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‘Ragnarok’ and roll

God of selfies: Chris Hemsworth indulges fans at Sydney’s Hoyts IMAX red carpet with a string of selfies.

It’s funny how friendships evolve in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One minute characters are bashing each other stupid, the next they’re besties. The story goes that actors Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo — aka Thor and Hulk, who appear together in the latest Disney/Marvel release Thor: Ragnarok — were hanging around one day wondering why they’d been left out of Captain America: Civil War. Recalls Hemsworth on a recent sunny afternoon inside Sydney’s Park Hyatt: “They were talking about every character except us. So I said to Mark, ‘Are you in that film?’ And he said, ‘No, no.’ So I asked Kevin (Feige, Marvel Studios president), when are we going to get to do a film together? And then it happened and it was great, because Mark and I had never spoken on camera together. We got to sort of invent that chemistry and relationship and improvise it.”

Ruffalo remembers it slightly differently. “They put Chris and me together in a press junket for the first Avengers, and we had so much fun, we were so playful together, I started saying, ‘Let’s find a movie to do together.’ And I thought it was going to be a buddy cop movie, but when Thor 3 came around he said, ‘Hey, man, why don’t you come and do this with me? Taika (Waititi) will direct it, and let’s just have fun.’”

Director Waititi is the third piece of the puzzle. The New Zealander who got an Oscar nom for his short Two Cars, One Night and Sundance acclaim for Hunt for the Wilderpeople managed to persuade Marvel he was the one to hand over $180 million to make Thor: Ragnarok after pitching a “sizzle reel” that knocked them all flat. Hemsworth also knew the Kiwi director’s work (Chris was reportedly offered the part of a werewolf in Waititi’s 2014 very funny vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, but was “busy” at the time; he may appear in the sequel, the director hints) and helped push for Waititi to meg the third Thor movie.

The result is a cosmic rush, and the most un-Thor like entry yet. The franchise has moved from its somber “Shakespearean period,” as Hemsworth puts it, to adopt a neon-’80s exuberance: colors explode onscreen like a video arcade or a John Hughes wardrobe rack. Waititi steers it all headlong into the humor zone, with wisecracks and sight gags aplenty. Is it the Thor of yesteryear? No, it’s something much more bonkers.

And it turns out, with Ragnarok, Ruffalo and Hemsworth ended up making that buddy cop movie after all. Thor and Hulk find themselves jetting across galaxies, first pitted against one another in a gladiator arena, next working to save Asgard from apocalyptic upheaval.

Ruffalo describes it as “an intergalactic buddy road trip movie.”

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Hemsworth says it’s got “much more humor and a wacky adventure quality.”

Waititi, given to hyperbole, adds: “Basically I wanted to make this movie into a big lovable, funny, enjoyable fist, and then punch the audience straight in the face.”

Turns out they’re all correct. That it all happens under the Thor franchise is pretty funny, considering the last time Thor and Hulk saw each other onscreen, they weren’t too friendly. Each wanted to smash the other into pulp, in fact. So what was it like going up against Thor for real, we ask Ruffalo?

“It was great to smash him. I’ve been waiting six years to smash him. I think people have always wanted to see Thor and Hulk fight, and in this one they do it.”

And in this corner…

Smashing one another is kind of standard buddy behavior among competing Avengers. Later, the two stars and director march along the red carpet at Sydney’s Hoyts IMAX. Entering the red carpet runway, flanked by full-size Thor and Hulk statues, you can’t help being reminded that this Thor is billed as a furious matchup between natural adversaries. Even the look of each star during our Sydney roundtable emphasized their characters’ differences: Hemsworth, beard carefully coiffed for our interview, wore an open sports coat over crisp, white shirt, while Ruffalo sported a black leather jacket over black button shirt and trademark salt-and-pepper scruff.

On the carpet though, they take time to sign souvenir items and oblige fans with selfies; they greet and pose with two young boys from the Make A Wish Foundation in wheelchairs near the entrance; Hemsworth bounds across the carpet to hold somebody’s iPhone, Ruffalo greets a beaming teen boy who’s celebrating a birthday. The urge to smash things apparently subsided, the two end up in a bro hug before disappearing inside the theater. Just two buddies on an intergalactic road trip.



Growing pains

Thor and Hulk are also evolving in Thor: Ragnarok. Not only does Thor sport a close-cropped haircut and new costume, “This Thor has more of me in it,” muses Hemsworth. “There’s a lot more uncertainty and nervous energy, he’s sort of on the backfoot, trying to figure it all out, a bit chaotic. That’s closer to me than the surefooted, strong, confident, stoic version in the earlier films.” There’s also a new comic side to Hemsworth, something audiences first became aware of through his turn as himbo receptionist Kevin in the Ghostbusters remake.

Hulk, meanwhile, is also growing up — a bit. “There’s this sort of childlike, innocent uncertainty Mark put into the character that Hulk didn’t have before,” says Hemsworth. Adds Ruffalo: “I think one reason kids love the Hulk is because they have a little Hulk inside them — at some point, kids relate to the world in one of two ways: ‘Smash!’ And everyone’s like, ‘No! Stop!’ And they’re like (wails): ‘Arrgghhhh! I don’t like you anymore!’” The actor says he drew on his own kids for inspiration. “It’s the first time Hulk has ever been able to live on his own. He’s like a four- or five-year-old in the movie. So that’s how I approached it, and I think it’s funny and charming and scary.”

The Thor-Hulk rapport is good and funny, but it’s when Thor gets to trade quips with a rudely awakened Bruce Banner that the movie really does resemble an Abbot and Costello/Hope and Crosby/Cheech and Chong road trip picture.

Ruffalo, who lives in New York, seems to possess a rare ability to slip effortlessly between theater, romcoms, indie films, Oscar bait projects like Spotlight and big studio blockbusters. “I get bored very easily, I’m an ADHD casualty. For me, to keep it interesting I like to do a lot of different types of movies.” Knowing of his outspoken views on President Trump, the environment, and now disgraced mogul Harvey Weinstein, I ask him if it’s hard to maintain a personal “ethical compass” in a place like Hollywood. “It doesn’t feel like an ethical choice, as much as having my career be the career that I envision and feeling like I’m challenging myself and growing as an actor. And doing things that maybe no one expects of me, or I don’t expect of myself.”

Hemsworth, too, was feeling a little constricted by the Marvel template. “Years ago, talking to Kevin, I was saying, ‘If we’re going to do another one it’s gotta be different, I’m really sort of bored of myself, and I feel there’s so much more we can do, we haven’t even capitalized on the wacky space adventures that are in the comics.’”

Waititi just wanted it to spark joy. “I remembered how excited I was coming out of the cinema as a kid watching things like Back to the Future, just, ‘Whaaaat!!!?’ I wanted people to leave the cinema thinking they’d had a cool adventure.” He manages to smuggle in plenty of ’80s pop references, like the Duran Duran-style T-shirt from Tony Stark’s wardrobe that Banner is forced to wear, and even a bit of Michael Jackson: those Asgardian soldiers, when awakened from the tomb, jerk and pop like the undead in Thriller. Admitting the biggest challenge for him was working with so much CGI and motion capture, Waititi says he prefers dealing with actors, and when I mention his earlier comment that “80 percent of the script was improvised,” the impish director doesn’t miss a beat: “Well, I improvised that number.”

* * *

Thor: Ragnarok opens on Oct. 25. Follow me on Instagram (@scottgarceau) Facebook (Scott Garceau) and Twitter (@ScottRGarceau.)

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