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Film review: ‘Ragnarok’ generates fall’s first jolt of cinematic electricity

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Preston Barta

Thor: Ragnarok (3.5 stars)

Rated PG-13, 130 minutes.

Opens Friday.

From the very first scene, Thor: Ragnarok (the third feature in the Thor standalone films) punches you in the face with its vibrant colors and gut-bustingly terrific comedy. Everything has a neon pink glow, or varying shades of green and purple to highlight its retro feel. Even the film's jamming musical score and soundtrack (a fitting use of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song") give off this feeling that filmmaker Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows) took Thor's hammer to a rainbow and assembled a movie from its pieces, making it one of the most colorful and entertaining experiences from the Marvel canon.

But what really makes Ragnarok pop isn't just how bright it is, but how Waititi pushes our titular character (played once more with feeling by Chris Hemsworth) toward something new. In the past two Thor chapters (the self titled first film and The Dark World), Marvel set up a fascinating character and world, but didn't take Thor to his full potential. Director Joss Whedon gave him a some flair with The Avengers, but he never quite shined outside of being the butt of every joke and the otherworldly character who's oblivious to the ways of Earth. This is the God of Thunder we're talking about here; let him show off his strengths.

Waititi certainly does that, and doesn't try to over complicate his story in the process. Taking pointers from Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy, Ragnarok is more simplistic in its plotting compared to its predecessors.

In the film, Thor and his mischievous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston looking extra Tommy Wiseau-like) find themselves on a distant, landfill of a planet known as Sakaar after a brief run-in with their long lost older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett), known as the "Goddess of Death." She wants to rule Thor's homeworld of Asgard and have its inhabitants kneel before her, and it's up to Thor and his friends to stop her before the galaxy falls into oblivion.

While not exactly the most inventive narrative in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the development of its characters is what causes Ragnarok to soar above most sequels involving members of the Avengers team. It also helps that Waititi recognizes that Thor isn't a character that should be taken too seriously. Ragnarok is more self-aware than usual. As true as it is that we are so many movies in and constantly question when we'll grow tiresome of these superhero journeys, a new filmmaker enters to shape-shift the franchise and give it a pulse again -- almost to the point where one wishes Waititi would remake the first two Thor movies with the same energy.

It was learned a few months ago Waititi had his actors improvise 80 percent of the screenplay, which both elevates and overshadows the material. There are so many jokes and new characters (including a scene-stealing Waititi who plays Korg, a purple rock textured warrior who resides on Sakaar) that the film nearly feels like a two-plus-hour Saturday Night Live skit at times. Some gags strike the funny bone and others wink a little too hard at its audience.

At the film's beginning, a suspended Thor comments about how he's twirling around too much in his chains to have an intense conversation with a demonic character named Surtur (Clancy Brown). While it's tongue-in-cheek moments like this that comically speak to the absurdity of glaringly obvious and fundamental truths of storytelling, Waititi occasionally loses sense of the audiences' boundaries and throws the film off-balance.

Ragnarok is easily the best Thor outing, and one of the most entertaining Marvel adventures. The supporting roles (Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster, Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, Mark Ruffalo reprising his role as the Hulk) are given just as much character wattage as Thor to make thunder of their own. Though the movie is all over the map in some regards, its heart is true and its spirit is lively, and that's good enough for me.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work on FreshFiction.tv. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.

FEATURED IMAGE: Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) star in Thor: Ragnarok. CREDIT: Marvel Studios