Thor: Ragnarok — the seventeenth film in the Marvel cinematic universe — beats with the sweetly dorky heart of Kiwi director Taika Waititi.
Having previously leant on politically dodgy Buffy creator Joss Whedon (The Avengers franchise) and Troma Studios oddball James Gunn (the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise) for nerd cachet, Marvel Studios now turns to Waititi to stamp his credentials on the rudderless Thor (non) trilogy.
Waititi — at forty two somewhat of a man child savant — also comes preloaded with the pop cultural preoccupations of the Gen X crowd from whom Marvel Studios most craves filthy box office lucre.
Thor: Ragnarok’s trailers have been stacked with the dorky, John Carpenter (They Live) inspired synthwave of Magic Sword’s ‘In The Face of Evil’, healthy doses of Flash Gordon (1980) via Jack Kirby inspired production design, and affable Waititi quirk by way of WD Richter’s 1984 oddity The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.
The Marvel Studios production machine is programmed to sand off the unique edges of its directorial talent, but Waititi fares pretty well.
The director’s natural knack for timing and pace — developed during a career that includes stints with Flight of the Conchords — mean the gags breathe and benefit from Waititi’s goofy geniality.
Actual sweaty geniality personified, Chris Hemsworth’s (last year’s Ghostbusters reboot) gamely switches his Thor performance from the po-faced fish out of water drang of previous entries, capitalising on the actor’s inherent comic chops. Tom Hiddleston’s (High Rise) Loki returns, snake oil personified, and Idris Elba’s (Beasts of No Name) finally gotten a slightly less thankless gig as a freedom fighting Heimdall.
Anthony Hopkins (Red Dragon) shows up but is this year’s second-best Odin, I’m afraid.
Thor: Ragnarok’s debuting cast include Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk and his alter ego Bruce Banner, on loan from The Avengers; Jeff Goldblum (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension) playing a variation on himself as cosmic gladiator magnate The Grandmaster; Creed’s Tessa Thompson as a mysterious, permanently sozzled rogue — shades of Han Solo — with solid skills in a fight; and Waititi, with full Kiwi accent in tow as Korg, one of the Grandmaster’s gladiators.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s Rachel House also delivers a wondrously deadpan turn as Topaz, The Grandmaster’s bodyguard.
The less said about poor old Karl (Judge Dredd) Urban the better.
Elsewhere, Waititi’s evident taste for the aesthetic trappings of ’80s fantasy art — characterised as ‘Panel Van Chic’ in some sets — give rise to majestic tableaus reminiscent of Frank Frazetta, Chris Foss and renowned Thor artist Walt Simonson.
On the flip side of Waititi’s tasteful retro-futurism, admirably inclusive casting credo and lovingly etched, good natured homage to swashbuckling space opera are the inevitable concessions the Marvel Studios badge infers.
At its direst, Thor: Ragnarok ticks off the laundry list of Marvel Studios’ increasingly threadbare narrative formula.
Superfluous, nonsensical battles with teeming hordes of CG stunt doubles overwhelm, hijacking any of the flick’s occasional, incremental momentum. The villain, Hela: Goddess of Death is a disconnected and arbitrary end of level boss.
On that front, the more egregious of Thor: Ragnarok’s sins include a heavy reliance on hollow video game aesthetics. There are sequences which evoke pre-visualisation for a new Diablo game, while a side scrolling, visually nonsensical Mortal Kombat — replete with finishing moves — format is deployed for a couple of the more climatic mass fracas.
Primary of all complaints, however, is that this latest entry is — barring the odd half hearted end of series ‘gotcha’ moment — a final bout of geeky table setting before next year’s all-consuming Marvel franchise money shot, the Avengers: Infinity War duology.