When thinking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, humour is usually one of the last things on your mind.
Although there is always a certain edge of comic genius and wit in the Avengers series (largely driven by Robert Downey Jr.) and both Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy 2 thrive off it, the trait is not something you'd usually attribute to the films, or to Chris Hemsworth's Thor for that matter. In somewhat surprising inversion, Thor: Ragnarok succeeds because the blend of humour and action is so balanced.
Returning to Asgard, Thor finds himself unwittingly teaming up with his brother to find Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), unwilingly enlisting the help of Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to do so. Following this, he attempts to return to Asgard, however finds himself confronted by the villainous Hela (Cate Blanchett)- his lost sister and Odin's firstborn child- who destroys his beloved and legendary Mjolnir before flinging him out of the Bifrost into the far-flung reaches of the galaxy.
The God of Thunder finds himself captured by SR-142 (Tessa Thompson) and is forced to fight to the death in a coluseum on Sakaar, a planet of gambling and opulence ruled over by Elder of the Universe The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). To win his freedom, Thor finds out he simply needs to defeat the champion of the arena. Trouble is, that champion is Bruce Banner or more specifically, The Incredible Hulk, paying homage to the iconic 2006 Planet Hulk comic series.
Particular kudos must go to the scriptwriters who pen a seamless love-hate relationship between Hiddleston and Hemsworth which has been a cornerstone of the Thor Marvel franchise. What is unique for Ragnarok, however, is much needed interaction between Ruffalo and Hemsworth, an avenue widely ignored in The Avengers series. At times funny, but mostly touching, it shows how far both the individuals have come since first banding together to fight the Tesseract. The back-and-forth banter and verbal sparring between the two has never been stronger and this in turn acts as a real driver for the film's plot, especially in some shakier moments.
The main driving force behind the film is often-absurd comedic coincidence and Ragnarok massively benefits from Hemsworth's comic talents alongside Tom Hiddleston's Loki, Goldblum's Grandmaster and Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner/The Hulk. Goldblum in particular is superb in his role and often steals the show when on-screen with some of the funniest lines and character development in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, while Hemsworth's ability for slapstick comedy and innuendo (which was one of the few saving graces of the Ghostbusters reboot) creates some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. Without wishing to spoil too much, watch out for Hulk in a hot-tub and some very interesting basketball skills.
This is not to say Thor: Ragnarok totally forgets it's genre and it still adds important development for the cast. Mark Ruffalo might not be the main star of Thor: Ragnarok, but he does in my opinion deliver his best performance yet in the MCU. Kicking off a character arc which will continue for his next two appearances, Dr Banner begins to truly seperate the two parts of man and monster and while at times this can seem overly comical and forced, especially when The Hulk is in the driving seat, the idea and concepts which Waititi explores add a whole new dimension and depth to his character as he tries to convince Thor of his usefulness even when not transformed. It's easy to forget that Banner was involved in creating Ultron and he's only now really starting to face up to exactly what he caused in Sokovia.
Thankfully, Cate Blanchett's Hela manages to avoid to fall into the all-too-seen pitfall of forgettable Marvel villain, displaying genuine menace and power and ultimately stealing the show at times. The magnificent costume work of Mayes C. Rubio deserves particular plaudits with a focus on sophistication and elegance as important as power and domination. Although the final battle is perhaps slightly rushed and anti-climactic as far as Hela is concerned, she still benefits from a great deal more attention than some Marvel villains and as such comes up with a polished, fluid performance.
The film's plot is by no means perfect, however. Although Cumberbatch's performance as Dr. Strange is superbly bemusing and neatly tees him up for becoming an Avenger, his initial introduction seems clunky and overall the cameo seems forced, raising more questions than answers.
The greatest problem of the film is for once, not what is left out, but what is left in. The attempts to include the Planet Hulk storyline, although legendary to diehard Marvel fans does teeter on the boundaries of sending the battle against Hela totally off-course, although witty dialogue and punchy action- in particular Thor's fight with Hulk- does ensure it never strays too far from threat of Asgard's destruction. Astute and clever use of Idris Elba's Heimdall is also essential in ensuring this dynamic works so well.
As already mentioned, the ending of Thor: Ragnarok is a bit cheap, but it does set the film up nicely in the MCU for the all-impending Infinity War next year and ultimately, that is what Thor: Ragnarok really needed to do. It's by no means anywhere as serious in tone as say Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but it's certainly as fun to watch, if not more. (Writers Note: My friend Natasha was very pleased by the ratio of topless Chris Hemsworth in this film.)
Thor: Ragnarok is out now, distributed through Walt Disney Studios.