by Wenlei Ma
THOR has always existed in one of the darker corners of the Marvel movie franchise with its grandiose stories about fathers and sons and family secrets.
Be assured, this third instalment is not that. Thor: Ragnarok is an exhilarating, fresh take on the superhero movie, a smashingly good two hours of fun you won't want to take back.
In a Marvel Cinematic Universe that increasingly relies on levity, the first two Thor movies were almost outliers. But there were moments of frivolity here and there, and in the two Avengers films, that showcased Chris Hemsworth's great comedic timing.
Capitalising on it has allowed Marvel to reset the Thor movies for the better.
Hiring Kiwi director Taika Waititi (Boy, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) to helm Thor: Ragnarok was a stroke of genius on the part of Marvel.
Knowing they had a comedic genius on their hands, the Marvel bosses also wisely allowed him to inject the franchise with his trademark blend of humour and heart.
The result is a cheeky, sometimes-strange but always entertaining movie that Australian audiences, sharing a similar sensibility with our cousins across the ditch, will wholeheartedly embrace.
Set two years after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron and four years after Thor: The Dark World, the God of Thunder (Hemsworth) - clever boy - has finally cottoned on that his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has usurped their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) on the throne of Asgard.
When the indestructible Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), emerges and destroys his mighty hammer, Thor finds himself banished to a planet on the other side of the universe while Hela ravages his home and murders his people.
On Sakkar, Thor is conscripted into the Nero-like Grandmaster's (Jeff Goldblum) gladiatorial combat arena where he's faced off with Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), his "friend from work". Thor and Hulk haven't had a lot of interaction on the Avengers movies and the chemistry between them here begs the question as to why no one had paired the buddies off before - it's magic.
Thor also meets Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), a hard-drinking warrior now working as a "scrapper" - introduced in a manner that would make Marvel TV hero Jessica Jones proud.
He befriends Korg, a rock-monster whose tough exterior belies a gentle revolutionary soul. He's hilariously voiced and motion-captured by Waititi, who always pops up somewhere in his own movies.
There's a looseness to Thor: Ragnarok, in contrast to its former Shakespearean aspirations, originally established by Kenneth Branagh in the first film.
Even though Waititi didn't write this film as he has done with his previous work, the majority of the dialogue was improvised on set with the Kiwi feeding lines to his actors from the side. He also let Goldblum run rampant, creating alchemy with his scene partner Rachel House, a mainstayer in Waititi movies.
Waititi's instinct for getting the best out of his performers, including Hemsworth's funny bone and impeccable timing, is key to why Thor: Ragnarok works so well. It's evident that everyone had so much fun making this movie and that spirit of joy carries through to what audiences see.
And you've got to think that Waititi particularly enjoys humiliating Hemsworth by constantly have him take pratfalls.
Even superhero movies' recurring weaknesses - a weak villain and a bloated third act - are minimised here, though not altogether gone. Blanchett's Hela is a formidable opponent but her all-conquering ambitions aren't nearly as compelling to watch as those rare moments when she's snarly.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has yet to offer up a better villain than the amoral Loki, who, in the hands of Waititi is somehow even more frustratingly charming. Though Goldblum's Grandmaster, if you think of him as the secondary villain of the movie, comes pretty close.
Of course, Thor: Ragnarok is more than "just funny". It also nails the action, the visuals - from the industrial chaos of Sakkar to the manic battle on the Bifrost bridge - and the music with inspired use of 70s prog rock.
And for fans that might be concerned that Waititi has gone and tinkered too much with something they already love, don't worry, there are still plenty of callbacks to previous Marvel movies.
What he has done is taken the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the next level and propelled Thor: Ragnarok to the very top of an already formidable franchise.
Thor: Ragnarok is in cinemas from Thursday, October 27.
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Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, Idris Elba, Tom Hiddleston, Karl Urban, Jeff Goldblum.
Director: Taika Waititi
Verdict: 4.5 stars