"Darling, You Have No Idea What is Possible"
The first couple of "Thor" films were extraordinarily dull things. It might have been because the first was directed by Kenneth Branagh, who wanted to make a Shakespearean myth rather than a comic book movie and art-designed the thing to a fair-thee-well and treated it SO seriously, that it wasn't until Joss Whedon's The Avengers that Chris Hemsworth's version of the character could display some personality besides being ontuse at the top of his lungs. Alan Taylor's Thor: The Dark World I can barely remember except for a lot of things going *thud* at the end—one of them being my patience.
The Avengers showed that the God of Thunder could be more than just a guy with a hammer, increasing both the possibilities and the personalities of Thor and his half-brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). The whole Odin story-line could be dispensed with, but the fact that Thor was the only one of Marvel's heroes being utilized who was world and dimension-spanning gave the MCU some scope (even if they didn't know how to use it just yet) and set the paths for Guardians of the Galaxy and Dr. Strange.
Thor: Ragnarok does a lot of things: there's a lot of cameos and guest-stars, brand new characters, and a minimum of returnees from the previous two films—Loki, Thor's father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and Heimdall (Idris Elba); it introduces another family threat, who is primarily the focus of the story; once the film is finished, everything has changed and the elements that buttressed (and limited) the first two movies are gone and there is no "safe zone" anymore. "Significance" happens in Thor: Ragnarok, and it's a significance that can't be walked back in the next movie (of course, they could do that, but audiences would see it as a cheat and lazy film-making). And that's good; it certainly makes this "Thor" memorable...and that's a first in the trilogy.
We find Thor chained up in a prison in some cavernous expanse, suspended over a lava-bubbling landscape. How did he get there? Who cares? (although he does the requisite "Maverick" style "I suppose you're wondering..."). He is being held by the CGI beast Surtur (voiced by Clancy Brown--the other voice you hire if you can't get James Earl Jones), and it's an odd little back and forth except for the interruptions when Thor rotates at the end of his chain from looking directly at Surtur. "Oh! Wait a tick! Need to be facing you!" And they wait until Thor is in proper axis to look at Surtur while he simmers threateningly at him. That this little interruption happens is your first indication...other than the Marvel Studios logo sinking and melting into hot lava...that this one's going to be a little different; the filmmakers are not going to be hurtling pell-mell to the next ringing declaration or action set-piece. There are going to be Pythonesque "silly bits" when a situation gets a bit...absurd. Like being polite to a lava monster.
Anyway, that's the first bit. Then, Thor goes to his home in Asgard, finds out that Dad-Odin is missing and that Loki is behind it (really, there doesn't need to be much investigation), that Heimdall is not around and an Asgardian named Skurge (Karl Urban) is in his place on the Asgardian turn-stile letting people in. The guy isn't the best border-guard and would have Donald Trump tweeting out something ending in "sad." I won't spoil the details, but ultimately it's determined that Odin is exiled to Earth (Loki's fault...it's always Loki's fault), in the most demeaning of circumstances (he's treated like a human being).
Some such-and-such happens (with the help of Benedict Cumberbatch's Dr. Strange (thanks for stopping by and recycling the post-credits tag from your own movie, Doc)—and ultimately, there's a family dissemblation and a family reunion with the first child of Odin—Loki and Thor's half-sister Hela (Cate Blanchett—you may have seen Blanchett over-act before but you've never seen her relish in it, as she does here, reminding one a bit of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard) and before you know it, she's smashed Thor's hammer, Mjolnir (rest in pieces), and managed to make her way to Asgard, while kicking Loki and Thor out of the bifrost "rainbow connection" warp-tunnel that gets you there.
Loki we find out about later, but the hammer-less Thor ends up in a garbage planet (called Sakaar) and gets captured by Valkyrie (or Scrapper 142 as she's known—played by Tessa Thompson in a breakout role), where he's set up for gladiator duties by the planet's "Grand Master" (Jeff Goldblum, reminding you of why you like Jeff Goldblum) to fight the current champion of the gladiator games. Anyone who's seen even the first trailer knows who that turns out to be, and, frankly, it's a good move on Marvel's part to play with the animosity that was displayed between the two characters in a brief scene in The Avengers that lasted all of five seconds. To repeat:
There is much brief rejoicing, not only on Thor's part, but also the audience's. This isn't the "stuffy mythology" Thor that has been displayed in his own solo movies; this is the potential that could be done with Thor if anybody in the first two movies wasn't so afraid of failure at the box-office. The breath of fresh air comes from New Zealand director Taika Waititi, who helmed What We Do in the Shadows and last year's bright, shining Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Waititi has a kiwi sensibility ("yeess"), but his film language is strong and he has a wonderful way with presenting the logically absurd into his work. If he wasn't doing Thor, he'd be doing wondrous things with Marvel properties like Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy—and they could certainly have used him in the Dr. Strange feature if his expansion of the End Credits "tag" of that film is any indication.
Waititi embraces the odd and that's a far cry from what other film-makers do with the four-color world of super-heroes, usually tamping down the comic nature of the things and replacing it with leather costumes and sturm-and-drang. But, when you're dealing with in-fighting Norse gods and ADHD-CGI Hulk's, it might be best to keep your sense of humor, especially once these characters have gotten over the "tragedy" of being displaced and "gifted." Waititi also has a nice visceral sense—subtlety is not his strength—and he's happy letting super-heroes be super-heroes in extremis. So, a completely gladiator battle between Thor and Hulk goes into giddy excess, even repeating a couple of Avengers jokes for good measure.
It's fun. A lot of fun. But, Waititi CAN get carried away with the in-jokes—for instance, an Easter-Egg for Marvel junkies has the Gladiator arena exterior* decorated with the busts of past champions, including Beta-Ray Bill (who took over the "Thor" title for awhile) and Man-Thing (what the hell?). In another instance, Thor is being wheeled into the Grandmaster's tournament hall, he is given an audio tour of the place, all accompanied by "Pure Imagination" from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It got a laugh out of me, but...really? Willy Wonka wasn't a success when it was released here...it made it out to Sakaar?
It pads things out a bit—ultimately, the whole idea comes down to getting the Hela out of Asgard and finding a way to get there to do that (they find a way as Sakaar, being a dumping ground for the universe has all sorts of portals through which refuse falls through—and the portal to get them back is called "The Devil's Anus"...really). And, ultimately, Thor finds out that in order to accomplish what he must, embracing the worst thing that could happen might not be a bad thing. Change happens, and the shorn, hammerless Thor must learn that power comes from within...literally.
Odd. Frequently silly. But, ultimately, Thor: Ragnarok is the best film of the trilogy for its own ability to see what hasn't worked in the previous films and embrace its own change. That it causes some destruction of its own history along the way is all for the good.