Thor: Ragnarok is the funniest Marvel movie yet, and the best of the three films in the Thor franchise… If this sounds like damning this film with faint praise, it really shouldn’t – while these marks absolutely represent a low bar within a broader moviegoing context, the fact remains – Thor: Ragnarok is quite good.

Thor: Ragnarok once again stars Chris Hemsworth as the titular Norse god; when he first appeared in this role, it was certainly a fair criticism to describe Hemsworth as stiff, but he’s truly grown into the role, growing more and more comfortable both with delivering the more wieldy dialogue he’s given, as well as handling the funnier moments of the character. In fact, Hemsworth has evolved into a reliably solid comedic performer, as indicated by his recent appearance in Ghostbusters, as well as his leading appearance here.

Thor has evolved as a character too – and it’s really good that Marvel’s creative team has recognized that need for growth. Where once Thor was more easily fooled by his brother’s tricks, would charge into situations rashly – now Thor has grown wiser, and just in time too, as he’s asked to take on a greater leadership role within the Asgardian world.

He’s also gained some new allies in the years that we’ve known him – allies like Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch making a fun cameo) and Hulk (played to great effect by Mark Ruffalo, even as the creative team introduces some artificial stakes to that character).

Of course, Thor’s newest and greatest ally is Valkyrie, the avenging maiden played by Creed standout Tessa Thompson (by no means a newcomer, but it’s definitely great to see her coming to prominence – she’s so good). Valkyrie is a bit of a boozehound, a woman who’s lost her way, and a total badass, easily one of the most exciting new characters introduced to the Marvel franchise in recent memory.

All of these people must team up against Hela, played by the great Cate Blanchett. This role is a bit of a snooze for Blanchett, who has proven her great versatility and ability in the past and here is merely asked to be a caricature. Still, the visual look of her character is sufficiently menacing, and Blanchett a great enough actress, that Hela mostly works, even as she’s bland in much the same way that Marvel villains often are.

This film is capably directed by Kiwi director Taika Waititi, who also appears in a quite funny mostly-CGI motion capture performance. Waititi’s particular brand of off-beat humor, best captured in (my beloved) What We Do in the Shadows, manages to shine through the Marvel formula here, injecting a necessary life into the proceedings. As previously mentioned, this is certainly the funniest Marvel film yet.

More than anything else, Thor: Ragnarok makes me feel like Marvel has finally really figured out how to make these standalone films work on their own merits – Thor: Ragnarok strikes me in a lot of ways as sharing a lot of DNA with the two Guardians of the Galaxy films. Not only are Thor and GOTG more concerned with a cosmic part of the Marvel universe than tends to get explored elsewhere (also sharing this territory with Doctor Strange, fitting given his appearance here), but with Thor: Ragnarok, it feels like Marvel has really embraced a more auteurist directorial vision similar to that of James Gunn for the Guardians films. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Waititi back for future entries in this franchise. And of course, with Ryan Coogler directing the upcoming Black Panther, it does appear that Marvel is embracing giving its directors more creative freedom when it’s deserved. As a great lover of the Marvel films, this seems like a step in the right direction.

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