Friday, April 13, 2018

Rocking "Thor: Ragnarok"

First, I had very high hopes going into "Thor: Ragnarok" because of Taika Waititi's involvement, and I'm happy to report that it is the best "Thor" movie by a wide margin. However, it is far from the really full-throated, rule-breaking comedy that I was hoping for. "Ragnarok" is still very much a typical Marvel movie, with the same requisite action beats, mediocre villains, and distracting connector pieces to other Marvel movies. There's a lot of good stuff here, so it's well worth a viewing, but it's best to temper expectations.

Easily the best thing about "Ragnarok" is that it gives Chris Hemsworth the opportunity to have more fun as Thor. There aren't any major changes to the character, but he's been recontextualized so that he comes across as more of an affable buffoon, cheerfully getting into dangerous situations and provoking trouble without thinking things through. In his prior adventures, his godly status gave him an air of invulnerability. In "Ragnarok," the universe is not playing along, and makes him look like an idiot as often as it lets him look cool. Hemsworth is perfectly game for both. Loki, similarly, undergoes similar reworking so that he comes off as more vain, pathetic, and weaselly, to great comic effect. In this outing, he and Thor actually feel like brothers who have grown up together and been at odds since they were kids.

Thor spends most of the movie stuck on the junkyard world of Sakaar, ruled over by the tyrannical Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who ropes Thor and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) into the gladiatorial games he puts on. Thor's biggest challenge is talking his few potential allies - including Hulk, Loki, and a former Asgardian warrior (Tessa Thompson) - into helping him return to Asgard to defeat the invader, Hela (Cate Blanchett), before she destroys the place. This is not easy when he's lost most of his powers, nobody knows or cares who he is, and he's completely cut off from all his friends on Asgard and Earth. Fans of the Marvel comics will recognize a good chunk of the story has been adapted from "Planet Hulk." Also note that the film completely ignores the human characters from the previous "Thor" films.

The cast is superb, but they're not all well served by the script. I was really looking forward to Cate Blanchett's appearance in the film, but there's not much for her to do except look imposing (which she does) and throw out the usual cliche villain dialogue about taking over the cosmos. At least she looks like she's having fun, and commands the screen with every appearance, but it still feels like a waste of Blanchett's talents. Our other major newcomer, Tessa Thompson, gets to show a little more personality and deliver better dialogue, but still pings as sorely underdeveloped. Were some of her scenes cut for time? I actually felt more for Skurge (Karl Urban), an Asgardian who Hela recruits as an underling, since he at least gets a full character arc.

The more comedic the character, the more successful. Jeff Goldblum is perfect as Grandmaster, while deviating very little from his usual persona. Taika Waititi himself voices Korg, a soft-spoken rock monster who Thor meets in the gladiatorial games. I liked Benedict Cumberbatch here in his brief scenes as Doctor Strange more than I liked him in his own movie, because he's played as just a totally arrogant bastard. Waititi's influence really comes out whenever the film just lets the characters interact and bounce off each other, highlighting the inherent absurdity of their situation. Thor's multiple attempts to reason with the Hulk are a highlight. Nobody makes the mistake of taking things too seriously, like the last "Guardians of the Galaxy" movie.

"Ragnarok" looks great too, full of wild Marvel alien designs, bright colors, and kitschy little aesthetic touches reminiscent of Jack Kirby comics and 1980s space fantasy like the "Flash Gordon" movie. There's tons of eye-popping CGI, of course, but the best moments are often the little visual gags like Thor getting clobbered by a ricocheting projectile while trying to break a window. Mark Mothersbaugh was responsible for the delightful electronica-heavy score, and whoever cleared the rights for the film to use Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" as Thor's battle theme gets the biggest cookie. When Thor gets to be cool in "Ragnarok," he gets to be really cool.

All in all, this is a huge improvement for Thor as a cinematic character, finally giving him a larger-scale story that fits his outsized persona. After three films, he finally feels like a hero worth rooting for on his own terms. And I'm glad Marvel and Taika Waititi weren't afraid to go off in an entirely new direction from the previous films to get him there. I think "Ragnarok" could have been better in some key areas, but overall I'm satisfied. It's a big silly action movie, and commits to that wholeheartedly.

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