How many clues did you need before you knew that this one was going to be different? The choice of director alone ought to have gotten you most of the way there. New Zealand's Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows) doesn't do conventional. Then there was the trailer: a neon-infused, synth-rock-pumping Flash Gordon throwback that favoured humour over action. As it happens, so does the film – and it's a delight from the first frame to the last.
Thor: Ragnarok is the third picture to focus on the eponymous God of Thunder, and the 17th in the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe. Led by Australia's Chris Hemsworth, it also stars Cate Blanchett as the Goddess of Death, Tom Hiddleston as the God of Mischief and Jeff Goldblum as the Oh My God He's Just Fabulous. Mark Ruffalo also returns as The Hulk, having not been seen since The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Rounding out the cast are franchise regulars Idris Elba and Anthony Hopkins in small but affecting roles.
With Waititi at the helm, Ragnarok has a distinctly casual, cheeky and irreverent feel compared to Marvel's previous offerings, as well as a noticeable 80s aesthetic in both its style and soundtrack. It's a genuine breath of fresh air in a franchise within a franchise, and something that the MCU sorely needed.
Waititi is obviously known for his sense of humour, yet what truly distinguishes him as a filmmaker is a pronounced absence of cynicism. No matter the theme or story (Wilderpeople dealt with some tragic issues amidst all the chaos), the overwhelming sensation upon leaving a Waititi movie is optimism. For Marvel, whose movies have grown darker as they hurtle towards the up and coming Infinity War, the contrast is as noticeable as it is necessary. Like a Roger Moore Bond film, Ragnarok still has its action and moments of gravity, but above all else it's fun.
You can see it in the performances. Hemsworth's obvious comedic abilities – which were also on display in Paul Feig's Ghostbusters reboot – are given ample room to breathe in Ragnarok right from the opening scene. A significant portion of the film's dialogue was reportedly improvised, resulting in a free-flowing and naturalistic feel that also serves to accentuate the fractious relationships between the various lead characters – most notably Thor, Loki and Hulk.
Then there's franchise newcomer Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie. Most recently seen in HBO's Westworld, Thompson proves a genuine scene stealer, which is no small accomplishment given hers is an almost exclusively human performance in a movie jam-packed with special effects and CGI-characters. Through Valkyrie we see Marvel's ability to create lethal, confident, independent, wise-cracking female heroes who are every bit as capable (if not more-so) than their male counterparts.
There are shortcomings, of course. For all its strengths, Ragnarok is not a perfect film. Blanchett and Elba are both seriously under-utilised, Hopkins comes face to face with some bewilderingly bad special effects, and Karl Urban's character has a clunky pro-gun schtick that feels entirely out of place with the rest of the film. The humour is refreshing, but comedy is not every actor's greatest strength, and at times Ragnarok feels too heavily skewed towards laughs when instead the scene calls for something a little meatier.
Still, what Waititi and his team have crafted here is a remarkable reimagining of the MCU, one that is at once respectful of its place in the world, but still self-aware enough to never take itself too seriously. It's a big movie that somehow still feels small and intimate, and a near-perfect example of a blockbuster done right.