Perhaps it's time to make peace with this reality of movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: They will be reliably pretty good, and they will be reliably not-great. No matter what protagonist(s) headline the stories, and no matter what filmmakers are recruited to oversee those stories, they have become a brand bigger than any individual installment, and maintaining the identity of that brand is paramount. If there's a sameness to the structure or many of the elements, it's a feature, not a bug; you might just as well fume over a James Bond movie featuring exotic locations and women in slinky dresses. When film journalists trot out their "Marvel movies ranked" lists each time a new one appears, it's mostly a chance to discover all of the infinite shades between "eggshell" and "ivory."
Thor: Ragnarok does what Marvel movies do, albeit with a slightly different approach to the tone. The in medias res opening plays like a self-aware version of the "needle scratch/freeze frame/I bet you wonder how I got into this situation" meme, as Thor (Chris Hemsworth) needs to escape from the underworld of Surtur (Clancy Brown) and prevent the prophesied end-of-all-things known as Ragnarok. But upon returning to Asgard—and discovering that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been sitting on the throne while disguised as Odin (Anthony Hopkins)—he finds that it might not be so easy to fend off disaster, as the goddess of death Hela (Cate Blanchett) prepares to exact her vengeance for her long exile, yadda yadda yadda.
Hela's got style, but is mostly a waste of Blanchett's talents for grand theatricality. She also suffers by comparison to Hiddleston's Loki, who remains the most interesting antagonist any of the MCU features have managed to introduce. Every time the action shifts back to Asgard—including an underground movement in defiance of Hela led by Heimdall (Idris Elba), and the moral qualms of her henchman, Skurge (Karl Urban)—it's mostly a toe-tapping reminder that all the mythological complexity can get a bit wearying.
When the narrative remains focused on Thor himself, on the other hand, Ragnarok is often hilarious. Hemsworth has plenty of comedic chops—as anyone who saw him in the Ghostbusters remake already knows—and director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows) plays to those abilities as often as possible. Virtually all of the highlights come during the extended second act, as Thor falls through a dimensional portal and winds up a forced combatant in the gladiatorial games held by The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, allowed to run to his nuttiest, Jeff Goldblum-iest extremes). The callbacks to earlier Marvel movies are deftly handled to give the punchlines maximum punch, and the mix of broad physical humor and deadpan line readings—including Waititi himself voicing a nonchalant warrior named Korg—makes for an action movie that often plays less as superhero fantasy than action buddy comedy.
The problem becomes the predictable over-stuffing of the plot, which doesn't allow time for any one "buddy comedy" relationship dynamic to develop fully. Is the primary sparring between Thor and Loki? Between Thor and Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), whom Thor discovers as one of his arena opponents after a buildup that feels pretty anti-climactic given the prominence of the big green guy in all the marketing? Between Thor and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), once a warrior of Asgard—now drunk, disgraced and serving as one of The Grandmaster's "recruiters"? Every one of those interactions has its great moments—more than a few, in some cases—but the chance to build one truly engaging bickering couple is sacrificed to the gods of Putting More Faces on the Poster.
It sometimes feels churlish to pick on a movie so committed to fun, especially one like this with weird asides like naming a key plot element "the Devil's Anus." It's equally hard not to wonder what might be possible if it were permitted to be more surprising, or streamline all the blockbuster trappings. Thor: Ragnarok delivers big laughs, all the way up to the inevitable grandiose battle with hundreds of characters fighting on seemingly hundreds of different fronts. As Marvel movies go, this one is ... a Marvel movie. Call this particular shade "cream."