Like many of the unorthodox directorial choices Marvel Studios has made, the selection of Taika Waititi to direct Thor: Ragnarok took many by surprise. Much like the Russo Brothers before him, Taika Waititi was known for his comedic sensibilities, directing quirky indie features like Eagle Vs. Shark, What We Do In the Shadows and The Hunt For the Wilderpeople, with the massive $185 million budget easily making this movie the biggest of his career, by a long shot. Also much like the Russos, Taika Waititi was more than up to the enormous challenge at hand, delivering not only the best Thor movie by a country mile (even Joss Whedon called it a modern masterpiece), but also one of the best MCU movies, period.
The MCU is one of the rare franchises that has never had a total whiff, at least not on the big screen (*cough* Inhumans *cough*), but, to many, the Thor movies have been seen as the MCU's "weakest link," so to speak. 2011's Thor and 2014's Thor: The Dark World still rank among the lowest grossing movies in the MCU domestically, and while they both received "Fresh" ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, they weren't in the high 80% or 90% range like many of the MCU movies are. As of now, Thor: Ragnarok is the best-reviewed movie in the MCU at 96%, and it's already off to a great start with an international box office debut of $107.6 million, with a projected domestic debut upwards of $125 million. How did this franchise turn it all around in just one movie? The comedic sensibilities of director Taika Waititi and the script by Eric Pearson (who wrote for Agent Carter and also wrote the first four Marvel One-Shot shorts) and Thor/Thor: The Dark World writers Christopher Yost and Craig Kyle certainly helped, but the biggest reason is this story got back to basics, in a manner of speaking.
There have only been three separate franchises to get to three movies within the MCU, Iron Man, Captain America and now Thor: Ragnarok, not counting the Avengers movies. Each of the Iron Man and Captain America movies got bigger and bigger, to almost ludicrous proportions when it comes to Captain America: Civil War, featuring practically every MCU character, and I got the feeling in both Civil War and also in Avengers: Age of Ultron, that the story is just getting too big with too many characters, part of which is why I'm worried about Infinity War. With Thor: Ragnarok, the director and writers found a way to both pare down the story to focus on the primary characters, while still keeping an epic, yet contained scope intact, set far away from the Avengers and all of their Earthbound problems (save for a few key scenes). Taika Waititi even said in a 2016 interview that his movie will ignore other Thor movies and the MCU as a whole, which was quite refreshing to hear at the time, and after watching and thoroughly enjoying the movie, I'm glad he was true to his word.
Yes, there are obvious connections to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, with Mark Ruffalo's Hulk and even a previously-confirmed cameo by Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), along with a hilarious scene that features Matt Damon's wonderful cameo appearance. But, much like how the Guardians of the Galaxy have no real ties to the Earthbound MCU, Thor: Ragnarok is out there on its own, and while the stakes of the movie, with Thor trying to prevent the apocalyptic event known as Ragnarok, set in motion by Hela (Cate Blanchett) are still huge for this corner of the MCU, it doesn't have the same weight of literally saving the entire world that bogged down Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War. The movie closes out the Thor trilogy by bringing Thor back home, and after seeing all of the rich story opportunities Asgard and particularly Sakaar have to offer, it makes one wonder how successful those first few movies would have been if they were set in the cosmos.
The first two movies were set up as these fish-out-of-water movies, showing this bombastic hero from another place reacting to stuff on Earth. The first movie in particular used a lot of the same tropes that you'd see in weird comedies, like Thor smashing his coffee mug to the ground in that diner scene in the first Thor, or Jane and her friend Darcy (Kat Dennings) trying to explain the intricacies of Earth to this large, clueless man. The first two movies were used to set up his presence on Earth, as a logical way of explaining how he'd eventually become one of the Avengers, but looking back on them now after watching Thor: Ragnarok, I can only think about how much potential was wasted by having Thor on Earth instead of where he belongs on Asgard, but that also ties into the Ragnarok story as well.
The writers strip Thor away from all of his Earthly entanglements, like Jane, Darcy and Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and even some of his Asgardian connections, since Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander) is nowhere to be found and the Warriors Three (Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Tadanobu Asano) have little more than glorified cameos. What's left is the brotherly connection between the God of Thunder, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the God of Mischief Loki (Tom Hiddleston), which plays out in quite intriguing and also heartfelt ways. This also paves the way for several wonderful new characters to show up on both sides of this battle for Asgard, including The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who was recently confirmed to be The Collector's (Benicio del Toro) brother, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), the MCU's first LGBTQ character, Skurge (Karl Urban) and the main villain Hela (Cate Blanchett), who may be the best pure villain in the MCU to date, not to mention a much different (and more intriguing) version of the all-seeing Heimdall (Idris Elba). While all of these characters are performed to a T and well-developed, the show is stolen several times by director Taika Waititi himself, who hilariously provides the voice of Korg.
Marvel movies have always had their fair share of humor, but Thor: Ragnarok is by far the funniest Marvel movie of them all, with a career-best performance from Chris Hemsworth who fully delivers on the potential he's had as a truly funny performer, which we've only seen bits and pieces of in the previous MCU movies and in other movies like Vacation. The entire "friend from work" scene is just hilarious, showcasing his impeccable comedic timing and delivery. The heart of the movie is Thor's relationship with Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), which provides quite an amazing dynamic that I hope is explored more in the upcoming Avengers movies. If the first two Thor movies weren't exactly your cup o proverbial tea, then you'll absolutely love Thor: Ragnarok, because it delivers on the promise that has been there from the beginning with this Marvel character, but hasn't been fully realized until now.