Sunday, November 26, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok

Alternate Title:  Asgardians of the Galaxy
One sentence synopsis:  Thor must escape from the gladiator pits of a far-flung world to save Asgard from the depredations of the Goddess of Death.

Things Havoc liked:  Within the library of ongoing wonder that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a project that is now approaching its tenth anniversary, the Thor films have been kind of strange outliers. The first, directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh, was a Shakespearean ode, a huge, boisterous, fantastical film, full of drama and pathos and hilarity and adventure, a fish-out-of-water story crossed with a soap opera crossed with Wagner. I loved it. The second film, directed by TV (and Terminator: Genisys) director Alan Taylor, was much less universally-acclaimed, but still a good film, I thought, underrated by the public at large, as it continued the themes of adventure and family dynamics, expanded the character of the series' breakout star (Loki), and offered a lot of fun action, adventure, and cleverness along the way. I liked it, though I did not love it as I had its predecessor. All throughout, though, the films have sort of stood apart, not conventional enough for inclusion within the main tapestry of the MCU canon, not ludicrous enough to really branch out on their own the way Guardians of the Galaxy did. There was a sense, shared by many critics, that the Thor movies didn't quite know what they wanted to be, and good as they were (especially the original), there was something of an ephemeral quality to them as a result, that some new direction would need to be taken in order to make them into the pillar of the MCU community that Marvel plainly wanted them to be.

Enter Taika Waititi, and exit all remaining doubt.

Thor: Ragnarok, directed by the New Zealand creator of What We Do In the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, is a masterpiece, a towering achievement that numbs the mind to consider, even now, two weeks removed. Not merely the best Thor movie of the three, it might (might) even stand as the best film in the entire MCU, a universe which includes everything from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, to Avengers 1 & 2. My period of reviewing films has coincided almost exactly with the entire scope of Marvel's insane triumphs, and I do not make claims such as these lightly, but even if Ragnarok ultimately proves less skillfully made than those previous cornerstones, it remains a stupifyingly great film, a movie made with care and love and tremendous skill by all involved, a movie which everyone and their mother should instantly go to see, for the fates are good to us this day, and have gifted us something magical, something spectacular, and something above all, fun.

The Marvel films, in many ways, are not typical of the way that Superhero movies are done. Superhero movies in general live and die by their villains, while Marvel uses their villains as props and plot devices, employing them not for their own sake, but to cast light and dimension upon their real main characters, the heroes themselves. This sounds elemental, but it's actually quite rare, as the ranks of movies like Batman, X-men, and the better Spiderman films will show you. Villains give more range of motion to actors and writers, allow for more character freedom, without the shackle of having to make the audience identify with and like them. Marvel though has an almost revolutionary obsession with the character of their main heroes, and thus in Ragnarok gives us what amounts to an close-cropped adventure story with two main and two secondary characters. The former are, of course, Chris Hemsworth's Thor and Tom Hiddleston's Loki, sometime enemies, sometime allies, brothers and adversaries all in one. Both characters and actors are on fire here, set loose in a world that doesn't take them or itself too seriously, to milk all of the ridiculous family drama and over-the-top viking madness that they embody, be it Thor's wisecracks and congenital inability to be serious, or Loki's supreme intelligence and craftiness mated with even more supreme arrogance and crushing inferiority complex. These two have been doing this dance for three movies by now (four in the case of Hemsworth), so it should come as no surprise that they are practiced experts at the ridiculous, Shakespearean, and classically tragic dynamic between the two. Thor has, in many ways, evolved over the course of the films, becoming a more whole, more stable, more balanced person, one who is, at last, beginning to accept his brother for who he is, as the God of Mischief, warts and all. Loki, on the other hand, knows seemingly less about his place in the world than when he started, still resenting Thor and Odin and all of Asgard, and yet yearning so desperately for acceptance by them all. An early sequence showcasing just what Loki's been up to since we last saw him in The Dark World hits right on the money, a combination of ham-fisted narcissism, weeping hilarity (the cameos, oh god, the cameos!), and truly tragic subtext once you stop and think about what's being done. Though the film has a lot to do, and devotes less time to our dynamic pairing than previous ones did, what sequences are included are uniformly excellent, such as a frank discussion between the brothers about Loki's probable future, with Thor no longer able to bear his brother ill-will, and Loki utterly unable to decide how to react to that.

