RAGNAROK, IN CASE you don’t know your Norse coda, means The End Of All Things. And Things cer­tainly don’t ap­pear to be go­ing well for Thor Odin­son right now. When Em­pire ar­rives on the set of Thor: Ragnarok at Vil­lage Road­show Stu­dios in Ox­en­ford, Aus­tralia, on 20 Au­gust 2016, we find the thun­der-bend­ing Avenger do­ing bat­tle with his lat­est, dead­li­est foe: Hela, God­dess Of Death. It is fair to say he’s get­ting his As­gar­dian arse kicked.

They are fight­ing, it turns out, amid the swirling, in­ter­di­men­sional tur­moil of the Bifrost — that handy, hy­per-spacey bridge be­tween worlds. Which is why ac­tors Chris Hemsworth (in leather bat­tle ar­mour, his mighty ham­mer Mjol­nir no­tice­ably miss­ing) and Cate Blanchett (in frac­tal-dec­o­rated mo-cap gear, which al­lows for an all-cgi Hela out­fit that’ll twist, morph and weaponise it­self on screen) are both sus­pended 14 me­tres above the crash-mat­cov­ered sound­stage floor. Each is strapped into a state-of-the-art ‘tun­ing fork’ rig that en­ables them to twist in the air like grav­ity-de­fy­ing Cirque du Soleil ac­ro­bats. A quar­tet of ver­ti­cally strob­ing light­ing-rig tow­ers hits them with a storm of flashes, while a wind ma­chine sends Hemsworth’s blond mane whip­ping wildly out be­hind his head.

Hemsworth swings at Blanchett but she bats his arm away, rakes fu­ri­ously at his face and closes a black-fin­ger­nailed hand around his throat. Sud­denly a voice rings out over the epic fray, its clipped, ami­able Kiwi tones am­pli­fied by the stu­dio’s god-mic. “Ah, Cate? You’re gonna have to re­ally stran­gle him, mate,” it says. “Re­ally?” Blanchett calls back. “You’re barely touch­ing his neck, m’dear.” “He keeps mov­ing away,” she mock­com­plains, but her di­rec­tor is po­litely in­sis­tent: “I wanna feel scared for Chris.”

It’s not easy to imag­ine the di­rec­tor of the third stand-alone Thor ad­ven­ture be­ing scared — or even mildly bothered — by much. A short dis­tance from the fu­ri­ous, fan­tas­ti­cal ac­tion, Taika Waititi re­sides in the Taika Waititi equiv­a­lent of a video vil­lage. There’s no mere di­rec­tor’s chair perched be­hind his mon­i­tors. In­stead, the cre­ator of last year’s joy­ous indie crowd-pleaser Hunt For The Wilder­peo­ple re­clines serenely on a red-and-gold di­van, sur­rounded by colour­fully em­broi­dered cush­ions and bean­bags. This is less a mon­i­tor­ing sta­tion than a chill-out zone; a cosy oasis plonked right in the mid­dle of the Hol­ly­wood block­buster fac­tory floor. “You gotta make it com­fort­able,” Waititi says mat­ter-of-factly. “’Cause oth­er­wise you’re just look­ing at scaf­fold­ing and blue-screen all day long.”

Be­tween set-ups, he plays mu­sic over the god­mic. This morn­ing, he’s se­lected The Bea­tles’ Let It Be and, with un­canny ap­pro­pri­ate­ness,

Across The Uni­verse cues up. As Len­non sings, “Noth­ing’s gonna change my world,” pro­duc­tion de­signer Dan Hen­nah (vet­eran of all six Peter

Jack­son Mid­dle-earth movies) chuck­les. “It’s re­fresh­ing to see this huge ma­chine isn’t chang­ing his world,” he says, nod­ding to­wards Waititi. The same can hardly be said for Waititi’s lead char­ac­ter. Or for the se­ries which bears his name. For Thor, Ragnarok is all about change. Why else would Marvel Stu­dios hire some­one like Waititi?


