Movie review: 'Thor: Ragnarok' a Marvel Universe joke that is on us
Marvel Studios/Disney, 2017.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) used to be a charismatic, cocksure super-hero when he first appeared in his own film back in 2011. Now he - and pretty much every other character in "Thor: Ragnarok" - is completely unrecognizable just three films (and countless cross-overs) later. That first film was a lot of fun and never took itself too seriously, but flash-forward to "Ragnorak," and Thor might as well be vying for the opening act at The Improv. Under the direction of zany-comedy director Taika Waititi ("Boy," "What We Do in the Shadows"), this latest movie is a full-fledged screwball comedy, and one of the most bizarre chapters in the unraveling disaster that is the ongoing Marvel Movie Universe.

It's another "the world is going to be destroyed" plot that's become all too common in super-hero films. Thor travels around the galaxy in pursuit of his evil long-lost sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett) as he simultaneously tries to prevent "Ragnarok," a prophesized cataclysmic event set to annihilate his home world of Asgard. When we last visited Asgard, Thor's mischievous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) had assumed the role of King, usurping their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), who now resides on Earth for some reason. Thor ends up in some gladiator-style arena on a planet controlled by an eccentric villain, The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), where he enlists the help of a drunken warrior, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), and none other than The Incredible Hulk himself, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), to help him save the world...er, universe.

It's clear at this point that the Marvel Universe is looking to re-invent itself. Growing tired of its own tried-and-true formula, you can just feel the studio executives trying a bit too hard to re-capture lightning (no pun intended) in a bottle. When the very successful and critically-acclaimed "Guardians of the Galaxy" came on the scene in 2014 and was much more a comedy than any of the previous Marvel films, it seemed like they might have been on to something. When people rejected the rival DC Comics "Batman v Superman" as being too serious and brooding, it probably only cemented their belief that future Marvel movies had to be "more fun." Well be careful what you wish for.

Thor, the character, is no longer the "straight man" for others to play jokes off of. He grins and quips his way through this film to the point where you might suspect he had been possessed by the spirit of Groucho Marx. Loki too, once one of the greatest villains in the Marvel Universe, has been so misused at this point that it's impossible to tell what motivates him anymore, or even what the heck he is doing at any given time. And the more we see of the Hulk, the more we realize why he will never get his own movie and why he will always be relegated to showing up in other people's movies: It's because, as a character, he's just not all that interesting and is so one-note that at times, you may find yourself rooting against him.

It would have been helpful if the comedic turn was in any way funny. It's not. Many of the lines are cringe-worthy, and several characters - Jeff Goldblum comes to mind first - are nearly unwatchable...it would be a major upset if Goldblum hasn't already won himself a Razzy for this out-of-step performance. Thor - now a stand-up comedian - might be more concerned with trying out new material in different rooms across the galaxy than he is in heroism.

Perhaps it is far passed the point of saving, but the Marvel Universe is showing serious stretch marks at this point. It was super-cool back when we first had a shared universe to look forward to, but now that we are umpteen movies into it, you can easily identify the flaws inherent in such a massive idea. The stand-alone films are suffering because nothing too big can ever happen in them. Those "major" plot developments are going to be reserved for the next cross-over film (which is "Avengers: Infinity War" slated for May 2018). So what we're left with are somewhat shabby, forgettable chapters that look to whet our appetites with these familiar characters, but that offer us nothing new in terms of character growth or real dramatic development.

Many might see "Thor: Ragnorak" and appreciate its light-heartedness, or the fact that it went full-out comedy, but this critic and comic-book fan would much rather see these characters given the depth and care they deserve. This may not be Shakespeare (despite the first "Thor" film being directed by thespian Kenneth Branagh), but the Marvel Universe was so much better before it became vaudeville.

Grade: C

Rated PG-13. 

Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy. Run Time: 2 hours 10 minutes. 

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins.

Directed by Taika Waititi ("Boy," "What We Do in the Shadows," "Hunt for the Wilderpeople," "Eagle vs. Shark").

This is an early review. "Thor: Ragnorak" opens on Friday, November 3, 2017. Check here for show times.