn, any and all pouting followed by a quick grin exploding across his square jaw. He’s a rock star here, smirking and quipping his way across the stage of the universe, quicker to a punchline than a punch and delivering both with thunderous wallops.

The fish-out-of-water element once essential to Thor’s character is pretty much abandoned, as is his de-facto hairdo (and yes, his new cut is rather handsome), with only a quick pitstop scheduled to Earth where he has a very forced rendezvous with one of the most recent additions to the Avengers stable. The hulking Man-God adopts more slang, Earth colloquialisms and inside jokes, shucking free the toity hoity Old English of Thor yore. Hemming Thor into the crew of Avengers has always been a challenge, his status as an actual God indelibly difficult to square with an otherwise crew of mortals, but Ragnarok has finally figured out how to make him not only a suiting addition to the team but a certifiable fan favorite. Pairing him with Mark Ruffalo‘s Bruce Banner (who actually spends most of his time in Hulk form, now able to form complete sentences) proves an inspired move filled with well-realized comedic potential while explaining their notable absence in last year’s Civil War.

And Hemsworth is more than up to the task of playing the God of Thunder(ous Applause), his banter with franchise mainstay Loki (Tom Hiddleston, great as always) and newbie Korg (Waititi voicing a surprise highlight) side-splittingly delectable bites in a movie full of tasty tete-a-tetes, though it is Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster who steals scenes right out from under them all. Goldblum is, in a word, as Goldblum-y as ever; affected, a bit dazed, weird but nonetheless charming. Wearing blue lipstick and a gilded smock, he presides over the dumpster planet of Sakaar and its famed Contest of Champions, wherein a captured and freshly shorn Thor and “friend from work” Hulk are forced to do battle, in one of the film’s many perfunctory action sequences.

Here Thor: Ragnarok fails to really rise to the occasion, the various CG-heavy set piece spectacles nothing more than a colorful rendering of things we’ve already seen before. That’s not to say the action isn’t filmed with impressive technical marksmanship (the camerawork is clean, the choreography well-staged, the CG work sparkly and mouth-watering) but in moments of big explosions and fast fisticuffs, Ragnarok temporarily loses sight of its defining characteristic: its proclivity for not taking itself seriously. With a big baddie like Hela (Cate Blanchett in a Maleficent hat, gnawing through the scenery) though, Thor is forced to settle once more for World Destruction Stakes, even if the turnout in Ragnarok’s case settles for a Supermanian spin on the often predictable outcome/

But let’s be honest with ourselves here. It seems that, particularly of late, every time Marvel drops a new product, critics swoon, ready and willing to line up and call it the best thing since Sliced Bread. It happened just a few months ago with Spider-Man: Homecoming, which, it’s worth reminding you, yes released in theaters just four months ago. Thor: Ragnarok, for its many successes, is still to its very core a Product with a capital P and no ratio of successful zingers can mask that fact. These films, seemingly no matter who takes the mantle, are interchangeable cartoons, churned out at an increasingly furious pace and so a byproduct of that is that the shelf-life on them gets increasingly shorter. That Thor: Ragnarok is able to escape the assembly line mold at all is worth applauding even if said assembly line is fundamental to Marvel and Thor and Ragnarok as entertainment enterprise. Taika has made something worthwhile here, no doubt, but its single-serving nature fraternizes Ragnarok with the long line of Marvel successes that came before it and inevitably will follow. It’s goofy, well-performed and about as much fun as a Marvel movie can be, but is that really enough?

CONCLUSION: Pulsing with side-splitting energy, ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ thrives working outside the boundaries of the tightly wound, hawkishly overlorded Marvel Cinematic Universe. A neon-plated smear of laughs bursting with colorful characters and jaw-dangling FX work, ‘Ragnarok’ really is something to marvel at when viewed as a comedy even if it’s limited by the usual cinematic universe constraints.

B

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