If you want to know what makes Thor: Ragnarok a fantastic movie, here’s your answer: Taika Waititi.

Fans of these pages will remember that Mr. Waititi, a Maori New Zealander, co-directed and starred in one of my favorite films everWhat We Do in the Shadows: A madly funny mock-doc about vampires sharing a house in Wellington, NZ. I wasn’t initially so taken with Waititi’s 2016 offering, the Hunt for the Wilderpeople, chiefly because I went in hoping for another barrage of improv genius but got something quite a bit more serious (though still very good). But taken together, these two films will tell you pretty much what you need to know about this director: He’s a Kiwi with serious comedic skill and an ability to chisel meaningful personal connections from some downright strange situations. And he’s an indie guy through and through.

At least he was, until Marvel handed him the keys to Thor: Ragnarok, with its 1,000-person crew and $180 million budget. The hitmakers unquestionably took a gamble on Waititi, one that could easily have cost them dearly — the urge to play it safe with a successful franchise must be strong as all heck, and it can’t be easy to pair a small-set director whose credits include The Flight of the Conchords with an acre of green screen and a VFX team that could fill a small town.

But they did, and good thing: The result is a masterpiece of entertainment, as close to popcorn-and-ICEE perfection as a blockbuster Norse-themed juggernaut can be.

Of course it’s a visual feast: By now, Marvel knows how to put on one heck of a moving picture show. What’s typically lacking — particularly in previous Thor installments — is an at-all-relevant plot and meaningful audience investment in the characters. Fine feathers do not a fine bird make, and when the players are wooden and story arc rotten and boring, all the just-so lightning bolts in the world don’t make a lick of difference.

The plot is still silly here — this movie could have been so very mediocre with anyone else’s hand on the tiller — but otherwise Ragnarok is a different animal entirely. For starters, Waititi unshackles Thor from his straight-man leash, throwing him not just into the usual buff-stuff CGI battles, but headlong as well into self-deprecating and playful banter. Thematically, this is much more Guardians of the Galaxy than any previous Avengers entry we’ve seen: It’s all rainbows and classic music and friends-are-family camaraderie.

Chris Hemsworth does what he must do and looks sharp doing it — he seems much more at home with this buoyant and sometimes cheeky version of Thor. Cate Blanchett sashays through Asgard with antlers on, while Tessa Thompson serves up iconic new spin-off fodder (as if we needed more). Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk shows up, and the big green guy enjoys a rather more thorough treatment than we’re used to in these pictures. Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba, and Anthony Hopkins reprise time-tested characters, but Jeff Goldblum is all new and downright hypnotic as Grandmaster. I’d watch this just for him.

That dull whoosh you hear is all of Hollywood breathing a sigh of relief: Waititi did something special here, steering this massive film just as deftly as his previous projects, and panning comedy gold from pretty much every character while also letting Marvel’s hero machine properly do its thing. (The real risk, it turns out, was something else entirely: Waititi himself nearly steals the show voicing a delightful CGI creature.)

See this.

Haus Verdict: Taika Waititi + Thor + Marvel’s hit machine = a massive blast.  

Thor: Ragnarok opens Friday, November 3.

Never miss a review — sign up for email updates to the right, or like The Parsing Haus on Facebook.