Movie review: “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017)

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“It sounds like you had a pretty special and intimate relationship with this hammer, and that losing it was almost comparable to losing a loved one.”

“That’s a nice way of putting it.”

There was once a time, closer to the dawn of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), that Thor, the fabled and since repackaged Norse God of Thunder, was the only game in town when it came to magical superheroes. Despite his devil-may-care exterior, Tony Stark was, of course, deeply, almost painfully, human, and had the whole irresponsible billionaire industrialist/incorrigible playboy angle down cold to boot. Bruce Banner, also human, was a brilliant scientist with unfortunate, pronounced anger issues and extremely bad luck. Steve Rogers, the career Army man and milk commercial in human form, started out as an anthropomorphic pipecleaner before governmentally sanctioned experiments neatly replaced his general mousiness with elite combat skills and infallible resolve, and his unimpressive sinew with muscles upon muscles. Humans, all, regardless of their own various performance-enhancing origins or regimens, somehow keeping not only acquaintances but pace with a literal deity. Why should Thor seem so ordinary in comparison to his peers? How does an all-powerful inter-dimensional thunder god have human peers in the first place? The introduction to the MCU since of a troop of bona fide space pirates – including a talking raccoon and a dancing tree – and a next level sorcerer with a truly distracting American accent has only exacerbated the issue. The diagnosis was, in retrospect, just as obvious as is the prescription to cure it extreme: Thor’s powers could more than hold their own battling a search-and-destroy killbot or a workaday army of alien ice monsters. Instead, he was suffering from a severe lack of the one thing whose gross excess has thus far defined the Marvel movies, even more than their penchant for spectacle with panache: personality.

thor ragnarok posterThor was the “neutral” emoji sprung to life. In fact, it’s entirely possible that two high points – the first movie’s admittedly funny fish-out-of-water scene where he unwittingly demolishes a greasy spoon out of sheer ignorance of human customs, and the cute sequence in Age of Ultron where, during a rare stretch of group R&R, he challenges any sufficiently salty Avenger to attempt to lift his mystical hammer, Mjolnir – comprise the sum total of Thor’s previous memorable attempts at levity. The less said about dour sequel Thor: The Dark World – whose subtitle might just as well, or accurately, have been The Black Hole – the better. This is, frankly, a hideous success rate for a Marvel braintrust that, as mentioned, counts among its recent achievements the radical humanization of both a foul-mouthed raccoon and a Motown-loving, sentient tree. For better or worse, Thor’s pronounced personality deficit is now officially, and ever so suddenly, a thing of the past. Taika Waititi’s generally charming, oft-entertaining, relentlessly eccentric Thor: Ragnarok blows it out of comfortable orbit, sending it screaming halfway across the universe, through a wormhole, and out the other side. Waititi, a no-longer-obscure New Zealand filmmaker best known before this as Jemaine Clement’s collaborator on the cult smash vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, might seem an odd choice to helm a big-ticket Marvel destroyer, until you reflect that his job here is to use the combination of a shopworn plot in an unpredictable universe as a vehicle by which to reverse engineer the Thor audiences have come to know and tolerate into a more well-rounded and conventionally charismatic Marvel hero. It’s Extreme Makeover: Asgard Edition!

With dogged determination and disarming humor, Waititi leaps face-first into the grinning, slavering maw of his charge. He is helped to no end by the degree to which Chris Hemsworth, perhaps wearied by four consecutive movies starring as the designated wet blanket, is so obviously game for a bit of heavy reinvention. Previous cinematic incarnations had posited Thor as little more than a hammer-wielding grouse, a gruff, humor-lite man-mountain of restless action, 1) riddled with “daddy issues”, 2) embroiled in a never-ending rivalry with a younger, objectively fun sibling who constantly plots against and upstages him, 3) unable to engage or sustain meaningful relationships of most any kind, and 4) uncomfortable to the point of constipation with his responsibilities as the crown prince of Asgard, the overwrought Disney’s Galactic Vikings on Ecstasy utopia that, amazingly, serves as Ragnarok’s less diverting major environment, placing second to a planet seemingly made out of nothing but stacked trash. The new and improved Thor starts the movie floundering – and, one assumes, roasting – in a subterranean hellscape, yet somehow already in Stark-ian Quip Mode, relaxed, amused, and conversationally breaking the fourth wall despite the fact that he is, at the moment, the chained hostage of a sub-Balrog fire demon intent on invoking the cataclysmic titular prophecy of Ragnarok, and thereby consigning Asgard to a burning, appropriately theatrical doom. Neither that nor how Thor version 2.0 vanquishes the flaming fiend is any sort of real surprise, and, outside of a left-field appearance by an unadvertised MCU superhero, the film doesn’t seem particularly keen in the early going to spring any.