Brad Win­der­baum was con­sid­er­ing who he’d most like to see di­rect­ing the new Thor, he listed the movies he’d en­joyed most dur­ing the pre­vi­ous year. At the top was a lit­tle mock-doc vam­pire movie set in Welling­ton, New Zealand, ti­tled What We Do In The Shad­ows. Co-di­rected by Kiwi film­maker Taika Waititi (who also stars as prissy, lovelorn blood­sucker Vi­ago), it’s a deft, im­pro­vi­sa­tion-driven hor­ror comedy with a sweet cen­tre. Just to be sure, the pro­ducer checked out Waititi’s pre­vi­ous movie, a fa­ther­son heart­warmer named Boy which fea­tures Michael Jack­son trib­utes and — hello — a ref­er­ence to the In­cred­i­ble Hulk. That’s when he de­cided to bring him in.

“We needed a re­ally cool film­maker to take the fran­chise in a bold new di­rec­tion,” says Win­der­baum. “When he met with me and Kevin [Feige, the Marvel Stu­dios boss] it was clear in that room he was our guy.” You could be for­given for wondering why Waititi would choose to leave his low-bud­get, New Zealand-rooted com­fort zone for high-pres­sure stu­dio work. Not least to step onto a fran­chise whose last di­rec­tor found the con­tents of this par­tic­u­lar Marvel chal­ice rather less than nu­tri­tious (Alan Tay­lor de­scribed Thor: The Dark World as an ex­pe­ri­ence “I hope never to re­peat and don’t wish upon any­body else”).

“It’s never been my plan to come and make big stu­dio films,” Waititi ad­mits, pour­ing Em­pire a cuppa from a teapot swathed in a lairy woollen cosy. “I was very happy just mak­ing my kind of films, ’cause they’re a lot eas­ier and shorter. So this came as a sur­prise, and I was def­i­nitely un­sure be­cause I’d watched a lot of th­ese films and en­joyed them, but re­ally had no idea how they were made. On re­flec­tion, I re­alised what fun I could have with the tools and the toys and the cast they were sug­gest­ing. I think you can still make art within the stu­dio sys­tem. You just have to kind of dress it up in a cer­tain way. And sort of sub­vert it.”

With the last Thor movie hav­ing been less crit­i­cally well-re­ceived than the first, there is a strong sense of a need to change tack and do some­thing that didn’t ping-pong be­tween Earth and As­gard. “Ul­ti­mately we’re re­ally happy with

The Dark World,” Win­der­baum in­sists. “But it was ex­cit­ing for us to try some­thing new and just put Thor off in space in a very lin­ear plot.”

So here we join a Thor who, in the two Earthyears since Age Of Ul­tron, has been wan­der­ing the uni­verse look­ing for clues about the Infinity Stones, un­aware that his crafty, sup­pos­edly dead brother Loki (Tom Hid­dle­ston) has usurped the throne of As­gard. Un­til, that is, he bounds

back home and falls afoul of an an­cient, all-pow­er­ful As­gar­dian who’s taken ad­van­tage of Odin’s ex­ile to get back in the Nine Realms­dom­i­nat­ing game. Namely, Hela.

“Taika’s re­ally in­ter­ested in the an­ar­chy to her,” Blanchett tells us at the end of her Hemsworth-throt­tling day. “I thought a lot about the birth of punk. There’s a bit of that spirit in Hela.” For re­search, she watched punk doc­u­men­taries such as Julien Tem­ple’s The

Filth And The Fury. “So many girls were given a voice in that punk uni­verse,” she says, “like Siouxsie Sioux, who came out and had all that energy.” There is cer­tainly a Siouxsie-ness, you’ll no­tice, to Hela’s heavy eye shadow and south-east Lon­don twang.

Af­ter los­ing the afore­men­tioned Bifrost bat­tle, Thor — along with the de­posed Loki — is dumped on the psy­che­delic, worm­holes­ur­rounded planet Sakaar, lorded over by a blingy despot named The Grand­mas­ter (Jeff Gold­blum) who promptly en­slaves him as a glad­i­a­tor. “It’s kind of a prison-break, kind of a cast­away movie where Thor finds him­self trapped on an alien world while As­gard is in tur­moil,” Win­der­baum ex­plains. With Mjol­nir de­stroyed by Hela and a de-pow­er­ing “obe­di­ence disc” at­tached, “He’s gotta use his smarts and his charisma and his savvy to nav­i­gate his way off this world.”

