Which movie is the most well-made Marvel movie? Not which was your favorite or which was the most successful, but which one is genuinely the best stand-alone film? Before this month, most Marvel fans might have said Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
It realizes the importance of character and relationship development, it's the only Marvel movie to really nail Natasha's character down, it's dramatic, well-written, and well-paced. For many Marvel fans, it's the obvious choice.
That is, until Thor: Ragnarok came out last weekend. Ragnarok is essentially the opposite of The Winter Soldier, between its flashy, colorful aesthetic and humor-driven sensibility, but it has succeeded in ways past Marvel movies haven't been able to: it appeals not only to casual viewers but to people who explicitly don't like Marvel's films.
So what did director Taika Waititi do that got it right?
One of the most obvious differences between Ragnarok and previous Marvel movies is the color scheme. Every Marvel movie in the past five years has been desaturated and gray, The Winter Soldier included, as if this might enhance the reality or drama of it all.
Waititi's film, on the other hand, shoots for bold colors and high contrast, an aesthetic that is reflected in the fact that nothing in the film is dull. The plot, the characters, the humor, the finale -- everything is embellished and with purpose.
This contrast between gray and color is most clearly seen in that fact that Ragnarok is genuinely funny. Nearly every Marvel movie sticks to a sarcastic sense of humor, and one-liners seem to be the only currency they deal in. Basically, no matter what character is talking, they get varying degrees of the Iron Man sense of humor.
Waititi's previous films, from Two Cars, One Night (2005) to Hunt For The Wilderpeople (2016), share a sense of humor reviewer Dan Taipua brands "Kiwi humor," a sense of humor that is "distinctly Māori" that carries into Ragnarok. It is deadpan and deprecating, yes, but it is also situational and made up of actual jokes, for once.
Ragnarok doesn't abandon character development for the sake of comedy or plot, though. Every character is at their peak in this movie, especially Thor, who most writers have difficulty utilizing to his full potential. His cocky, slightly oblivious personality is hard to nail and apparently hard to make compelling, but Waititi decision to knock Thor down and let him find his way back combined with his biting sense of humor allows Thor to develop without sacrificing or changing what other writers managed to put into him.
At Thor's side stand Loki, who remains one of Marvel's most compelling characters thanks to Tom Hiddleston's Shakespearean sensibilities, Korg, a light-hearted rock creature played by Waititi himself, and Valkyrie, a refreshing female warrior played by Tessa Thomspon and one of Ragnarok's most important players.
Natasha's role was heavily praised for not being a love interest and being allowed to develop in The Winter Soldier, but Valkyrie takes it one step further by actually receiving her own character arc. Her character goes through the "former hero caught in a depression slump after losing loved ones in battle is called to action again" storyline that is often reserved for male heroes.
When it does come to plot, though, Waititi's use of comedy and character are its driving force. Waititi's films often combine comedy and adventure into aspects of the same genre, a technique that is largely why this film's finale works where other Marvel films don't.
So many superhero movies go too big in their third act and don't know how to stick the landing, but in creating such a vibrant, over-the-top world, Waititi's world-ending finale fits right in.
Taika Waititi essentially takes what exists as a vague idea in other Marvel movies and enhances it through Thor: Ragnarok. The energy, humor, and characters are elevated in a way no other Marvel movies has managed to succeed in. The film even manages to use music in a way other films haven't by using representative musical themes in the film's final moments, when "Sons of Odin" is brought back from the first movie.
Waititi is changing the game not by changing the rules, but by looking at them to see how he can make them better. Hopefully, Marvel will see the success this film has found and realize why the new answer to "Which is the most well-made Marvel movie?" is, without a doubt, Thor: Ragnarok.