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Movie Review: Enter the thunderdome

Thor: Ragnarok proves to be the strongest of its trilogy, but its improvements are too little, too late.

Wait a second. There’s something different about Thor.

This isn’t the character who’s appeared in four (now five) films since 2011. In more ways than one, Thor: Ragnarok, the character’s third solo adventure in the interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe, serves as a soft reboot of the series, even if it comes a little too late in the character’s journey.

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It’s very clear this is a post-Guardians of the Galaxy adventure. It’s brighter, more colorful, more musical and funnier — all elements lifted from its sister space-traveling series.

In a way, Ragnarok is a perfect storm. In a film franchise that follows billionaire scientists, aliens and gods, somehow the latter was the least interesting aspect. The two previous Thor movies (the 2011 original and 2013’s Thor: The Dark World) are among the weakest entries of the MCU, and bravo to anyone who could recite the plots to those movies without Google, because they’re forgettable.

Ragnarok somewhat corrects the ship those two movies set sail on, even if it does feel a bit contrived. It’s a pretty sure bet that Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song (despite how lyrically perfect it is for the movie) wouldn’t start blaring during the film’s heavier action beats if Guardian’s hadn’t started the trend of blasting ’70s music first.

But maybe it’s best not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Despite its identity crisis, Ragnarok is the best Thor film by a good margin, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see it become a favored adventure in the 16-entry MCU.

All the right elements are in play. Chris Hemsworth returns as the titular god of thunder, and he’s at his prime here. The hammer-wielding, blond-haired Norse god was handled too seriously before — humor derived naturally for how out of place he seemed.

Now Hemsworth has totally embraced that, turning him into a comedic quick whip while retaining the necessary elements to his character. His hair is gone, replaced by a buzz cut that looks much more at home in 2017. His hammer’s hit the wayside, too; the film’s villain, Hela, goddess of death (accurately played by goddess Cate Blanchett), catches it single-handedly and squeezes it into smithereens during the film’s opening half-hour.

That’s a big deal. The hammer (known as Mjölnir — have fun pronouncing that one in your head) was an icon in the MCU, and its destruction signifies big things to come in this film. Right?

Kind of. Blanchett’s Hela takes over Asgard, Thor’s home kingdom that gets taken over once every few years. But it’s serious this time.

Blanchett’s performance elevates the film. She gives us the series’ first female villain, and also one of few who doesn’t feel cobbled together just for the sake of moving the plot along. Blanchett is having wild fun with the role, and so do we.

Hela’s arrival sends Thor and his conniving brother Loki (the series’ other good villain who’s taken over Asgard at least twice, played by Tom Hiddleston) sprawling across the universe before they can team up to save their home.

This is the first Thor film set almost entirely away from Earth, and it benefits from that. Director Taika Waititi is a good newfound match for the series — the unique brand of humor he displayed in his horror-comedy mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows lends itself well here. He’s good at placing characters in fish-out-of-water situations and deriving humor from it.

Thor really is a fish out of water when he arrives on planet Sakaar, which is half junk, and half arena where warriors are forced to fight for others’ entertainment. The arena is run by Jeff Goldblum’s character, known as the Grandmaster, but it’s really just Goldblum playing himself in colorful robes.

Thor somehow ends up as a warrior in the arena, and it turns out his opponent is none other than the Hulk, the green, building-busting “friend from work” who appears alongside Thor in the Avengers team-up films (played by Mark Ruffalo). There’s the added value for this sequel, in case the brighter colors and louder music weren’t enough to sell tickets. It’s got a bright green CGI demon audiences are already familiar with.

The story, which never gets comfortable in one place, eventually turns into an awkward team mash-up that includes Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, the rare Marvel female character done right. She’s powerful, but not overly so, she’s funny, and she’s flawed. Thompson’s performance makes her a delight on the screen.

For as much as Waititi’s direction boosted the movie, he did undermine it in certain areas, too. Hela is a villain out to actually hurt her enemies; unlike most Marvel entries, Thor sacrifices and loses in this film. A lot. But for every potential serious moment, Waititi glosses over it with a hiccup of a joke to keep the ball rolling. The dude’s funny, but tries way too hard to be.

If the film’s story was as different as its aesthetics, calling it a new Marvel centerpiece would be easy. Many already will call it that, despite the total lack of risk here. Even if it’s dressed up in a new, more impressive, and definitely more colorful suit of armor, it’s still the same safe story. After so many years of the same characters, it will take more than a paint job to keep things fresh. ••

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