By Tim Stack
November 01, 2017 at 11:00 AM EDT

Taika Waititi just wants to have fun.

The 42-year-old New Zealand native had one goal in mind while directing Thor: Ragnarok, the giddy third solo outing for Marvel’s God of Thunder: joy. “The main aim was, let’s just show people a good time,” says Waititi. “We’re dealing with a bunch of elements that are so ludicrous that they shouldn’t even be in a movie together. We’re putting Cate Blanchett in some antlers! Let’s just go with it and be proud of it!”

The film finds Thor and a ragtag group of frenemies — Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) — dealing with a potential apocalypse, or “ragnarok,” thanks to the resurgence of the Goddess of Death, Hela (Blanchett). “A lot of days I was surprised [Blanchett] came back to work,” jokes Waititi. “She’d turn up and say, ‘So what are we doing?’ and I’d be like, ‘Well, this is the day you awaken the zombie army and your giant wolf.’ I remember thinking, ‘Uh, maybe I should just not say what’s in the scene.’”

Jasin Boland/©Marvel Studios 2017

In other hands, the end of the world would be pitch-dark. But Ragnarok is juiced with Waititi’s warm but wacky sensibility, as seen in films like 2014’s vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows and last year’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. “He’s insane — he’s like the Mad Hatter, the mad genius,” says star Chris Hemsworth. “He has such an offbeat and quick-witted sense of humor that’s unrivaled in my experience. But everything is threaded with a sense of heart.”

Waititi encouraged the actors, particularly Hemsworth, to take risks. “It was infectious, that attitude, and I think everyone was experimenting and trying new things,” says the actor. Adds the director, “Anytime we felt like something had been done before or something felt clichéd, we decided to run in the other direction.” And, as he did with the vampire parody Shadows, the director wanted to take a seemingly unrelatable genre of characters (superheroes) and, figuratively, bring them down to earth. “Let’s see these superheroes in moments where we relate to them, like where they’re being self-conscious and they have flaws,” says Waititi. “I keep going back to the scene of Thor and Hulk sitting on the bed, talking about their feelings. That’s something I can relate to, and I think most people can.” Waititi not only makes a thousands-of-years-old Norse god approachable, but he reinvigorated Hemsworth’s enthusiasm for the role. “I was beyond sort of bored of myself as the character,” admits the actor, laughing. “I voiced that to Taika and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m bored of you too.’”

©Marvel Studios 2017

The director and star also share some of Ragnarok’s funnier moments on screen thanks to the friendship between Thor and a blunt but sweet rock creature named Korg, played by Waititi in motion capture. The character is something Waititi brainstormed early in the production. “A lot of that grew just because we had such a good relationship,” says Hemsworth. “He would be sort of riffing in that character just for our entertainment on set. A few times I begged him to do that on camera. That speaks to the mystery and talent of Taika: to be directing this huge film and then to pull out a character that quite possibly steals the movie.” Waititi, whose next project is the stop-motion-animated movie Bubbles, about Michael Jackson’s chimp, agrees. “It’s not my fault that he’s probably the greatest character in the film and will probably get a spin-off,” he says.

Marvel execs, are you reading this?

Thor: Ragnarok opens Friday in theaters nationwide.