So, with Thor: Ragnarok, we finally have a film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe directed by a no-two-ways-about-it Great Director. And that's a subjective enough claim, of course; we do after all live in a world where people will earnestly defend Kenneth Branagh, who helmed the first Thor an unfathomably long six and a half years ago, though I find this preposterous. It's also subjective that Taika Waititi, New Zealand's second most prominent filmmaker, is no-two-ways-about-it Great, though I'd be ready to have that fight just on the basis of 2016's superb Hunt for the Wilderpeople, without even making mention of 2014's What We Do in the Shadows, which remains an excellent candidate for the title of the funniest film of the 2010s.

At any rate, Waititi is not by any means the kind of broadly impersonal filmmaker generally tabbed for Marvel movies, and Ragnarok is awfully close to being a director-as-auteur movie, by the standards of this producer-driven, studio-mandated series. Which is to say, it's absolutely a Marvel movie, and it has all of the Marvel movies' conspicuous flaws (unreasonably poor CGI for something that has Disney money behind it; a dull final-act battle scene; a villain who is substantially more generic and insubstantial than should even be possible in this case), but every third or four scene it suddenly transforms into the pragmatically sardonic stuff of Kiwi comedy, with all the low-key absurdity and gangly dialogue that entails.

I'm not sure if this pays off quite as well as a lot of other people are - scene for scene, it's not as funny as either of James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy movies, in large part because it's hugely inconsistent on how much it wants to be a straight comedy and how much it wants to be a boilerplate comic book action movie with an extra serving of comic relief - but at any rate, it's easy to agree that Ragnarok has more of its own personality than most superhero movies, and vastly more personality than Thor and 2013's Thor: The Dark World, possibly the two worst films of the now-17 making up the MCU (and that "possibly" is in deference solely to the long-forgotten 2008 The Incredible Hulk). Among contemporary blockbuster sequels, it's hard to think of another one that does more with less promising forebears: not just The Dark World, but also 2015's hellishly drab Avengers: Age of Ultron, which joylessly walked Chris Hemsworth's Thor, hothead prince of the alien race that inspired the Norse gods, though a non-plot that tried and mostly failed to set up this very movie.

Ragnarok is surely not joyless. Even at its most empty and formulaic, there's a peppiness to it; I assume this is at least somewhat because its most formulaic moments are generally the ones involving Hela, the goddess of death, who is played by Cate Blanchett. Now, going around saying "the best actor to ever appear in a comic book movie" is the sort of broad claim that's just perfectly designed to make you look like a fool later on; but how many candidates could there even be? Blanchett is attacks the vicious, greatly self-satisfied Hela with lip-smacking delight, every frame showcasing the work of one of the greatest treasures of world cinema having a blast doing something that requires nothing serious of her. Unaccountably, and even offensively, Ragnarok can't come up with anything for Hela to do but function as the latest paint-by-numbers baddie in a franchise that's had such a persistent villain problem that it's practically a running joke. But if that's the best we're going to get, at least there's the pleasure of watching Blanchett at the center of this stereotypical non-character.

At any rate, the film is never worse than lively and colorful, and until its deflating, routine finale, it never fails to be pleasant to watch. The highlights, meanwhile, are on par with anything the MCU has ever produced: when Waititi can forcibly (though with no apparent effort) redirect the film into his pawky brand of casual humor, the results are superb. This is mostly true of the film's long central layover on a trash planet, reigned over by the preening Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, playing the Jeff Goldblummiest character in the history of Jeff Goldbluming). Just as a location, it's a blissful treat, a busy, overstuffed alien world that feels like the very best kind of early-'80s Star Wars knock-off, with a budget none of them ever dreamed of. And the best of the humor comes in here: Goldblum's breathlessly enthusiastic diva-tyrant, the small but precious turn by Rachel House (the implacable villain of Wilderpeople) as the Grandmaster's most trusted and openly psychotic henchman, the best work in Tessa Thompson's performance as a rogue valkyrie turned alcoholic bounty hunter, when she gets to be a sloppy drunk & before she has to go and turn into a proper, boring character. And best of all, Waititi's own turn as a deadpan rock monster named Korg, who draws in damn near all of the best lines ("Piss off, ghost" is an unexpected candidate for Funniest Dialogue of 2017, but there you have it). Even Hemsworth, whom I have had very little use for in any of his earlier appearances as Thor, gets to exercise some very enjoyable comic timing and a hugely gratifying lack of seriousness.

Everything in this middle bit is so breezy and fun that it both redeems the laggy parts, and also makes them seem worse than they might be. The Marvel boilerplate parts of Ragnarok aren't particularly egregious - there's not a single action scene as bad as anything in this summer's Spider-Man: Homecoming - and Waititi actually manages to turn some of the most tedious, eat-your-vegetables parts into terrific popcorn cinema: the perfunctory early scenes wrapping up the plot of The Dark World includes some of the movie's finest material, not least including the spectacle of Anthony Hopkins playing Tom Hiddleston playing Anthony Hopkins with shameless glee (the way he chomps grapes is a small masterpiece of physical acting all by itself), and a hilarious propaganda play that includes not one, but two of the finest cameos of 2017, one credited and one not, and I would hate myself a lot for giving away either of them.

Still, when the movie stops, it stops cold. I suppose it's hard to make battle scenes funny, and Waititi's career to date has never really taxed any other skill set than selling jokes (Wilderpeople and Boy - I have not seen the latter - are both comedies with sentiment, but that's splitting hairs a bit). Still, it sucks to see a movie that has been so full of buoyancy in its humor, its acting, its visual style, its pacing, and its music - Mark Mothersbaugh's synth-heavy score is unquestionably the best yet composed for an MCU film - flatline, and it sucks even more that it happens right when Idris Elba finally starts to get something active and interesting to do in one of these movies. I can't say how long it is, really, but it feels like fully the last quarter of Ragnarok is one long slog, pro forma action scenes that stake everything on characters who aren't actually interesting as characters - Thor is only interesting when he's hugely insincere, Hiddleston's Loki is on autopilot, and Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner is completely out-of-synch with the way he's played the character prior to now, and there's no inherent reason for us to care about anyone else - and so just grind along. Not the first fun, uptempo movie to slam into a brick wall as it enters its last act, surely not going to be the last, but it's never a good thing, and there are enough moments even during the "good" parts of Ragnarok that don't really do much (anything to do with the plot, mostly) that the whole thing leaves me feeling a bit grumpier than my enormous affection for its strengths would otherwise suggest.

Other MCU reviews (Phase 3)
Captain America: Civil War (Russo Brothers, 2016)
Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn, 2017)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts, 2017)
Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017)
Black Panther (Coogler, 2018)
Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018)
Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018)
Captain Marvel (Boden & Fleck, 2019)
Avengers: Endgame (Russo Brothers, 2019)
Spider-Man: Far from Home (Watts, 2019)