Even though he’s an A-list member of the mighty Avengers, Thor’s first two films aren’t exactly the most beloved of the 16 previous movies in Disney’s ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. But with the latest installment headlined by Australia’s Chris Hemsworth, that’s about to change.

Marvels God of Thunder was a bit of a stiff in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011) and its little-liked follow-up, Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World (2013); the character’s been best used as comic relief in Joss Whedon’s two team-based blockbusters, 2012’s The Avengers and 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. Still, even Whedon couldn’t quite figure out what to do with Thor other than toss off witty bon mots between bouts of swinging his enchanted hammer, Mjolnir.

Near the start of Thor: Ragnarok, that ancient weapon is casually destroyed by Hela, the Goddess of Death (his heretofore-unmentioned and villainous older sister, gamely played by a vamping Cate Blanchett) and the warrior is forced to rely on more of those wits.

Thankfully, New Zealand’s Taika Waititi has brought his own estimable powers to this film. The director and actor, known for his comic oddities like vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, loses little of his offbeat sensibilities in his transition to big-budget, franchise filmmaking. Mind you, the movie still features the expected super-powered brawls and an effects-driven climax stuffed with CGI overkill, but the focus in this film is on humor.

Waititi’s emphasis on improvisation allows Hemsworth to stretch his legs beyond the confines of a fairly boilerplate script credited to a handful of writers. The tale is structured as a buddy comedy—only it pairs Hemsworth with a rotating roster of perfectly mismatched sparring partners to alternately banter with and battle.

He’s joined once again by his adopted brother Loki (typically puckish Tom Hiddleston) as the film ties up The Dark World’s loose ends in a hilarious scene that features an unbilled cameo by a Major Hollywood Star. Beyond his treacherous sibling, he also teams up with Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson of Creed)—an alcoholic scavenger with secret ties to Asgard, Thor’s homeworld—and Korg, a soft-spoken, Kiwi-accented warrior made of rock, a computer-generated creation who’s voiced with dim-witted soul by Waititi himself. The best pairing, however, is the one that’s been spoiled by the movie’s ad campaign: The match-up of Thor and his fellow Avenger, the Incredible Hulk, who are forced to face off in a gladiatorial duel for the ages on the distant planet of Sakaar.

The nearly 9-foot-tall Hulk is again played in a motion-captured performance by Mark Ruffalo, who also appears on camera as Bruce Banner, the monster’s human counterpart. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, he’s been stuck in Hulk form since disappearing near the end of Age of Ultron. Whatever the cause, the two years spent inside his green skin has done wonders for his vocabulary. Waititi and his writing team have given us the most fully formed rendition of the not-so-jolly green giant yet seen onscreen, an ill-tempered hero who’s as petulant as Thor is vain—and Ruffalo and Hemsworth make a great comic duo.

If only they could have remained on Sakaar, an alien world seemingly spawned from a 1980s sci-fi action flick, complete with gloriously gaudy production design by Dan Hennah (Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy) and Ra Vincent (What We Do in the Shadows), and a retro-synth score by Marvel newbie and longtime Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh. This trash-heap of a planet continues the trend of recent Marvel films to move beyond nondescript locations and into the fantastical, psychedelic landscapes that early Marvel Comics artist and Thor co-creator Jack Kirby was known for developing.

But these Marvel pictures do have their templates to follow, and so Thor finds a way off the strange planet he’s been imprisoned on after the indignity of losing both his hammer and his flowing tresses. That’s right, not only has our hero been captured by the hedonistic ruler of Sakaar, the Grandmaster (hilariously played by Jeff Goldblum), and forced into combat, but he’s also suffered the indignity of having his hair cut against his will.

But Thor’s no Samson, and he needs neither hammer nor hair to find his way back home to Asgard, where he and his fellow “Revengers” (Loki, Valkyrie and the Hulk) will attempt to liberate his people from the clutches of Hela and the Ragnarok prophesy, which told of the destruction of his civilization.

If that sounds a bit dark, worry not. As game as all of the actors are, Waititi emerges as this film’s MVP. Capitalizing on Hemsworth’s comic chops, the Kiwi auteur puts the performer through hugely entertaining indignities with an inspired sense of timing and technique. Like Loki and Thor rolled into one, Waititi’s both the trickster and the hero that this series so desperately needed. 

Thor: Ragnarok ★★★ 1/2

Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Benedict Cumberbatch, Taika Waititi, Rachel House, Clancy Brown, Tadanobu Asano, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Anthony Hopkins and Stan Lee. Written by Eric Pearson, based on a story by Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost and Pearson and the comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Directed by Taika Waititi. At Assembly RowBoston Common, Fenway and the suburbs.

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