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A hero who is out of this world
FIRST the good news. Thor: Ragnarok, the third in a series of standalone films starring Chris Hemsworth as the Marvel Comics character most likely to be mistaken for a stoner surfer dude, comes across as decent entertainment - as far as superhero sequels go, at least.
After the so-so origins tale Thor (2011) and its disappointing sequel Thor: The Dark World (2013), the latest (17th) instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe sets the right comic tone in a tale about the continuing exploits of the mythic Norse god of thunder. There's plenty of action, the wisecracks flow thick and fast, and no-one takes themselves too seriously. When it comes to actual acting, the star-studded cast hardly breaks a sweat.
With any new Marvel movie there is always a danger that ennui will set in but New Zealand director Taika Waititi, working from a screenplay by Eric Pearson, shows a deft touch in giving this formulaic blockbuster a fresh coat of comic-book paint (helped along by a US$180 million budget, of course). He also gets in on the act by showing up (via motion-capture performance) as Korg, a rock-skinned supporting character.
Something is rotten in the state of Asgard - Thor's home town - but he's not around to protect it because he's busy battling his demonic arch enemy Sutrur, who informs him that the apocalypse is nigh, and Ragnarok is its name. After taking care of business, Thor discovers that his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been up to his old tricks and worse, their sage-like dad Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is missing.
With an assist from Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch making a cameo), they locate the ailing Odin, who tells them that upon his death their sister Hela (Cate Blanchett, channelling a Goth version of Maleficent), will reappear, wreak havoc upon the realm - she isn't known as the Goddess of Death for nothing - and give added meaning to the term sibling rivalry.
Indeed, all Hela breaks loose and the brothers find themselves marooned on a distant world. Thor is captured by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), a tough-talking, booze-loving warrior-turned-mercenary from Asgard who sells him to Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum in high camp mode), an emperor of sorts with an unabashed hedonist streak.
Grandmaster runs a successful gladiator business but needs to stock up on worthy opponents for his undefeated champ - a certain green-skinned monster (played by Mark Ruffalo) with superhuman strength and a shy, sensitive side. Assorted comic hijinks follow as our heroes figure out a way to escape (a psychedelic spacecraft and something akin to a mobile disco is involved) and save Asgard ("Guys, we're coming up on the Devil's Anus").
Back home, Hela isn't having everything her own way. She's dispatched most of Thor's buddies but the gatekeeper Heimdall (Idris Elba) has been fighting a noble rearguard action while shepherding fellow Asgardians away from danger. The scene is set for a climactic battle on the bridge leading to the city, but viewers will be left in no doubt that the rapid-fire verbal jabs are what sets this Thor apart from its predecessors.
The narrative calls for the Thunder God's golden tresses to be shorn off by a familiar face. Having lost his trusty hammer in an earlier scene, Thor now relies on his quick-thinking and his six-pack to get out of trouble. Meantime, he's always ready with a quip. This Thor is finally comfortable in his own skin and sure of his mission in life. As he says more than once: "Because that's what heroes do."