Thor loses his locks, gain a sense of humor in ‘Ragnarok’

November 1, 2017 GMT

Who knew the distance between Auckland and Asgard was so scant?

New Zealand director/writer Taika Waititi, whose history includes working on episodes of the cult Kiwi comedy TV series “Flight of the Conchords,” has taken over Marvel’s lumbering, musclebound Thor franchise, infusing the third and latest film, “Thor: Ragnarok,” with an infectiously cheeky antipodean wit.

Waititi doesn’t attempt to revolutionize or deepen the superhero genre - the film is less “Logan” and more “Guardians of the Galaxy” - but he has managed to give Thor, the man and the movies, a much-needed makeover.

Buffed-up Chris Hemsworth returns as the mighty Norse god who now finds his Asgard home world under attack from Hela (a wonderfully scenery-chewing Cate Blanchett), his evil older sister who had been plunged into exile by their dear old dad, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). But with Odin’s death, Hela vows to return to rule Asgard with a cruel, heavy hand.

Yet before Thor can deal with Hela, he has to free himself from the clutches of the powerful Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) to whom he’d been sold by the ambitious warrior Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson from “Westworld” and “Dear White People”). The only way out is to fight in one of Grandmaster’s deadly gladiatorial games.

Along the way, Thor gets to puts together his multispecies team for an Asgard takeover that includes his duplicitous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Bruce Banner/The Hulk (an uproariously goofy turn from Mark Ruffalo), heroic Heimdall (Idris Elba), Valkyrie and a rock like creature with a broad Kiwi accent named Korg (voiced by Waititi). Even Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) makes an appearance.

If that sounds like the setup for seemingly every film of this type, Waititi - working from a script by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost - is not going to disabuse anyone of the notion. It’s not for nothing that Thor tries to give his crew the tongue-in-cheek name The Revengers.

Waititi keeps things moving quickly, never taking himself nor the comic-book material too seriously but not disrespecting it either. As he has shown in his previous low-cost projects - including the vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows” (2014) and the sweetly anarchic family comedy “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (2016) - Waititi possesses a smart sense of pop culture that survives this film’s estimated $180 million budget and the burdensome weight of Disney’s corporate expectations that go along with it.

Sure, “Ragnarok” climaxes with the usual explosion of CGI overkill and, as is generally the case with Marvel’s marketing approach, you need to stay through the end credits to get a glimpse of what’s coming next in its cinematic universe. Still, Waititi manages to stamp the film with his sensibilities, ranging from casting choices (noted Maori actress Rachel House as Grandmaster’s enforcer) to sly pop-culture references.

After all, how many moviegoers outside the southern hemisphere will get the joke that the name of one of the space ships, Commodore, is a tip of the cinematic hat to one of the most popular cars in Australia and New Zealand? Or how many under 40 will immediately recognize Led Zeppelin’s ride-to-Valhalla rocker, “Immigrant Song”?

The director’s attitude spills over to Hemsworth who, with his shorn locks and what Gizmodo labelled his “Sadness Beard,” seems to be having fun. He’s loose and limber instead of stiff and sober as in previous “Thor” films.

Note to Hollywood: From now on, maybe all of our superhero franchises should be outsourced to New Zealand.