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THOR: RAGNAROK (2017) review

November 4, 2017

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written by: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost
produced by: Kevin Feige
directed by: Taika Waititi
rated: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material)
runtime: 130 min.
U.S. release date: November 3, 2017

 

“Thor: Ragnarok” is going for uproarious fun, taking the blockbuster big-screen version of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comic book creation in an exhilarating and hilarious direction. Humor has always been a charming element to the Thor movies, but this sequel definitely cranks it all up to next level status. For most of the movie, New Zealand actor/director Taiki Waititi (“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and “What We Do in the Shadows”) takes us on a wild space fantasy ride, yet it eventually succumbs to inevitable third act superhero movie expectations that we’re seen before. Even more problematic is the squashed potential of a compelling villain, a problem Marvel fans are unfortunately familiar with as well. Still, the first 90 minutes is quite a hoot, playing fast and loose which is just the right jolt this character needs. 

The movie opens with its tongue firmly set in its cheek, as a bound in chains Thor (Chris Hemsworth) dangles in the red hot lair of Surtur (voiced by Clancy Brown), narrating how he got in such a predicament. Apparently, he’s been unsuccessfully searching the cosmos for the Infinity Stones since the events of “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, where we last saw Odinson. After defeating his host and thinking he’s stopped the prophesied armageddon known as Ragnarok (the End Times of Norse mythology) , Thor makes his way back to Asgard to check on his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and finds his mischievous half-brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) impersonating their missing father.

 

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Knowing Loki is once again responsible for unrest on Asgard, Thor drags him to Midgard (aka Earth) in search of Odin. First stop is New York City (of course), where Thor is unexpectedly assisted by Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who directs them to Norway where Odin tells his sons he’s not only dying, but because of his imminent demise, Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, is about to return to Asgard with plans to kickstart Ragnarok and claim the Nine Worlds (and anything else that stands in her way). Completely taken by surprise and unprepared to confront Hela, the contentious brothers find themselves facing this new adversary, who destroys  Thor’s hammer Mjolnir and knocks them both off the Bifröst Bridge on her way to Asgard.

A disoriented Thor awakens on the junk planet Sakaar, where dozens of swirling portals loom in the sky, dumping refuse from across the galaxy for scavengers to borrow through. He is captured by Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson), who scours the planet looking for new recruits for a gladiatorial Contest of Champions hosted by an quirky character named Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who selects contestants to fight his reigning champion, Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) against their will. Back on Asgard, gatekeeper/keymaster Heimdall (probably the most screen time Idris Elba has gotten in any of these movies) does his best to protect Asgardian common folk. While Hela builds her undead army, recruiting a right hand executioner in Skurge (Karl Urban), a disillusioned Asgardian warrior, Thor puts together a team on Sakaar to travel back to the targeted Asgard and defeat Hela.

 

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When “Guardians of the Galaxy” came out in 2014, I stated it couldn’t have been possible without the first “Thor” movie back in 2011. Marvel Studios wouldn’t have gone straight to a space comedy with a talking raccoon and his sentient tree pal after two Iron Man movies and one canon Hulk movie. Without Kenneth Branagh’s movie successfully taking audiences into space and introducing them to Asgardian Space Vikings with their Shakespearian drama and combining it all with “fish-out-of-water” comedy back on Earth. It was risky and yet despite critical malign – it worked really well, broadening the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and making it possible to envision other worlds and outlandish on the big-screen. Now, after two Guardians of the Galaxy movies and one “Ant-Man” movie, all of which have firmly planted the funny in the MCU, literally anything (and everything) is possible.

On that note, it feels like everything indeed occurs within the pronounced silliness and irreverance of “Ragnarok”, allowing Hemsworth with a fresh take on a character he has completely owned. That’s rare and needed for a sequel. Some may feel the comedy on display is a new and different direction for the character, but I beg to differ. There’s been humor in the last two movies –  yes, even in 2013’s “Thor: The Dark World” (a movie which is unfairly disregarded) and what Waititi does here is amplify the laughs, while delivering a distinctive style and energy to a Thor movie – for that matter, any Marvel film to date.

The director’s last two independent films, both of which he wrote, were completely different, yet each one had a wry, elbow-nudging sense of humor, inhabited by endearing and engaging characters. It’s great to see that with his first crack at a big-budget blockbuster finds his approach intact, but I can’t help wondering what “Ragnarok” would’ve been like if Waititi wrote it as well.

One of the problems this movie has definitely lies in the writing, where we find a third act played out in much the same way we expect most superhero movies to conclude. Sure, there are some unique character bits that could be considered exceptions to the CGI smash-up norm and even some nice nods to the work of writer/artist Walt Simonson (who had a seminal Thor run in the 80s), but after all that fun on Sakaar, it feels like screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost, were obligated to close the story out with a requisite climactic battle. Because that’s what we expect, it’s sort of anti-climactic save for a few geek out moments.

