Who is Thor without his hammer? That’s not the only question at the center of Thor: Ragnarok, but it’s ultimately the only one that matters. In 2011’s Thor, Odin’s son, played with meatheaded sincerity by Chris Hemsworth, was stripped of his hammer by his father. Hilarity ensued by way of Thor losing his godlike powers, being exiled to Earth, and having his ascension to kinghood usurped by his twisted younger brother Loki. That all gets undone by the end of the movie. This time around, Thor loses his hammer to his older sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), who’s stronger and, for a while anyway, smarter. It’s a classic soap opera twist. A king prepares to bequeath the throne to his eldest son when out of nowhere, his actual eldest child and true heir shows up and threatens to kill everyone. That’s Hela: goddess of death, stealer of crowns, and, so far as Thor is concerned, breaker of hammers.
She’s a welcome addition to the family. If Thor, with his bold mane and booming demeanor, is arena rock, and Loki is skinny-jean punk, then the mischievous Hela, hell-bent on destruction with a wardrobe to match, is everybody’s worst goth nightmare. It is both the most and the least Cate Blanchett role imaginable. Hela shows up in Ragnarok looking like she just set fire to her local Hot Topic, with hair and eyeshadow as dark and smoky as volcanic ash and a warrior crown—a gnarly headful of elk-like horns—activated whenever she runs her hands through her scalp like a shampoo model. When she ascends to the throne at Asgard, Hela tears away at the city’s facades to reveal the history of evil and conquest once proffered by Odin himself, with her at his side. Back in the day, Odin was much more merciless. But Thor and Loki were apparently in the dark about that, and that era of the kingdom was long ago hidden away. Hela, once her father’s right-hand woman, is powerful and wicked: She crushes Thor’s hammer like a frat boy crumpling an empty beer can. “That’s not possible,” Thor says, as his manhood crumbles to bits. “Darling,” says Hela, with aristocratic verve, “you have no idea what’s possible.”
That’s about as camp as a Marvel movie is going to get. Whatever: I’ll take it. Thor: Ragnarok is the third movie in the Thor franchise, but it’s the first in the series to give off the “What, me worry?” vibes that make the Guardians of the Galaxy movies worth the price of the admission. Watching the original Thor, which is only six years old, you’re reminded of a time when Marvel movies looked and felt like Michael Bay rip-offs, with the same sense of heat and metal, similar camera swoops, and the same unnerving sensation that everything meant to seem human is in fact artificial. (The second movie, 2013’s Thor: The Dark World, was a little more of its own thing.) In a broader sense, Marvel has been trying to get more human—or at least more Hollywood. Movies like Spider-Man: Homecoming, Iron Man 3, and the Guardians films are as much about their charismatic stars as they are their overlapping mythic universes. Isn’t Ant-Man as much of a Paul Rudd movie as a Marvel Movie™? The Thor movies have increasingly followed suit—mostly for the better.
Ragnarok was helmed by Hunt for the Wilderpeople director Taika Waititi, a New Zealand–born talent with an eye for oddballs. It’s the kind of superhero movie you’d want and expect from such an affectionately fun director: a trippy tour of the giddy idiosyncrasies of Thor’s universe. The movie sees our hero getting exiled to a junky planet and forced to compete as a gladiator by an erratic and dangerous man who calls himself the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). He meets a former warrior named Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and reunites with old friends like Hulk in the process. That’s the bulk of the story, and in the background sits the reemergence of Hela, the strange series of dreams Thor is having about the destruction of Asgard (the prophecy known as Ragnarok), and, of course, the loss of his hammer, which compels Thor to clarify who he is without it.
It’s a lot. But the plot, abundant as it is, matters a lot less than the style, or the mere fact that the movie and its characters have any. Waititi is talented at making quirks matter. Somehow, the Grandmaster’s blue nail polish, golden robes, and stroke of blue under his bottom lip seem essential to who he is: His style is a product of his vanity, and his vanity over-determines how he thinks. It’s the little things. Waititi is the first to treat Thor—who is the god of thunder, after all—like an outright rock star, flooding the movie with cues like “Immigrant Song” whenever Thor gets down to business and relishing every dramatic swing of that long hair. Rock music in Marvel movies is always going to be a nostalgic ploy, but Waititi makes it count.
Or at least as much as he can. This is still a movie overly steeped in Marvel’s house style. The CGI bombast, though pleasurably colorful, still starts to feel anonymous after a while; the exposition is still practically service journalism. And there’s still a needless franchise cameo, this time by Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, looking as confused by his plot points as we are. It’s still disconcerting that so many of the best screen actors in the world are here, nestled into these rote roles movie after movie for almost a decade now. And now they’ve got Cate Blanchett! But Ragnarok is one of the few movies of this ilk to make me glad that’s the case. The whole thing feels pleasurably under-rehearsed. It’s fun to watch Hemsworth’s brotherly bickering with Tom Hiddleston, resuming his role as Loki, over who sucks the most. It’s fun to watch Mark Ruffalo deliver lines like he just woke up from a nap. And it’s fun to see new faces populate the franchise, like the rebellious Thompson and Rachel House—a New Zealand actress memorable from Wilderpeople—supplying the movie with unusually vivid doses of spunk.
Marvel movies are never going to stop feeling like product. But a director like Waititi at least knows how to make that product feel fresh. I’m still nostalgic for a time when superhero movies weren’t as overly aware of and beholden to their sequels. I do kind of miss when these movies felt like more than mere episodes, links in the chain of a TV season that’s lasted way too much of my adult life. There’s no getting around the fact that every Marvel movie feels like a middle child: Ever-defined in relation to other movies, they’ll never satisfyingly stand alone. Ragnarok doesn’t change that. But it also doesn’t suffer for it.