Thor: Ragnarok thinks superheroes are ridiculous, and that makes it wonderful

Director Taika Waititi creates a new kind of Marvel movie

Over the years, Marvel has earned a reputation for perhaps not being the most director-friendly studio in the industry. Edgar Wright left Ant-Man after eight years on the project, due to differences in vision. Joss Whedon walked away from the Avengers franchise after finding the creative compromises on Age of Ultron too difficult. And Patty Jenkins left Thor: The Dark World for similar reasons — and then went on to direct Wonder Woman. Along the way, filmmakers like Ava DuVernay have been invited to direct Marvel movies, and have declined to jump on board in the first place.

But somewhat quietly, Marvel Studios has been evolving. In recent years, some of the company’s most exciting films have stood out precisely because of their directors’ oddball sensibilities. The Guardians of the Galaxy films are in many ways James Gunn movies more than they’re Marvel movies, and Scott Derrickson’s genre instincts turned Doctor Strange into a visually sumptuous phantasmagoria. But no film in the studio’s canon has seemingly owed so much to its director as Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok.

Waititi is the New Zealand-based filmmaker and comedian behind movies like Hunt for the Wilderpeople and the vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows. Thor: Ragnarok is his first Hollywood feature, but what he’s done with Ragnarok doesn’t just boil down to adding new characters or throwing in extra comedy. Instead, it’s an enthusiastic, hilarious reboot of the idea of what a Marvel movie can actually be, resulting in an effervescent, delightfully self-aware ride that was the most fun I’d had in a superhero movie in years.

Warning: Mild spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok ahead.

In Age of Ultron, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor left the rest of The Avengers to investigate an apocalyptic vision he’d been having. Waititi’s film picks up sometime thereafter. It turns out that apocalypse Thor is seeing is Ragnarok, the prophesied end of his homeworld of Asgard. When Thor’s father Odin dies, Thor and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, oily and charming as ever) discover that their long-lost sister Hela — a gleefully evil Cate Blanchett — has escaped from a prison she was trapped in eons ago. Her goal: to take her rightful place as the new ruler of Asgard. Thor tries in vain to stop her, but instead ends up trapped on the planet of Sakaar. He’ll have to win a gladiatorial contest if he wants to escape, but first, he’ll need to defeat the Hulk himself.

That reads like a lot of plot, capped with the usual end-of-the-world stakes Marvel films have become infamous for. But from the very first scenes, it is clear this isn’t a standard-issue Marvel flick. Chris Hemsworth opens up the comedic range of the character from the moment he appears on-screen. He really embraces the idea of Thor as a good-intentioned meathead, always trying to do the right things for the right reasons, but never quite as clever as he so clearly fancies himself. There’s always been humor in the Marvel films, and in Thor in particular, but this reimagined version of the character serves up a knowing nod and wink for practically the entire film’s running time. Thor: Ragnarok is like Deadpool, only charming and light, rather than R-rated and nihilistic. Yes, these characters can get a little silly at times, Waititi seems to be saying, but that doesn’t have to stop us from having a good time.

That sentiment fuels every facet of Ragnarok. Sakaar’s design is aggressively retro-futuristic, calling to mind Heavy Metal magazine covers (with the Led Zeppelin music cues to match), and the score from Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh drenches everything in lush, prog-rock synthesizers. And while a lot happens in the movie, characters like Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster — the entity that oversees the Sakaar gaming matches — are given the space to hang out and just be weird. Given how many small details and setups any given expanded universe film has to cram in these days, it’s a testament to Waititi’s resolve that Thor: Ragnarok is able to spend so much of its running time on small character beats and funny asides. From Korg, a soft-spoken creature made of rocks (played by Waititi himself) to the Odd Couple dynamic that eventually develops between Thor and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), the movie constantly feels more like an improv-heavy indie film than the tentpole behemoth it actually is.

That said, it is most certainly still a Marvel movie. There are massive battles, world-ending stakes, and massive computer-generated creatures. They’re arguably some of the weakest parts of the movie, but not because Waititi can’t deliver on the spectacle. He does so incredibly well, injecting real visual flair into the proceedings as he toys with a budget and sense of scale he’s never had access to as a filmmaker. But when the film shifts gears into traditional Marvel mode, it prompts a twinge of regret, because no fight sequence can live up to the eccentricity that runs through the rest of the film.

Still, even those moments are grounded in the performances of the film’s three leads — most notably, Cate Blanchett as Hela. The Oscar-winner brings a tremendous amount of gravitas to any role she takes on, but here she adds a delicious sense of scene-chewing malevolence to the mix. Hela is an incredibly powerful villain, capable of separating Thor from his hammer — but she also takes obvious, compelling delight in being as evil as she can at any given moment. In a different film, her attitude might come off as cheesy posturing. But given Ragnarok’s overall tone, it plays as a celebration, as if Hela is intentionally trying to one-up every villain in the universe.

It all comes together to create a film that’s simply a joy to watch, with a personality that’s wholly its own. That’s no small feat, particularly given how saturated we are with superhero movies. And it is also worth noting that the quirks of Thor: Ragnarok may not be for everyone. There are no sacred cows in Waititi’s movie, and fans who prefer their superheroes straight-faced and without meta-commentary might chafe at its irreverence. But the willingness to play with genre tropes is one of the most exciting things about Thor: Ragnarok. Marvel felt comfortable letting Waititi bring his sensibilities to bear on the material, even if it might go a step too far for some viewers. That’s the kind of creative flexibility that has always seemed difficult for the studio to embrace. But with filmmakers like Waititi, Gunn, and Black Panther director Ryan Coogler all making their marks on the universe, perhaps we’re entering a phase where Marvel is embracing its directors’ individualistic voices instead of trying to beat them down.