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film review

In the latest Thor installion, Chris Hemsworth gets to flex all manner of muscles, comedic and otherwise.

There is a zippy celebrity cameo right off the top of Thor: Ragnarok, the 63rd (okay, 17th) film in what's been christened the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Our title hero (Chris Hemsworth) has just returned from vanquishing some monstrous CGI demon-thingy and is back home on planet Asgard celebrating his victory, when he comes across a group of local thespians putting on a play about his own past adventures.

The lead "actor" in this blink-or-miss-it slice of meta-comedy is played by one of today's biggest movie stars, although it may take you more than a few blinks to register his mug.

Once you inevitably do, and after a few more famous faces pop up around him, the scene delivers a delightful dose of wink-wink-nudge-nudge humour.

It is a breezily funny moment, like a lot of Thor: Ragnarok. But once you gently pick away at it – what, exactly, is this Hollywood golden boy, whose celebrity persona has nothing to do with Thor, Loki, Hemsworth, Marvel or superhero cinema in general, doing here? – the scene makes no contextual sense outside the need for an easy laugh. Which, unfortunately, is also like a lot of Thor: Ragnarok.

The film, the God of Thunder's third solo vehicle apart from his Avengers buddies, has made every conceivable effort to twist itself into an uber-wacky comedy that might have come out of the Judd Apatow factory. Its producers hired Taika Waititi – easily New Zealand's funniest man alive, if not the wittiest filmmaker in the entire Southern Hemisphere – to ensure the gags are fresh, the dialogue is deadpan, the pacing is tight and the visuals kaleidoscopically trippy. Hemsworth, already an expert at poking holes in his heartthrob persona from his time on Paul Feig's Ghostbusters and the recent Vacation reboot (really!), is allowed to flex all manner of muscles, comedic and otherwise.

And there's even a small role for Jeff Goldblum, who has torqued his career as an acting-tic-friendly leading man into an acting-tic-friendly living meme, primed to deliver a generous smile to the face of the most cynical moviegoer.

For the most part, it works. As Waititi and his three screenwriters (not an unusual number for a Marvel film) punt Thor back and forth between Asgard, Earth and a trash planet called Sakaar, we're gifted three buddy road comedies packed into one, each more weirdly enjoyable than the last. The first teams Hemsworth's dim brute with his usual foil, Tom Hiddleston's villainous Loki, achieving the usual slash-fiction-ready effect (i.e., you just want to see these guys stop bickering and start kissing already). The next swaps out the brooding Loki for old Avengers frenemy the Hulk (and here it's really more of a green-man show, with Mark Ruffalo's alter ego Bruce Banner taking a backseat). And the final leg pushes proudly inebriated mercenary Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, clearly enjoying herself) to Thor's comely side.

The idea of pairing the oft-dull Thor with a series of oddball companions is an inspired, if necessary, move – so much so that it's baffling it has taken Marvel this long to smarten up.

For too long, the weight of keeping a Thor enterprise entertaining was shouldered by either Hiddleston – who looks bored by now, having found more creative playmates in the likes of directors Ben Wheatley and Jordan Vogt-Roberts – or Stellan Skarsgard's loopy scientist Selvig – who oddly sits this journey, the loopiest one yet, out.

Ragnarok's bouncy energy is also pure Waititi, whose oddball Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows wrung huge laughs out of eccentric premises (survivalist children and socially awkward vampires, respectively).

There's always been a deliciously offbeat rhythm to Waititi's work, as if he's working in a totally insulated environment where VHS cheapies from the eighties never went out of style, and no one is watching over his shoulder.

In Ragnarok, he'll happily insert a depressed rock monster named Korg into the proceedings, and even more gleefully play the part himself. And he'll work in a left-field reference to Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, just for kicks.

But he's still working within (maybe in his mind, against) the Marvel Machine – and there's only so much weirdness a Disney-owned behemoth can choose to ignore.

So, Ragnarok ends up saddled with the usual Marvel baggage. In between cracks about Korg "not making enough photocopies" of pamphlets for his failed alien revolution, there are countless hordes of CGI baddies to swat away.

While Goldblum muses absent-mindedly about killing people with his "melting stick or whatever," there is the obligatory pursuit of a cosmic MacGuffin.

And, although Waititi soundtracks his battles to either Led Zeppelin or Mark Mothersbaugh's awesomely retro Street Fighter 2-ready score, there are still the contract appearances by other Marvel players, who only drag the story back to Earth, literally.

Even the film's B-plot, where Cate Blanchett plays the Goddess of Death and Idris Elba the Asgardian warrior plotting an uprising against her, seems like an afterthought. (Typing that sentence alone is a crime against cinema.)

Yet, even with all this bloat, and delivered-with-a-straight-face dialogue such as "That sword is key to controlling the Bifrost," Ragnarok keeps its Asgardian toes tapping, its verve and enthusiasm never fading.

Thor films have traditionally landed with a heavy foot. Thank goodness Waititi taught the big guy how to dance.

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