To wit, Thor finds his triumphant return to Asgard dampened by the surprise, though predictably cheeky, reemergence of his brother, trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston, looking even paler than usual and, on occasion, slightly embarrassed), and news of the prolonged disappearance of his father Odin (The great Sir Anthony Hopkins, casually cashing a fat check). It’s a measure of just how memorable I found The Dark World that I seemed to recall both characters being quite definitively dead at its end – my memory turns hazy when I get bored – only to feign a moment’s mocking disbelief at their unceremonious resurrection here. I’d seen Ragnarok’s promotional materials, after all. Death has traditionally never meant all that much in the superhero realm, and the Thor movies traffic in this sort of metaphysical, trans-dimensional nonsense as a matter of course. Never one to sit still, Thor lumbers off into the cosmos in search of his father, only to find him in a rather unexpected place via equally unexpected means. Their brief conversation neatly closes a bittersweet chapter as it also heralds the coming of the film’s alpha among multiple villains, no less than the as-advertised formidable Goddess of Death, Hela. Cate Blanchett’s multi-faceted, at least 300-degree portrayal – imperious, sadistic, sensual – is chief among Ragnarok’s varied, erratic pleasures, and her seismic introduction leaves Thor humbled, reeling, and weaponless, hurtling down Asgard’s cosmic Autoban after Loki in a frantic attempt at escape. An act of road rage within this inter-dimensional superhighway results in a sharp detour to the alien garbage world of Sakaar, and, after a paint-by-numbers opening third, it’s here that Thor: Ragnarok finally finds its alternately nimble and drunken footing as both the MCU’s most dedicated and unbalanced action-comedy yet.

To the degree that Ragnarok is successful – and if qualifiers like “oddly” and “fitfully” make your heart sing, it is – that success lies in Marvel’s decision to not only perform the personality transplant but to finally fold the newly charming classic lone wolf, who had before stalked heaven, Earth, and beyond with only his miscreant brother off whom to bounce – who had seemed “odd man out” even in the context of The Avengers – into its overarching collaborative strategy. The MCU is, of course, a defiantly shared universe – has been since Nick Fury first risked felony B&E charges to show up on Tony Stark’s couch with a job offer – filled to the brim with chiseled classic beauties and superstar cut-ups, none of whom are particularly shy about co-opting the limelight from time to time to basically all the time. Thor was once a character exclusively of the former vintage, but now that he is also of the latter, it’s of paramount importance to surround him with the right team of strange but sympathetic bedfellows. The planet Sakaar is a scraggly, grungy, edge-of-the-known-universe-style outpost with numerous cinematic precursors, most obviously the Roman Coliseum or Bartertown from the Mad Max universe. Thor is immediately apprehended upon his crash landing and thrust into the devious, oddly genteel clutches of Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster, a fey, power-hungry, attention-deficient svengali presiding over the most hardscrabble fighting pits this side of Thunderdome, who sagely identifies the hobbled deity as a potential world beater. Ragnarok treats the reveal of Thor’s grand champion opponent as the momentous surprise it would’ve been had The Incredible Hulk’s appearance not been spoiled early, often, and repeatedly in its every trailer from announcement to opening day. I wish their relationship worked so well that it justified the hype, but for the most part the two interact like bickering roommates in a buddy comedy. It’s riveting.

What perplexes me about Ragnarok, what, in the end, keeps this merely good movie from becoming a pretty great one, are its wild tonal inconsistencies. Hela’s aim is the complete subjugation of Asgard at the expense of its people, and she is ruthlessly economical in both her decision-making and execution. The twinkle in her eye does not generally match that of Waititi, whose background in sly comedy informs, energizes, and then quickly subsumes his directorial style. In his eyes, there is almost no perilous situation that cannot be lightened up, be it a little or a lot. This is a hit-or-miss strategy in extremis, ensuring consistent, chuckling audience engagement throughout, just so long as the jokes A) actually land as jokes and B) somehow don’t detract from the bigger picture. Comedy is obviously a subjective thing, and I’ll admit to smiling a good deal, though rarely did I cross over into outright laughter. I appreciated the effort greatly – not merely at the scene-stealing Goldblum, clearly having the time of his life as the venal, flustered Grandmaster, but also at Korg, a hilariously polite gladiator creature made of crumbling rock, voiced by Waititi himself – and also reflexively cringed a few times when the action stopped on a dime to accommodate some overwrought one-liner or mild pratfall. They can’t all be zingers, however, making Waititi’s insistence on altering Thor’s heroic trajectory so comprehensively noble but also problematic. It doesn’t help that he is so obviously hemmed in by the larger requirements of the MCU, which afford him a speeding train to pilot as he chooses in the film’s middle third only to run out of track just in time for the standard-issue grand Marvel climax.

Since its inception, Marvel Studios’ chief innovation has been the devaluation and eventual wholesale replacement of the established action auteur at the helm of its movies in favor of quirky artists who can effectively relate to actors and marshal performances. With Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi joins an ever-expanding roster of notable hardasses like Jon Favreau (Swingers, Iron Man), James Gunn (Slither, Guardians of the Galaxy), and the Russo Brothers (Community, