★★★ ½

Thor: Ragnarok, the umpteenth installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large and the third installment of the Thor subseries, is a comedy. A hysterical, effects-laden, meta comedy that manages to be wildly different from Marvel’s other offerings while fitting perfectly into the lore and trends of the MCU. It might come as a surprise to see New Zealand comic powerhouse Taika Waititi listed as the film’s director -- especially when the first two Thor flicks were directed by Kenneth Branagh and Alan Taylor, respectively -- but Waititi’s skill with comedy helps elevate the ridiculousness of the story and deliver a ton of laughs.

Does Thor: Ragnarok have a particularly original plot? Of course not: Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard after years in exile in an attempt to stop Ragnarok, the fated Norse apocalypse that would destroy his entire world. Upon his return, he finds his adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the god of mischief, sitting on the throne while disguised as their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Loki has spent his time as ruler erecting statues of himself and putting on high-production-value plays about his own fake death, which earn meta laughs by spoofing the events of 2013’s Thor: The Dark World. Naturally, the two brothers end up getting themselves into a world of trouble, which begins when they discover that they have a long-lost older sister named Hela (Cate Blanchett), Odin’s firstborn and the goddess of death. How Odin managed to keep this hidden from either Thor or Loki throughout all of these films is a mystery, but it’s Marvel -- suspension of disbelief is required! Steamed that her part in Asgard’s history has been erased and her right to the throne has been forgotten, Hela returns to take what is hers with an army of the dead and her giant zombie wolf, Fenris.

In the meantime, Thor and Loki find themselves on Sakaar, a trash-filled planet with some major ’80s/Tron vibes that’s run by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), a mercurial fellow with an affinity for making his prisoners fight one another for their freedom. Thor is sent into the ring to battle none other than the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and, needless to say, mayhem quickly ensues: There’s fraternal bickering with a side of light betrayal, CGI space gladiators, more than one daring escape, a climactic return to Asgard -- and, oh yeah, there’s Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), the last of a team of Asgardian female warriors who were taken down by Hela long ago. She has been scavenging and drinking herself into a stupor on Sakaar ever since…until she hears of Hela’s return, that is. And the always fantastic Idris Elba reprises his role as Heimdall, who ends up being Asgard’s true savior by leading the people to safety and remaining vigilant over the realms as Thor and Loki focus on battling Hela.

Waititi’s fingerprints are all over the script’s spicier jokes and tongue-in-cheek dialogue, which fits right in with the general tone of recent MCU releases. It’s clear that the cast had a blast and a half bringing the film to life; Blanchett slays as Hela, oozing evil, sexy power and commanding every frame with her presence, and Goldblum’s line readings are nothing short of brilliant. It’s always a treat to watch Hemsworth and Hiddleston tap into their comedic sides, which they harness easily in these roles. There are a couple of quality cameos (which are too funny to spoil), and they serve to both amp up the movie’s hilarity quotient and tie in the story with other parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Since the film covers so much ground, one complaint is that there isn’t enough of Valkyrie, or of Hela for that matter; they aren’t exactly lost in the shuffle, but it would have been a delight to see more of them onscreen. Perhaps Valkyrie will be at the forefront of a later Marvel offering -- she’s too interesting and complex a character to leave unexplored.

All in all, the movie is just two hours and ten minutes of a jolly good time. Its self-awareness is a beautiful thing, both poking fun at its own absurdity and tucking in little love notes to fans of all ages wherever it can. The pacing is solid, the story is satisfying (if unoriginal), the costumes are great, and the laughs are plentiful. This film gets what the MCU is all about and is sure to entertain -- and don’t forget to stay through the end credits. Yes, all of the end credits.