LOS ANGELES — It may not get the same affection lavished on Iron Man or Captain America, but the Thor franchise looks set to complete a record year for Marvel on its opening weekend.
Bolstered by glowing early reviews, Thor: Ragnarok — the third installment of the God of Thunder’s intergalactic exploits — is projected to take $90 to $100 million from Friday through Sunday.
If it hits the higher end of that estimate, the Disney-owned studio will celebrate its first hat-trick of $100 million-plus domestic openings in one calendar year — following the success of Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Indie director Taika Waititi’s quirky sense of humor is being credited with piquing interest in the franchise, four years after the listless Thor: The Dark World performed well at the box office but failed to wow critics.
“Thor: Ragnarok is one of the funniest Marvel Studio movies thus far, definitely the best Thor film,” Peter Sciretta, owner of the SlashFilm entertainment website, tweeted after a preview screening.
Yahoo Entertainment writer Kevin Polowy described the movie as “hilarious & weird & offbeat & retro & sublime,” adding: “Love how Marvel let Taika Waititi make a movie that’s Waititi-ish as hell.”
The 17th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) — a series of superhero films that have taken a combined $12.6 billion worldwide since 2008 — opens with Thor imprisoned on the other side of the universe without his mighty hammer.
The Prince of Asgard finds himself in a race against time to get back to his homeworld and stop “Ragnarok” — the end of Asgardian civilization — at the hands of an all-powerful new threat, the ruthless Hela.
Chris Hemsworth (Rush, In the Heart of the Sea) plays the titular hero for a third time, joined by fellow returnee Tom Hiddleston (The Night Manager, Kong: Skull Island) as Thor’s duplicitous adopted brother Loki.
Two eye-catching newcomers are double Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine, Carol) as the villainous Hela and a deliciously eccentric Jeff Goldblum (The Fly, Jurassic Park) as the dictatorial ruler Grandmaster.
First introduced by the now-legendary Marvel Comics duo of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1962, Thor’s first two big screen outings in 2011 and 2013 earned a combined $1.1 billion worldwide.
But Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige was looking for a director who could redefine the tone of the franchise for the three-quel, to fully exploit Hemsworth’s arguably underused comic talents.
More known for independent, low-budget storytelling in the acclaimed comedies What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), Waititi felt he’d made his mark in that world, and wanted to stretch himself.
The result is a breakneck space adventure with powerful, character-driven emotional interludes but more self-aware punchlines than almost any other entry in cinema’s rich canon of superhero movies.
Waititi told a news conference in Beverly Hills he assumed Marvel had “lost their minds” when they approached him and concluded that “they’re just hiring anyone now.”
‘DREAM COME TRUE’
“It’s a huge, huge film. And what can be distracting on set is if you look over your shoulder, and you see 300 people standing there,” he said.
“I just had to keep reminding myself what’s more important is what’s inside the rectangle and, usually, it’s two or three people trying to remember their lines.”
The movie features scene-stealing turns from MCU debutants Goldblum, who said his involvement was “a dream come true,” and Blanchett, playing Marvel’s first lead female villain.
“Apart from working with these guys, obviously, the chance to finally, in my deep middle age, get fit and to wear that much lycra, was really exciting for me,” she joked.
Thor also gets to kindle a cute comedy bromance with his bad-tempered ally The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), last seen rocketing into space aboard the auto-piloted Quinjet in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
When Hemsworth suited up once again to play Thor, he was excited by the more brash, adventurous direction the Asgardian prince was being pushed in, he said.
The Norse hero has been largely deprived of his iconic hammer and shorn of his flowing flaxen locks, but Hemsworth said shedding familiar characteristics helped him make a fresh start.
“And I wanted it to be unfamiliar, and so everything from the hammer to the costume, the hair… forced me to move differently, and so that was a great thing,” he said.
Thor well outside of his comfort zone, relying on others to help him save the world.
“I was a bit sick of the Thor I’d created,” Hemsworth told Reuters.
“I think that I have an obligation to change it up, you know, and give people something different, something new,” he added.
Ragnarok opens with Thor hanging from a dungeon ceiling in a cave talking to a skeleton, and as things only get more bizarre, Hemsworth showcases his comedic timing with off-the-cuff jokes.
“He’s literally playing himself,” director Waititi said. “You look at Chris, he looks like Thor weirdly, and he’s funny, charming, beautiful guy, lovely guy and loves hammers … he is that character.”
The comedy in Ragnarok is very much a trademark of Waititi, who likes to find comedy often by placing unlikely characters in mundane settings, such as vampires sharing an apartment in 2014’s cult hit What We Do in the Shadows. Waititi said in fact that the vampire mockumentary may be remade into an American TV series.
“I love the idea of… Hulk and Thor (sitting) on the bed making up after an argument — like, you don’t see that in these films,” Waititi said.
“The fact that they allowed me to put that kind of stuff in this movie is amazing and that’s why I think it feels like a Taika film.” — AFP/Reuters
WITHOUT HIS mighty hammer Mjölnir, Thor finds himself imprisoned on the other side of the universe. He must find a way to get back to his homeland to fight Ragnarok — the destruction of Asgard — led by Hela. Directed by Taika Waititi, it stars Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, and Cate Blanchett. Empire’s James Dyer writes, “Ragnarok’s humor is as broad as it is eccentric, preserving Waititi’s sensibility while delivering consistent belly laughs at every turn.”
MTRCB Rating: PG