The secondary characters I mentioned before are newcomers, in one case technically, in one case literally, and they're both awesome. The Hulk is one of them, not Bruce Banner (whom we'll get to), but the Hulk himself, who following the events of Age of Ultron, disappeared into Marvel's Cosmic Universe and now makes an appearance drawn directly from the pages of Planet Hulk. Imprisoned on an alien world where he is used as a gladiatorial champion, this Hulk has existed as Hulk for long enough to develop a personality and character of his own, and it's awesome. The writers seem to have realized both the character limitations of the musclebound green monster (limitations which sank the first two standalone Hulk films), and instead decided that he'd make a great straightman in a Lethal Weapon-style buddy comedy, which is genius itself. The other character is Valkyrie, played by Selma and Creed veteran Tessa Thompson. Thompson didn't impress much in those two films, but she makes up for lost time here, as her Valkyrie is a revelation. Too easily, a character like this can be introduced as nothing more than a token woman (or actor of color), either a love interest, or a tagalong, or a Strong-Independant-Woman-Who-Don't-Need-No-Man, or whatnot. Valkyrie, though, isn't just not the above (another pitfall), but an awesome, ludicrous character perfectly suiting the irreverent tone the film has in mind. Her introduction is a thing of beauty, a hero-moment spoiled, just briefly, by her falling off of her own starship due to being mind-shatteringly drunk, and her role is less token anything, than it is the fallen, dissolute veteran who must find their honor/skill/fire/guts/whatnot once again. A perfect match for the operatic viking saga that is the Thor movies in general, and Ragnarok in particular. Thompson is incredibly good, turning in a star-making performance that effortlessly fits into the wider MCU, equal parts badass and character study. I have no idea what Marvel has in mind for Valkyrie (probably, like everyone else, they intend to wait on events), but I can't wait for more, from her or from any of the others.

What others? Oh god, where do I even start? Jeff Goldblum plays Jeff Goldblum, and it's wonderful. His character probably has a name, but we're fooling nobody here. Ad-libbing all of his lines (apparently), Goldblum turns his warlord/gladiator promoter into a pastiche of his own public persona, all hemming and hawing, and awkward asides to his minions about when the appropriate moment to present the melting sticks is. Waititi himself takes a voice-role as Korg, a rock-creature and fellow gladiator whose job is to be comic relief in an action-comedy, something which probably wouldn't have worked had it been anyone but Flight of the Conchordes-veteran Waititi manning the controls. Waititi apparently derived the character's demeanor and voice from those of burly Maori bouncers at Aukland nightclubs, enormous men with soft-spoken voices, who need never shout, because one glance at their size tends to defuse situations better than any screaming would. Karl Urban, of all people, makes an appearance as an Asgardian named "Scourge", well supplied with guns and less so with brains, who positions himself as the right hand man of film antagonist Hela without him (or, frankly, her) having the slightest idea of how that relationship is supposed to function. And speaking of Hela, she is portrayed by Cate Blanchett, Galadriel herself, in her finest black queen regalia and icy demeanor. I mentioned before that Marvel isn't generally that interested in their villains relative to their heroes, but Hela is the first of their villains who seems to know that, luxuriating in her long-delayed revenge and stopping periodically for deadpan moments that fit right into the overall structure of the film, and prevent her or us from taking her too seriously. Blanchett is brilliant in the role, of course she is, and the script wisely allows her to take on a role and a motivation that has nothing whatsoever to do with Thor, Loki, or anyone else present, under the principle that if the movie isn't too interested in her, she won't be bothered to be interested in it. And while I don't want to over-focus on the socio-cultural "meanings" of the movie, or anything, it is worth noting that her entire plan revolves around revealing Asgard, the brilliant, peaceful, utopian land of lily white marble (and skin) as having been originally founded on a campaign of ruthless, violent conquest and subjugation, all swept conveniently under the rug when it became politically inconvenient to remember that the bloodshed had ever taken place. Given that director Waititi is of Maori heritage, and hails from New Zealand, a nation forged through bloody wars and conquest, and which now presents itself as a friendly, liberal bastion of racial tolerance and kindness, one has to wonder how much of this subtext is accidental.

But the big win here isn't with the cast, good as they are, nor with subtext overt or subdued, it's with Waititi himself, and his screenwriters Christopher Yost and newcomer Eric Pearson, who like many teams of directors and writers in Marvel's past, have put their own stamp on an MCU piece, but with effects far, far greater than most of the previous efforts. Waititi's a comedian after all, his previous work on this project was What We Do in the Shadows (which you should go and see, dammit), and for Thor Ragnarok, his decision was to drop the dramatic-comedic balance of previous films and make a straight-out action-adventure-comedy. There will be more on that decision in a moment, but whatever you think of it, the result is one of the funniest movies I have seen in goddamn years, and that's a fact. The entire film is riotously funny, from the piss-taking of overserious buffoons like Jeff Goldblum (God, he's good at that), to lightning-fast dialogue spit-takes, many of which were ad-libbed (the elevator scene with Thor and Loki is a high point), to glorious callbacks to signature moments of the previous films, deadpanned and dressed up for the most fanservicey-sorts of comedic throwbacks as can be imagined. I've long wondered what someone utterly unacquainted with the MCU would think of films like this one, this far into the series, but as someone who is acquainted with the series, the effect is paralyzingly funny, squeezing humor from the most juvenile of jokes ("your hammer pulls you off?") and even simple sight gags or situation comedy straight out of a Steve Carrel show. Hemsworth in particular is a terribly funny man, who has The Rock's gift of being able to clown himself without sacrificing authenticity, and playing this element up in the film to produce a weird Big-Trouble-in-Little-China vibe for it is manifestly the right call. In keeping with Thor's transition to the Cinematic side of the MCU, Waititi shoots the film in bold, vibrant color, luxuriating in the rich saturated worlds that it exists in, be it Asgard's Norse fantasy realm, the bowels of assorted and various Hell dimensions, or the oppulent Vegas-goes-to-Star-Wars planet Sakaar, comprised of half piles of garbage, half Roman orgy-palace. The score is incredible as well, a mix of classic rock tracks (Zeppelin's Immigrant Song features prominently, of course), and an ethereal electro-instrumental soundtrack provided by Mark Mothersbaugh, of Devo, as well as of literally dozens of other films ranging from most of Wes Anderson's work to the Lego Movie(s). The whole production, start-to-finish, is brilliantly-done, a labor of love and craft and care tremendously well-executed and realized. A tour-de-force for Marvel, Waititi, and his many collaborators.