Hemsworth is rel­ish­ing the op­por­tu­nity to freshen up the Thor for­mula. “It’s nice for the story and the char­ac­ter to be in a dif­fer­ent space,” he says. “We get to see a whole dif­fer­ent range of colours here.” He’s pleased to be work­ing with Blanchett (“If any­one’s gonna kick your ass…”) and has en­joyed squar­ing up against

Creed’s Tessa Thomp­son as war­rior god­dess Valkyrie (“She’s a badass, tough char­ac­ter who could prob­a­bly beat the shit out of Thor if she wanted to”). But most of all, he ap­pre­ci­ates the chance to do some­thing new with a char­ac­ter he’s al­ready played four times.

Waititi’s first pri­or­ity was to make-over the “weird Norse rock alien” as he af­fec­tion­ately calls him — and we’re not just talk­ing about that Max­imus-es­que hair­cut. “He’s def­i­nitely a new man now,” the di­rec­tor says. “He’s got more per­son­al­ity, more depth. Thor’s been on Earth a long time, hang­ing out with Tony Stark, and he’s picked up the ver­nac­u­lar.”

Hemsworth de­scribes this new Thor as “not feel­ing so oth­er­worldly, with more of a con­tem­po­rary per­son­al­ity and sense of hu­mour. Any­thing that felt Shake­spearean, Taika just said, ‘Come on, we’ve done that. He doesn’t talk like that any­more.’ There’s a lot of ad lib in this, which there was never re­ally room for be­fore. It’s prob­a­bly the most fun I’ve had on a Marvel film.”

His fel­low cast mem­bers are sim­i­larly im­pressed. “Taika’s been so re­spect­ful to the mythol­ogy,” says Tom Hid­dle­ston, back in Loki green-and-gold. “But he’s in­jected so much hu­mour into it. He’s given ev­ery char­ac­ter truly laugh-out-loud mo­ments with­out be­tray­ing their in­tegrity.” Jeff Gold­blum doesn’t hold back. “I fell in love with him im­me­di­ately. He’s a loosey-goosey im­pro­vi­sa­tional grand­mas­ter

him­self, so we hit it off. He’s a won­der­ful and stylish and deeply hand­some di­rec­tor. I think he’s go­ing to do some­thing spe­cial with this.”

NOT THAT WAITITI’S ne­glect­ing all the high-stakes spec­ta­cle we’ve come to ex­pect of th­ese Marvel movies. Far from it. Hemsworth prom­ises “some of the most vis­ually stun­ning ac­tion and stunt se­quences in any of the films”, from a pro­duc­tion that’s oc­cu­pied all nine stages of Vil­lage Road­show Stu­dios — and all of its sprawl­ing back­lot, too.

Ragnarok will see Thor bat­tling the de­monic Sur­tur (“a Mafia king­pin-type old-school guy from the age of Odin” says Win­der­baum) in the fiery realm of Mus­pel­heim; there will be a so­journ on Earth where, as we saw in a Doc­tor Strange post-cred­its scene, Thor and Loki will en­list the Sorcerer Supreme to help track down the miss­ing All-fa­ther. And, of course, we’ll be see­ing more of the thun­der god’s glis­ter­ing home.

As Dan Hen­nah gives Em­pire a tour around a vast, cir­cu­lar As­gar­dian plaza con­structed on the back­lot, he de­scribes the pro­duc­tion as “on the scale of one of the Lord Of The Rings films”. Then, just as we’re feel­ing like we’re on fa­mil­iar fan­tasy ter­ri­tory amid this Nordic­style, dragon-dec­o­rated ar­chi­tec­ture, Hen­nah takes us around a cor­ner and into a dif­fer­ent world en­tirely.

“This is Sakaar,” he says proudly of the neigh­bour­ing set-build. We stroll in the shadow of weird struc­tures that ap­pear to have been ran­domly glommed to­gether with ge­o­met­ri­cally di­verse pressed-metal pan­els, all in a va­ri­ety of bright, gar­ish colours that ex­ude a pulp, ’60s sci-fi feel: mus­tard, aqua, orange, green. Waititi and Hen­nah were in­spired above all by the vivid, un­earthly cre­ations of Marvel’s star Sil­ver Age artist Jack Kirby. “It’s fun, it’s colour­ful, it’s crazy and it’s se­ri­ously retro,” says Hen­nah. “Ev­ery­thing on this planet has fallen out of a worm­hole, so it’s made out of de­bris. It’s a bit like a Brazil­ian shanty town.”

