Taika Waititi is a cinematic miracle worker. His What We Do in the Shadows is not only the funniest vampire comedy ever made, which isn't much of an achievement in itself, but one of the funniest movies I've seen recently. His portrayal of vampires as almost childishly narcissistic apparently persuaded Kevin Feige and the folks at Marvel Studios that Waititi could be entrusted with the next chapter of their absurd Asgardian soap opera after the disaster of Thor: The Dark World. That Waititi could work wonders on a limited budget didn't hurt either, though now, by comparison, he would have money thrown at him. Working from a screenplay by three other people, he's made the most imaginative and funniest Marvel movie since Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) while demonstrating an aptitude for epic action on a colossal scale -- though as always with Marvel movies, one must wonder exactly how much of the set-piece action was planned out and rendered on computers before Waititi first called "Action!"
For all the spectacle, Ragnarok is character-centered, reiterating more strongly the premise implicit since the beginning that Thor (Chris Helmsworth) and his half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) are a couple of spoiled brats of frighteningly immense power. This is re-established early as Thor, after thwarting the demon Surtur's scheme to initiate Ragnarok, the foredoomed fall of Asgard, quickly clears up the one dangling plot thread from Dark World, exposing Loki's impersonation of All-father Odin (Anthony Hopkins finally has some fun imitating Hiddleston) and overthrowing the self-indulgent trickster, who had placed the old man in a since-demolished retirement facility in New York City. Their arrival in Manhattan to claim Odin sets up the encounter with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) previewed in the epilogue to Strange's own origin film. The Strange scene shows Waititi's hand most plainly in the disorienting way the Master of the Mystic Arts teleports Thor all over his sanctum in a succession of jump cuts. The good doctor sends them off to some cliff where Odin has been waiting, before dying, to tell his boys that their elder sister Hela, goddess of death (Cate Blanchett), will be released from her prison upon his imminent demise. In other words, the grown-ups are taking over, as Hela, who grows an antler-like crest in combat mode, breaks Thor's favorite toy, his Uru hammer, and boots both him and Loki off Bifrost bridge en route to Asgard, where she promptly slaughters the Warriors Three (Tadanobu Asano, Ray Stevenson and the other guy) on her way to the throne, while the boys tumble to parts unknown. I'm sure this perfunctory dispatching of three favorite supporting characters from the comics will annoy some people, but it really was a waste of time having Asano and Stevenson keep showing up for how little the films have used them. As for the other supporting players, Sif is AWOL (the actress has a regular gig elsewhere) while Heimdall (Idris Elba) conveniently went underground when "Odin" started acting weird, forcing the king to appoint the mediocrity Skurge (Karl Urban) as guardian of Bifrost. Skurge survives Hela's initial onslaught to give the villainess someone to whom she can tell the secret history of Asgard and offer the job she held under her father as Executioner of the ruler's will and enemies.
A film within the film now begins as Thor crash-lands on Sakaar, better known to comics fans as "Planet Hulk" but ruled here by the self-styled Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) on bread-and-circus principles, with emphasis on circus. Big G relies on slave hunters like Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson) to recruit talent for his gladiatorial games. He agrees with her assessment that Thor, rendered tractable by a classic sci-fi pain device, will make a good contender for his "incredible champion," whose identity was revealed in trailers long ago. Loki has ended up here as well, but is content to make money betting on Thor to lose. For his part, Thor has recognized Scrapper 142 as a Valkyrie -- for all intents and purposes, the Valkyrie or just plain "Valkyrie" -- one of a long-gone cohort of Asgardian women warriors, and apparently the sole survivor of an attack by Hela during her uprising against Odin. There's no hope of Thor pulling rank, however, since Scrapper/Valkyrie has grown cynical and alcoholic in her attempt to forget the loss of many close comrades-in-arms. But the situation isn't as hopeless as it looks, since Thor's powers over thunder and lightning prove innate rather than hammer-based, though it takes the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) nearly beating him to death to realize his potential. Ol' Greenskin has been on Sakaar since we last saw him in Avengers: Age of Ultron and has come both to like it here and to express his liking. Waititi and the writers give us a classically stupid Hulk (he had one of his increasingly common intelligent periods in the original Planet Hulk comics) with an almost-Trumpian insistence on taunting and "winning" regardless of appearances. Fans of the character will regret the wasting of one of Hulk's best-regarded storylines as a subplot to a Thor movie, but as Ruffalo himself has conceded that we'll probably never see another Hulk solo movie this is probably as good as it'll get for Marvel's Hulkamaniacs.
Thor's challenge now is to rally his three most likely collaborators into teaming with him on a breakout and reconquest of Asgard. Valkyrie would rather drink and forget, Loki is still out for himself and Hulk actually likes it on a planet where he's beloved by fight fans and hasn't had to turn back to Bruce Banner for ages. Those of you who found the buildup of a Hulk-Black Widow ship in Age of Ultron icky will be annoyed to learn that that's still a thing and key to Banner finally reappearing after Thor's own efforts to use Natasha's calming spiel fail miserably. The other pieces soon fall into place and we're finally on our way to a spectacular showdown in Asgard, assisted by Heimdall and, eventually, Skurge, whose machine-gun fetish allows him to recreate the comics character's classic last stand in Walt Simonson's 1980s comics, which are acknowledged in the end credits and regarded by fans as the best Thor stories since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's time. A lot of undead minions are wasted, Hulk fights a big dog, and Thor hits Hela with "the biggest bolt of lightning in the history of lightning," but the film still hasn't hit 11 yet....
While most of Ragnarok is generic Marvel spectacle on paper, on screen it benefits from Waititi putting a fresh set of eyes on it. As the Doctor Strange sequence shows, the style he developed collaborating on What We Do in the Shadows was not entirely homogenized into the Marvel machine, and that helps make the new Thor feel fresher than, say, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Both films may share a retro sensibility in their soundtracks -- as do most recent Marvel movies, it seems -- but Ragnarok creatively enhances that retro feel with original music with hints of video-game soundtracks from Mark Mothersbaugh and a pictorial sensibility, assisted by cinematographer Javie Aguirresarobe, reminiscent of vintage van murals or Heavy Metal magazine covers come to life. The acting is a mixed bag, and a lot of it may disappoint people who expect something more like, as Tony Stark would say, Shakespeare in the Park from a Thor movie. Helmsworth and Hiddleston are fine, but as Hela Cate Blanchett arguably doesn't chew the scenery enough, or as much as one might expect from a barnstormer like her. You might have expected Galadriel with the Ring on, but she sometimes sinks to the overall glib level of the dialogue, referring to Odin as "Daddy," for instance. By now, of course, we should be reconciled to not getting authentic Stan Lee-style rodomontade from Marvel movie villains, but if you were going to get away with it in any Marvel movie, this was probably it. These are action movies anyway, and Hela's actions (both Blanchett's and uber-stuntwoman Zoe Bell's) speak louder than her words. As for the other villain, Jeff Goldblum gives, to no legitimate surprise, a Jeff Goldblum performance as the Grandmaster that makes that Elder of the Universe more capricious than truly threatening, but his participation in the interlude doesn't require him to be truly evil or scary. For all Waititi's efforts to maximize the comedy in the story, Ragnarok was only ever going to be an action spectacle, and the fact that he succeeds on that level gives us more cause to look forward to whatever he does next, for Marvel or on his own.