Things Havoc disliked: That said, I do understand why some people hated it.

Okay, 'hated' is too strong a word. But I have spoken to quite a number of people, fans of the MCU in general, who were left very cold by Thor Ragnarok, for all the glitter and sparkle and hilarity on offer. And while I would hesitate to speak for all of them, the core of the objection seems to be tonal. Simply-put, Ragnarok is very different from the previous Thor movies, especially the magisterial first one, which was directed by Kenneth Branaugh in his finest Shakespearean pomp. It had comedy, to be sure, and quotable lines ("This drink! I like it!..."), but it was a family tragedy first and foremost, centered around the character arcs of Thor and Loki both, and while Ragnarok does not ever forget who these characters are, it is not at all the same thing, having eschewed most of the dramatics in favor of a straight-up comedy. And as a result, those who come in hoping for more depth to the bittersweet relationship between Loki and Thor, while they are not denied entirely, will probably find themselves disappointed, as the film is manifestly not about Thor and Loki (or really any other specific character or idea), but instead is about presenting an incredible, hilarious, and very funny adventure, starring characters we've all come to know and love. Ragnarok, ultimately, trades on its predecessors in ways that the other Marvel films typically do not, and it's only by dint of the high level of execution overall that stops the film from being honestly quite insufferable.

And it's not just Thor and Loki's relationship that gets the short shrift. Characters from previous films are either gone entirely (Sif, for instance, is nowhere to be seen), or get such a reduced share of screentime as to constitute being shelved (such as the Warriors Three). Odin is barely in the film (for admittedly defensible reasons), and while I appreciate the chance to watch Heimdall kicking ass (it's Idris Elba, I'd watch him make a sandwich), it would have unquestionably been nice to give him something substantive to actually do while he and everyone else waited for the plot to get back to him. The one who gets it the worst though, is Bruce Banner, as distinct from the Hulk. An interesting and tragic character in his own right, introduced and explored carefully in both of the Avengers movies, Banner is used basically as nothing but comic relief in the film, bumbling through his scenes as a fish out of water before it finally becomes time to let loose the Hulk once again. It's not that this is totally inappropriate given the setting, nor does Mark Ruffalo do a poor job with the material. But there's a certain lessening of the character by using him solely for this purpose that is hard to get around. Similarly, the film's relentless focus on comedy and snark also threaten to derail some of it's most genuine moments. Not that it never simply lets a moment happen, for it does, but as with the original Avengers, there's sequences that, in all honesty, could have done with a bit less guffaws and winks to the audience, and a bit more sincerity. This is particularly true near the end of the film, which is otherwise a rousing, triumphant action-setpiece, but also contains a couple of lines I would have cut, as they drain the impact from scenes that are decidedly not intended to be funny.

Final thoughts:   All hesitations aside though, Thor: Ragnarok is a goddamn marvel, a stupendously-good film that takes the series in a bold new direction with no hesitations whatsoever, and while it may not be the Thor movie that everyone wanted, its underlying qualities are so pronounced as to render the matter effectively moot. If Thor degenerates into nothing but a one-liner-ridden comedy-action mess the way the Transformers movies did, then perhaps its critics will be vindicated, but for now, I cannot confess fast enough how much I loved this film. Marvel's deranged cinematic universe has given us a lot of surprised, not the least of which was its own existence, but this film is one of the best surprises of all, presenting old characters in a new way, and giving us a film bursting at the seams with energy, excitement, and above all else, fun. Considering the comprehensive cinematic cataclysm that was Batman v. Superman, the abomination that was Suicide Squad, and the tonally-dissonent mess that reviewers are describing for Justice League (which I have no plans to see, thank you very much), Thor Ragnarok did not need to be this good to earn my praise. But it is this good, one of the finest films that Marvel has to offer, and the best thing they have done in their entire Third Phase of moviemaking.

Though if the trailers for Black Panther are properly indicative, it may soon have some competition on that front...

Final Score:  9/10

Next Time:  Time for an Oscar Season Roundup!

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