It’s on Sakaar we’re in­tro­duced to Thomp­son’s Valkyrie, and where she’s spent most of her time dur­ing the shoot. “It’s just avant-garde and weird and beau­ti­ful,” she says. “All the ex­tras are decked out in a way that makes you feel like you’re in a Björk mu­sic video.”

For Waititi, mak­ing this movie was es­sen­tially a ques­tion of: why hold back? “If you’ve got a name like Ragnarok, you’ve got to live up to it,” he rea­sons. “I was a huge fan of Flash Gor­don and this is as close to that as you can get. I’ve been able to put ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing the kitchen sink, into this film. It’s so eclec­tic, it’s so weird, and so all over the place. You’ve got crea­tures made of stone, you’ve got in­sect aliens, you’ve got glad­i­a­tors, you’ve got Jeff Gold­blum…”

And there’s one other thing he men­tions, too. A very big thing. To para­phrase Tony Stark in 2012, he has a Hulk. “That re­ally sealed the deal for me,” says Waititi. “The idea of Thor and Hulk on an alien planet.”

TO CHRIS HEMSWORTH, they’re Butch and Sun­dance. To Mark Ruf­falo, they’re De Niro and Grodin in Mid­night Run. But for Taika Waititi, the pair­ing of Hulk and Thor in Ragnarok is mostly rem­i­nis­cent of With­nail And I. Wait, what? “Hulk is like this strap­less horse, and self-de­struc­tive as well,” ex­plains Waititi. “He’s in­ter­nally very con­flicted, an im­bal­anced char­ac­ter who can flip out at any mo­ment, and the idea of Thor hav­ing to be with him re­minded me of I try­ing to deal with With­nail.”

Ruf­falo cracks up when Em­pire men­tions this. “To­tally! I like that. That’s even bet­ter than Mid­night Run...” Ac­cord­ing to the fourth-time-out Bruce Ban­ner, the idea of pair­ing Thor and his rag­ing, green smash­ing ma­chine was born while shoot­ing Age Of Ul­tron, dur­ing which he and Hemsworth be­came the best of bros. “We had a great time. I love the guy so much. Chris was like, ‘Let’s find a movie to do to­gether! We should do a buddy-cop movie or some­thing!’” Later, when paired for in­ter­views dur­ing that movie’s public­ity tour, they jointly fan­ta­sised about a film that would make an odd cou­ple out of Ban­ner and Odin­son. “So when they de­cided to do Thor 3 Chris was like, ‘It should be me and Ruf­falo.’ That’s kinda how it hap­pened.”

Ruf­falo him­self had pre­vi­ously told Kevin Feige that if Marvel Stu­dios ever did an­other stand-alone Hulk, it should be based on the 2006 Planet Hulk sto­ry­line, in which Ban­ner is ban­ished from Earth and winds up as a glad­i­a­tor on the planet Sakaar. But with Univer­sal still own­ing the rights to the Hulk movie fran­chise, that story was in­stead folded into Ragnarok.

“When we find him, he’s been Hulk for two years,” ex­plains Ruf­falo. “And now he’s the glad­i­a­tor cham­pion of Sakaar, so he’s en­joy­ing quite a bit of fame and adu­la­tion. He’s also aware of be­ing hated on Earth and feared by the Avengers, so he has no in­ter­est in go­ing back. He’s en­joy­ing him­self!” How­ever, Hulk is the key to Thor’s es­cape from the Grand­mas­ter’s do­main, so he some­how has to tease the longab­sent Dr Ban­ner out from be­neath all those lay­ers of dom­i­nant id.

“Thor needs to achieve his goals, but he’s also deal­ing with this char­ac­ter who’s very volatile,” says Waititi. “And that to me is what makes this story re­ally in­ter­est­ing. How do you deal with a char­ac­ter who’s com­pli­cat­ing things and try­ing to make your mis­sion harder?” Ruf­falo com­pares Hulk to “a three-year-old child”. But, as we’ve seen in the lat­est trailer, Hulk doesn’t merely smash in this movie. Hulk talk. “Yeah, he speaks now. Even though it’s some­what rudi­men­tary. And he can also ex­ist with­out al­ways be­ing an­gry. He’s re­born. And he likes it.”

