'Thor: Ragnarok'

Thor: Ragnarok ends up being several movies in one.

It’s, obviously, the next chapter in the Thor story. This means more Chris Hemsworth as the titular god of thunder, more Tom Hiddleston as Loki, more Anthony Hopkins as Odin; even more Ray Stevenson as Volstagg.

It’s also another entry in Marvel’s cinematic Phase Three, which means an appearance from Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange, the ascension of Idris Elba’s Heimdall from “guy who guards the teleporter” to “hero of Asgard,” and a post-credits scene to further set up Avengers: Infinity War.

Finally, it’s a Taika Waititi film. The acclaimed director of Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows gets a shot at the big time here, and infuses his charming Kiwi humor into the proceedings in a big way.

Do these pieces fit together perfectly? Lord, no. Cate Blanchett, looking terrific in all black as the villainous Asgardian heir Hela, gets relegated to bossing around henchman Skurge (Karl Urban) and threatening the citizens of her increasingly irrelevant realm. Waititi’s clever banter feels emphasized in a few key scenes and ignored in others.

And, in perhaps the biggest waste of all, the famed Planet Hulk storyline finds itself condensed into a memorable but brief side story, bringing Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk back into the larger narrative but otherwise meaning very little.

Yet there’s still so much to like. Waititi has helmed the oddest Marvel movie to date; Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster is a Tim & Eric character with a better costume budget, and the director himself voices Korg, a hilariously soft-spoken gladiator who befriends Thor and rambles like a alt-comedy weirdo. Tessa Thompson also joins the fun as Valkyrie, a former Asgardian warrior who is sure to kiss her new king in the near future.

And kudos to screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost—along with Hiddleston, of course—for making Loki’s continued presence feel reasonable enough. Yes, he tried to conquer Earth, but his story goes deeper than the events of The Avengers; a quick line about Thor maturing beyond worrying about Loki, and how that undercuts the trickster god’s confidence, serves as understatedly smart character motivation.

In addition, what I remind myself after every Marvel movie is that it’s really, really hard to make one good big-budget blockbuster, let alone a dozen. Minus a few missteps along the way, Marvel Studios has done a terrific job at churning out large, fun, very watchable movies. Their casting is impeccable; their outside-the-box director choices (Waititi, James Gunn, Shane Black) have kept these franchises relatively fresh; and though I may be less enthused than ever to see if they stick the landing, I keep coming back for each step along the way.

That said, a few cracks are starting to show. That aforementioned Cumberbatch scene felt like a major reach, meant solely to get Strange interacting with an Avenger in advance of Infinity War. You can get away with that once or twice, but the stories will start to suffer if Marvel can’t find ways to bring their characters together organically.

And these movies haven’t produced a great villain in quite a while. Hela benefits from Blanchett’s prowess, but she’s a one-off stopgap. We keep hearing about Thanos but have yet to figure out why we should care. Red Skull’s been used up; Doctor Doom belongs to another studio; and Loki has become a tweener at best. A superhero is only as good as his or her best villain; blowing it with Thanos might cripple their post-Infinity War offerings.

But that’s all down the line. For now, we should appreciate Thor: Ragnarok taking one of the least beloved solo Avengers and tapping into its lead actor’s comedic timing—and its director’s quirky chops—to keep the Marvel machine churning along for at least one more enjoyable excursion.