“Thor: Ragnarok” is everything we’ve come to expect the best of Marvel’s superhero epics to be.

It’s well-written, beautifully staged, and features memorable action on the grandest of scales.

It’s also bright, colorful, and enlivened by humor; in other words, it’s a complete reversal of the approach to Thor’s world from the last “Thor” film, and that’s a very good thing.

Fans of the Marvel films and the characters here should delight in what they get, but perhaps more importantly, there’s plenty here for casual movie goers to enjoy, too.

What’s it about?

The last time we saw Thor (Chris Hemsworth), he left Earth at the end of 2015’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” in search of answers regarding an apocalyptic vision he’d endured, one that foretold of the destruction of Asgard, his home. The vision also pointed him in the direction of the Infinity Stones, those bright, shiny McGuffins that have been leading the entire parade of Marvel films toward next year’s “Avengers: Infinity War.”

“Thor: Ragnarok” picks up with the characters two years later when he’s forced to confront Hela (Cate Blanchett), a self-proclaimed Goddess of Death whose power rivals even that of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), Thor’s father and Asgard’s aging king.

Hela has an eons-old axe to grind with Asgard, mostly due to her complicated ties to Odin, Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Without giving away spoilers, it’s enough to say she’s very angry and intent upon collecting her due, no matter who stands in her way.

But just as our stalwart hammer-wielding hero is about to try to stop her, he and Loki are transported to a planet covered in lost and discarded things and people on the opposite end of the galaxy. To get back and save their home, they’ll have to deal with the planet’s Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who keeps his subjects entertained with gladiators fighting in his “Contest of Champions.”

Who’s his current champion, you ask? Well, if you’ve seen any of the marketing material for “Thor: Ragnarok” you already know, but in case you haven’t, here’s a few hints: he’s big, he’s green, and he has a bit of an anger management issue.

Major improvement over last film

The previous “Thor” film, 2013’s “Thor: The Dark World,” certainly improved on the financial success of the original “Thor” film, but was a critical disappointment mainly because it was everything that this new film isn’t. It was a drab, listless, dull take on the hero and his supporting cast that only had life when actor Tom Hiddleston was on-screen.

The brain trust at Marvel Studios seemed to recognize the need for a different approach and a lighter touch right from the start by enlisting Oscar-nominated director Taika Waititi (“Hunt for the Wilderpeople”). Certainly not a household name when it comes to big budget action films, Waititi got Marvel’s attention with his talent for bringing to life stories with offbeat humor and heart, and the choice pays off tremendously.

The entire “Thor: Ragnarok” production projects a sense of fun, as though the performers and everyone involved is having a grand old time, and that sense of fun is infectious. There’s a whimsy and a wink to it all, from the 80s-inspired synthesizer-powered music score to the outlandishly colorful production design to the glib script that gives everyone – not just Hiddleston – opportunities to get laughs from the audience.


Hemsworth worthy once more

No doubt, the performer who suffered the most from the previous film’s grim and stolid approach was the film’s star, Chris Hemsworth. The towering Aussie, who in his recent non-Marvel work has clearly gravitated toward comedic roles and opportunities to play against type, languished playing the serious straight man opposite Hiddleston’s mischievous Loki in the second film.

Put another way, all serious hero work and no play made Thor/Hemsworth a very dull demigod.

Thankfully, Waititi’s approach and all the humor in the new film’s script provide Hemsworth with plenty of opportunities to play. Is it Thor as comic book readers have known him since the character was introduced in 1962? No – he’s more glib, more relaxed, and occasionally sort of a big goof, but it works simply because it plays to the performer’s strengths.

The supporting cast in “Thor: Ragnarok” is a delight, as well. Standouts include the always enjoyable Hiddleston, Tessa Thompson (“Creed”, “Selma”) as new heroine Valkyrie, and Cate Blanchett, who delivers a deliciously devious and complicated turn as Marvel’s first headliner female villain.

And what of the Thor-Hulk “bromance” that’s been played up in the film’s marketing? Much of the film’s most effective humor comes from those scenes – the film kicks into a different gear once Ruffalo’s Hulk/Banner show up, and fans won’t be disappointed with the results.

Worth seeing?

Like every other film featuring a Marvel property this year, “Thor: Ragnarok” is more or less a shoe-in to win the box office in its opening weekend and also its second weekend before Warner Bros. and DC push it aside with the long-awaited “Justice League.”

The thing is, it’s absolutely worth seeing in theaters, even if you have to fight opening weekend crowds to do it. Is it the best Marvel film to date? That’s debatable – they’ve been cranking out films now for almost ten years and there are quite a few good ones at this point.

But it’s no doubt the “Thor” film with the widest possible appeal of the three "Thor" films to date.

Thor: Ragnarok

Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, with Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Hopkins. Directed by Taika Waititi.
Running time: 130 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material.