De­spite all the vis­ual ef­fects and per­for­mance cap­ture re­quired to trans­form Ruf­falo into the eight-foot-six Hulk, Waititi en­cour­aged as much im­pro­vi­sa­tion be­tween him and Hemsworth as he did any other ac­tor. “We’ve had such a fun con­nec­tion,” Hemsworth says. “We bring out some­thing dif­fer­ent in each other.” For Ruf­falo, the process threw out some “weird, ex­cit­ing things. There was a lot of ex­per­i­ment­ing.”

Not that VFX su­per­vi­sor Jake Mor­ri­son minded. “It’s re­ally fun to be able to play with a Hulk that’s not all ‘Hulk smash’,” he in­sists. “We have a Hulk that’s a lot more com­plex, a lot more nu­anced. You get to have mo­ments of re­flec­tion. It’s a much more stud­ied Hulk.”

And, if the buzz among the two ac­tors’ on-set col­leagues is to be be­lieved, the chem­istry be­tween them is in­tox­i­cat­ing. “Some­times when we’re watch­ing them, I swear it’s like watch­ing Wal­ter Matthau and Jack Lem­mon,” Win­der­baum says. “It’s like they were born to share the screen. It’s wild. I think you could eas­ily base an­other movie on the part­ner­ship be­tween th­ese two ma­ni­acs.”

IT’S MID-JULY 2017, nine months since Ragnarok wrapped and, un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, Waititi could very well have made an­other movie by now. But when Em­pire catches up with him, he’s still shoot­ing the third

Thor. “I’m in At­lanta. We’re do­ing reshoots,” he says chirpily down the phone. “In New Zealand we call them pick-ups but I’m try­ing to use the lo­cal lingo. It’s go­ing well.”

Sur­pris­ingly, for a film­maker who’s used to work­ing briskly and on a mod­est scale, he sounds nei­ther ex­hausted nor ex­as­per­ated by the fact he’s back on a cav­ernous sound­stage. He ad­mits shoot­ing cer­tain big stunt se­quences proved “la­bo­ri­ous” and he doesn’t deny he’s had doubts; “I’ve got a big imag­i­na­tion. I could imag­ine things. Like hav­ing the film taken away and be­ing fired. And then cast out of film so­ci­ety. That’s how big my imag­i­na­tion could get.” But he and Marvel are get­ting along like a realm on fire, it ap­pears. “I feel re­ally good about the film. Yeah. I think it’s re­ally good. It’s fun and it’s big. It’s ev­ery­thing I was at­tracted to when they ap­proached me to do it.”

Waititi’s pro­ducer is happy, too. Win­der­baum feels he’s get­ting ex­actly what he wanted from the di­rec­tor of Boy and What We Do In The Shad­ows. “This is def­i­nitely a Taika movie. If you look at his canon so far, this feels like it would fit right in with the rest of them.” Ruf­falo agrees, joy­fully de­scrib­ing Planet Waititi as “a very light and bright and airy, quirky world” — not at all a Dark one. The spirit of Taika’s Thor, he says, “is break­ing down bar­ri­ers and blow­ing ex­pec­ta­tions of th­ese char­ac­ters.” He laughs. “Peo­ple are ei­ther gonna kill us or fête us!”

Ragnarok may mean The End Of All Things. But with Taika Waititi at the helm, it feels much more like a whole new be­gin­ning.

Mark Ruf­falo’s Bruce Ban­ner and Thor come to blows. Or rather, get to grips.

Above: Idris Elba as As­gar­dian war­rior­god Heim­dall. Right: Cate Blanchett’s punkstyle an­ar­chist Hela.

Thor up­dates his Face­book sta­tus. Pos­si­bly.

Jeff Gold­blum’s Grand­mas­ter with guard Topaz (Hunt For The Wilder­peo­ple’s Rachel House).

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and eter­nal mis­chief­maker Loki (Tom Hid­dle­ston) re­united.

Tessa Thomp­son and Hemsworth with di­rec­tor Taiki Waititi on set. Give that man a base­ball cap!

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