Like most of the better Marvel efforts, Thor: Ragnarok feels like the work of a unique sensibility instead of a huddle of brand managers. While the studio's films demonstrated plenty of comic flair right from the start, recent efforts have veered into bland, jokey listlessness. But in Ragnarok, directed by the Kiwi filmmaker and actor Taika Waititi, the gags are weird enough, and land frequently enough, that it all seems to be coming from someplace -- and someone -- real.
In its broad strokes, however, the setup is not so different from the standard-issue comic book movie. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), god of thunder and key member of the Avengers, discovers that his heretofore-unknown-to-him older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett), the god of death, has been freed from her cosmic prison and is coming to claim her throne at their home world of Asgard. But his first attempt to stop her fails: He's deprived of his all-powerful hammer, and winds up imprisoned on Sakaar, a distant planet where he's forced into gladiatorial combat against his old friend the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). It's basically The Dark Knight Rises, with a bit of Gladiator thrown in.
But look to the particulars, and you'll find joy. Sakaar is ruled over by the Grandmaster, played by Jeff Goldblum with a perfect mixture of flamboyant theatricality and aw-shucks narcissism. Thor and Hulk's captor/manager is an alcoholic Valkyrie-turned scavenger (Tessa Thompson), and the back and forth between the three of them is fast and witty. Waititi, an inspired comic director, understands how to stage physical humor, and he knows that even verbal gags are improved by savvy framing and editing.