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'Thor: Ragnarok' Hulks out with action and laughs

Comedy has always been a good friend to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, beginning with the introduction of Robert Downey Jr.'s "Iron Man" back in 2008. As the DC Extended Universe has floundered in darkness (hoping to rebottle the lightning of Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy), Marvel has successfully doubled down on the laughs, particularly with the "Guardians of the Galaxy" films. So it's not exactly a shocker that the 17th MCU film mashes up Thor, Hulk and the "Guardians of the Galaxy" sensibility for a rollicking comedy, "Thor: Ragnarok."

This brings us to New Zealand's Taiki Waititi, a comedy director of increasing international prominence. The man behind "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" and the riotous "What We Do in the Shadows" gets to play in the universe's biggest sandbox, and he doesn't waste the opportunity. In his third (more or less) solo outing, the god of thunder (Chris Hemsworth's Thor) tentatively teams up with his half-brother, the god of mischief (Tom Hiddleston's Loki), to protect their realm from the their long-lost sister -- uh oh -- the goddess of death (Cate Blanchett's Hela).

The fast-moving plot also allows for plenty of wry bouncing around the universe, Douglas Adams-style. Much of the action takes place on the planet Sakaar, a sci-fi Roman Empire where a Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) distracts from his tyrannical elitism with gladiatorial contests, and a runaway Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson of "Dear White People") exploits the system. Add the return of Anthony Hopkins as Asgardian ruler Odin, and you have another superhero movie bursting with riches: two Oscar winners, four Marvel superheroes (two in cameos I won't spoil), three worlds worth of eye-popping production design, and enough gags to rule them all.

Waititi brings a cartoon sensibility to the film, with jokes literally flung into the background and punctuated with funny sound effects. In brief bursts, "Thor: Ragnarok" achieves the kind of grandeur the first "Thor" film considered necessary (a slo-mo flashback to a Valkyrie battle, for example). If the film has a problem, it's that the sheer volume of comedy renders the story nearly weightless despite the deaths of established franchise characters and the threat of the end of a world.

Thematically, "Thor: Ragnarok" doesn't have much to offer, but it does, like "Iron Man 3," devote some effort to rounding off a trilogy of films while opening a door to future adventures for its lead character. Above all, Waititi revs up this vehicle for a wild ride, the sort of wide-eyed adventure likely to send Marvel's giant core audience staggering out of the theater wearing a collective smile.

— Peter Canavese

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