Thor can go to hell.
No, I mean, literally: Thor is capable of going to hell, just for a visit, which is where he is at the opening of Ragnarok. Actually, it's Muspelheim, the extradimensional realm of fire. But it's pretty hellish, and the fire demon Surtur is fairly satanic: extremely large and scary, aflame, and determined to destroy Asgard itself — all the usual apocalyptic stuff. But if Thor can only steal his horned crown, the source of his power, all of this talk of armageddon will be reduced to nothing more than talk.
Thor's battle with Surtur (the voice of Clancy Brown) is exciting and intense, especially if you see it in 3-D IMAX, as I did. But you'd expect that from a Marvel flick. What makes this opening sequence — which sets up the tone for the entire movie — so extra-special, so geeky, so hilarious, is Thor's casual humor in dealing with Surtur. Chris Hemsworth nails the offhand insouciance a badass divine celestial being like Thor should have, and finally here is a Thor script (by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost) that lets him exhibit that. That verve also comes via the nerdy impudence of director Taika Waititi setting the battle to Led Zeppelin's prog-rock classic "Immigrant Song"; that's the one with all the Norse-mythic lyrics, "We come from the land of the ice and snow," etc. It's a heavy metal black-light album cover come to life and yet — miraculously — not in any cheesy way. It's just genuinely cool and freaky funny.
Thor: Ragnarok, basically, is everything Guardians of the Galaxy (both volumes) wanted to be: breezy and jokey, crammed with clever science-fiction ideas, and populated by intriguing, entertaining aliens. Except GotG's vanilla deployment of retro pop culture pales next to, say, the gladiator disco madness of Ragnarok's middle segment, in which Thor is shanghaied into a trial by combat against the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). (It eventually makes sense that the big green guy is there.) His host is the Grandmaster, a movie-stealing Jeff Goldblum, who lords over what is essentially the decadence and violence of ancient Rome reconceived as a Studio 54 theme party in 1977. It's hilarious.
I keep using that word: hilarious. This is hands down the funniest movie yet in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, not just because it's got lots of jokes that actually make you laugh out loud (though only, often, if you're steeped in the MCU) but because it exudes a unifying cheeky personality that isn't like anything we've seen in the series before. Waititi's unique style — see also his outrageously funny vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows — is almost shocking to see in a series that has previously maintained a visually even keel, ironing out whatever individual panache its directors might have brought to the films. There's a sense here that Marvel cut Waititi loose to do whatever he wanted... and the result is a kind of vision, an imaginative sweep, that could re-enliven a franchise that it seems suddenly, in retrospect, needed it. I've been loving the Marvel movies. I didn't know I could love them this much more.
Not that there isn't plenty of the familiar Marvel stuff here too. Tom Hiddleston returns as Thor's brother Loki. Benedict Cumberbatch makes a brief appearance as Doctor Strange. There are some hysterically funny cameos, not just the traditional Stan Lee one, though that's the best one ever. Cate Blanchett as Hela, the Norse goddess of death — who wants to bring her own brand of Ragnarok, or armageddon, to Asgard — and Tessa Thompson as a retired Valkyrie are terrific. Thompson especially is a great example of how to do female sidekicks for male heroes, not as already perfectly formed, but as flawed people with their own journeys to take.
As much as I love the often weighty ideas of the Marvel movies, I also love the lightness of this one. (There is plenty room for it all in the MCU!) The movie skims a serious concept about Asgard's bloody history of conquest and imperialism being transformed into a fantasy about benevolence, which could — ahem — certainly have some relevance for plain ol' planet Earth. But mostly Thor: Ragnarok is about garbage planets, and street festivals celebrating Hulk, and Thor stopping in the middle of a New York street to take a selfie with some Avengers fangirls. It's a nice escape from heavy reality, which is very welcome right now.