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Thor hammers away again (with humor)

Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) team up in Thor: Ragnarok. Photos courtesy of Marvel Studios.

While it is admittedly still quite satisfying to see Hulk smash things and watch Thor wield a hammer that comes with its own built-in Led Zeppelin soundtrack, it’s nice to note that for Marvel’s latest, Thor: Ragnarok, they decided to color outside the lines.

It’s a frothy confection of ’80s neon pop design and one-liners, rather than the dour tale of looming apocalypse hinted at in the title. It’s also a lot of laughs, something you don’t usually associate with Thor.

The secret weapon behind this new approach is New Zealand director Taika Waititi, who took star Chris Hemsworth’s directive seriously to push the new story into “wacky space adventure” territory.

The gamble is that Ragnarok can deliver both the heavy obliteration that fans have come to expect from one of the mightiest Avengers — with early previews depicting a gladiator match against Hulk to the tune of Led Zep’s Immigrant Song — while still smuggling in tons of levity, nonstop jokes and a sense of ’80s nostalgia that steers the film headlong into the fun zone.

We first encounter Thor enmeshed in an elaborate net in some stygian underworld, seemingly addressing us, the audience, about the irony of his plight. Turns out he’s actually addressing the skeleton of a fellow prisoner who remains, like Tom Hanks’ “Wilson,” dead silent. So right away, we’re dealing with a newly ironic, self-deprecating Thor, showing off Hemsworth’s comic side.

More comic moments ensue. Waititi — a Flight of the Conchords cohort and director of the vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows — knows funny, whether it’s the adlibs or numerous pop-up cameos (even one that fans will find a bit, er, “strange”). Thor even endures a hair shearing (at the hands of cameo king Stan Lee, no less), and Ragnarok similarly sheds some of the franchise’s leaden weight for a lighter tone, jacking up the wisecracks and adopting a feel that draws from quirky ’80s space operas like Big Trouble in Little China, Flash Gordon and of course, Star Wars. Eighties touches abound, from the Duran Duran-style T-shirt to Devo man Mark Mothersbaugh’s synth-wavy score.

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The plot finds Thor trying to save his home of Asgard from an apocalyptic threat — his long-imprisoned sister Hela, Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett, camping and vamping nicely) — a task made more difficult after he’s held prisoner on planet Sakaar (run by the nutty, finger-snapping Grandmaster played by Jeff Goldblum) and forced to fight Avengers colleague Hulk in a gladiator arena. It’s rage in the cage as two of Marvel’s ultimate fighters battle it out to survive.

While that memorable gladiator scene serves as a centerpiece, this Thor also gains heart and humor from one-on-one bonding between the God of Thunder and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), even developing a more (gulp!) brotherly relationship with Trickster God Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

Visually, Waititi seems well up to the task of helming a $180-million Marvel film. Watch Thor’s Mjölnir hammer smash through enemies via a POV “HammerCam,” witness the slo-mo decimation of the Valkyries in a jaw-dropping spectacle, and gawp at the sheer scale of Sakaar’s gladiator ring, outdoing even Gladiator.

Tessa Thompson (Veronica Mars, Westworld) adds estrogen to the mix as the spunky, hard-drinking Valkyrie who’s chosen to forget her home planet of Asgard, while Waititi himself contributes laughs as Korg, a remarkably chill, Kiwi-accented veteran gladiator.

Yet it’s the buddy movie that develops between Hemsworth and Ruffalo that’s a step up from the usual mutual pummeling of previous Avengers outings. While Thor is at first less confident without trusty Mjölnir by his side, Hulk’s grown up a bit; he’s able to use his words more, and he likes smashing things on Sakaar. When he goes back to being Bruce Banner, though, he’s none too pleased to find himself trapped on a planet that’s “designed to stress me out all the time.”

All the high-flying fun sometimes makes the imminent threat from Thor’s twisted sister Hela seem a little less, well, apocalyptic than it could. “Ragnarok,” after all, refers to a huge final battle in Norse mythology that wipes out many, many gods. Constant jests tend to undercut that mood a little.

Still, while Ragnarok sacrifices a bit of gravitas, there are moments (especially involving Sir Anthony Hopkins) that will have some diehard Marvel fans dabbing at their eyes.

 

 

 

 

All in all, Thor: Ragnarok is a smart, fun course correction. With Marvel committed to one or two releases per year, there’s always a certain danger of viewer fatigue. Franchises tend to wear out their welcome (talking to you, X-Men) and feel a little formulaic. By adopting a totally new tone for this franchise, Ragnarok offers a respite from the established Marvel roadmap, and perhaps a vacation of sorts from the terminal seriousness of its superhero. With Thor set to reappear next in next year’s Avengers: Infinity War, we’ll see if this is just a short vacay or a look that’s here to stay.

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