The running joke of the Thor series has been that Thor isn't funny. Which makes it all the more remarkable that the latest entry in the Marvel canon, Thor: Ragnarok, is one of the funniest big studio movies of the year.
In the four Marvel movies in which he's appeared, he's busted far more guts with his hammer than any quips or punchlines. Thor is a god, he's an Adonis, and he knows that he's a god and an Adonis, so he's basically arrogant all the time. Even when he learns to reckon with and live up to the responsibility he's inherited, he's still very full of himself (and OK, it's not an irrational confidence, because he's a god and an Adonis). The amusing bits of the first Thor film, those fish-out-of water scenes when he first lands on earth, owe their laughs more to the tension of this celestial hunk not being accustomed to middle American culture, and the reactions that elicits. (Having Kat Dennings there as a goof-off audience surrogate helped, too. Hey, what the hell happened to Darcy?)
Thor has had his moments alongside the other Avengers, and those have given all-too-brief showcase to star Chris Hemsworth's penchant for playing sincerely stupid, but even then the character is still mostly used as the setup and foil for funnier heroes. Still, those flashes of humor were evidently enough to convince Taika Waititi that Thor and the trippy cosmic world in which he exists could be used as vehicle for the sort of offbeat, joke-heavy work for which the filmmaker is best known. Or, to put it more simply, Waititi figured there was enough raw material in the franchise — which was just coming off the worst-reviewed Marvel Cinematic Universe movie made — to remake it into a really weird comedy.
Prior to Thor, the New Zealand-born Waititi made his name in Hollywood first with quirky projects with Jemaine Clement: Eagle vs. Shark, Flight of the Conchords (which, oh my God, were both a friggin' decade ago) and then 2015's vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows. Last year, he directed the charming indie comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which paired a cranky Sam Neill and a precocious little kid. All those projects were about weirdos in weird places, stuck far from home (or at least far from wherever they more naturally belonged).
Ragnarok has been called a parody or satire of a superhero movie, but it's really more simply a big studio superhero movie filtered through Waititi's unique lens. He has always been a master of mining small moments for conflict, misunderstandings, and gag laughs. And right out the gate he deconstructs the opening set piece; when Thor finds himself trapped in the lair of Surtur, bound and dangling from giant metal chains, the tense stand-off between hero and lava villain is interrupted — repeatedly — by Thor slowly spinning out of eye contact with the flaming beast.
Soon after, Skurge (Karl Urban), the new Guardian of the Nine Realms, shows off his ridiculous plunder from Earth (including a moped and a shake weight); as he notes somewhat incredulously, it's insane that anyone with direct access to all the treasure in the universe (i.e. Idris Elba's Heimdall before him) wouldn't be zapping down to pick out some valuable oddities.
It's as if Waititi read the comic arcs on which the film is based, imagined the movie adaptation, and then hit the pause button on the action to pick apart the minutiae of the scene. Much like how Seinfeld concentrated on the smallest aspects of everyday life, Thor: Ragnarok does the same for superhero movies, over and over again. It helps that Hemsworth, as is immediately clear, has been freed to not only play dumb, as he did in Ghostbusters, but also made to be much more self-aware and always a little bit bemused with the catastrophes burning around him. And clearly he was seeking out more comedic opportunities — Hemsworth reached out to Waititi years ago in hopes of working on a comedy together, and then helped the director get the job after his Shadows and Wilderpeople were critical successes.
A lot of Marvel movies have been steeped in character-driven comedy, most notably the Iron Man series and Guardians of the Galaxy. Thor: Ragnarok lets Thor and Loki's well-developed personalities steer the comedy and is filled with excellent joke callbacks. That includes the competition between Hulk and Thor — both the "Strongest Avenger" gag on the quinjet and their debate over who wins their fight — to the "Get help!" trick with Loki. Waititi has said that much of the dialogue was improvised (seemingly much of it by Waititi himself), including some of the jokes, but the director was clearly careful to use the best bits to construct callbacks.
Thor: Ragnarok is also a cosmic road movie, which allows Hemsworth to be dropped into plenty of strange places with strange people/aliens. All of Waititi's projects have been populated with lovably ridiculous side characters, each of whom were hilariously ill-suited for their environments. He's peppered Thor, a franchise that often played like a stage drama, with some of those oddball supporting characters, like the unexpectedly soft-spoken alien Korg (which Waititi himself played), and then infused both its existing characters and newcomers with some of those traits as well.
Jeff Goldblum's Grandmaster is a cad, a sort of late Roman emperor who hates the word "slavery" and charms everyone into forgetting that he's forcing gladiators to murder one another for sport. Cate Blanchett's Hela is campy and delightful, the sort of villain who, like Goldblum, you can't help but love. And Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie goes from badass warrior in the comics to drunk badass warrior in the movie, falling over almost immediately upon her dramatic entrance.
At the same time, the movie never ceases to be a superhero adventure. Most superhero movies try to be funny, but a majority of their quips come off lame, or are never followed up with any callbacks, robbing the comedy's potential. And not only does this consistency and creativity make Thor: Ragnarok the funniest superhero movie of the year, it's also key to making it the best-reviewed wide release studio comedy of the year. Not that there's much competition: The Big Sick was an indie film bought by Sundance at Amazon, while Steven Soderbergh's Logan Lucky was a mid-level release from an indie studio.
He may not be the strongest Avenger, but thanks to Waititi's vision and Hemsworth's unleashed comedy skills, Thor is now at least the funniest Avenger.