 

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The writers also miss out on an opportunity to add some depth to the main antagonist here, played with great aplomb by Blanchett. Some will say the award-winning actress is slumming here, but let’s not forget she was the baddie in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”, so there’s no reason why she wouldn’t be game for a comic book villain as juicy as Hela. Yet, it feels like there could be so much more to the role for Blanchett to work with. There’s potential to delve into emotional pain and resentment for being discarded by Odin and possibly jealousy towards Thor for how he is lauded by the Asgardians. I could see how she could’ve even managed to manipulate Loki to her side, since both of them have similar family issues, but because there’s so much going on here, there’s no time for any of that. Blanchett still relishes every moment, but she doesn’t solve the problematic Marvel villain problem and it’s a shame the screenwriters couldn’t see an opportunity to add more dimensions to her character. There could also be much more to Urban’s Skurge character too, who eventually lands on an arch that’s not really earned. If anything, Skurge’s inclusion made me want to dig up some old Thor issues and flip through a better representation of his character.

Another way in which the writers dropped the ball here is by not getting into the reasons in which Hulk doesn’t want to leave Sakaar. For the first time ever, this is a place where the green goliath is revered and beloved. He’s rabid fan following is the polar opposite of what he experiences back on Earth. So, why would he want to leave? Granted, the back and forth between Hemsworth and Ruffalo is comic gold, but there could’ve been a moment where Thor realized why exactly his fellow Avenger would prefer to stay. For the most part, I like how Hulk is presented here and his arena fight with Thor is a blast. There is joy to be found in watching Hulk lounge in his custom apartment and carry on arguments with the God of Thunder (whom he calls “baby arms” in a tantrum) and Ruffalo revels in the opportunity to give Banner some comedic moments (especially when he finds Tony Stark’s tight-fitting clothes to wear), so I’m not going to complain too much. It took us three movies with Ruffalo as the character for us to finally get to this fun portrayal, but there was a missed opportunity here to get at something different, maybe poignant with this character.

Despite some characterization issues, all of the actors are great here. Hemsworth action figure phsyique and wonderful comic timing adds enjoyment to the picture and his work with Hiddleston continues to be one of the best pairings in all the MCU. Thompson is a great addition to the many strong female characters in the Marvel movies, offering an attitude and swagger that’s easy to get on board with. But the MVP of “Ragnarok” is Jeff Goldblum. Waititi knows what he has in this charismatic and charming presence and allows space for the actor to go full Goldblum at every turn, scatting his way with dialogue that leaves viewers hanging on each line. I wouldn’t be surprised if his work was mostly improvised or if most of his scenes needed multiple takes because his co-stars couldn’t keep a straight face. He’s clearly the one having the most fun here.

 

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As for the look and feel of “Ragnarok”, I thoroughly enjoyed all the colors and Jack Kirby designs throughout the movie, but there were still some CGI moments that I couldn’t quite get used to. Most of those moments consisted of long shots of locations with where characters felt like game pieces or as if I was watching a video game being played. I felt this at times in the last “Guardians” movie and it can has the tendency to take me out of the movie albeit briefly. Regardless, the production work of designers Dan Hennah & Ra Vincent, as well as costume designer Mayes C. Rubeo really makes the movie distinct and yet very much feel like a Marvel comic book come to life. The movie’s best visuals are surprisingly in a couple of the flashback scenes that resemble custom van art from the 70s or Dio album covers from the 80s come to life. These dreamlike, slo-mo scenes also provide compelling backstories that hit the right emotional beats for Blanchett’s Hela, as well as Thompson’s character, a boozy Asgardian who was at one time a member of the Valkyrie, an elite group of female warriors.

The music of the Thor movies have always been good, but nothing too memorable, to be honest. That’s not the case here as former Devo lead singer/keyboardist (and frequent Wes Anderson collaborator) Mark Mothersbaugh composes a soundtrack that includes 80s synth-pop and Gaelic folk amid all the strings, horns and harps that make this one of the more memorable Marvel scores. While listening, one can’t help but to think of Queen’s work on “Flash Gordon” a cult classic from 1980 which certainly influenced “Ragnarok”.

 

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When it was announced that the next Thor movie would take on the Ragnarok story, my thought was that it could be even darker than “The Dark World” and then I had some trepidation about combining elements of the “Planet Hulk” story as well. But Waititi knows what he’s doing by adding a lightness and embracing zany fantasy to what would normally be dark material. He goes big and it mostly works, thanks to his game cast – Waititi even adds himself to the cast, voicing a stand-out comical rock alien character named Korg, whom Thor befriends on Sakaar – and his unique sensibilities still seem intact here.

At its heart, the space odyssey Thor takes is one of self-discovery and revelation, surrounded by rousing actions and well-earned laughs. If only that third act could’ve been less formulaic. Still, for a Marvel movie to have this much fun, referring to a swirling red opening in the sky as the “Devil’s Anus” and using Led Zeppelin’s Norse mythology-inspired “Immigrant Song” appropriately, I can overlook the problems I have with “Ragnarok” and appreciate a stellar cast that is clearly reveling in the irreverent tone Waititi is laying out for them.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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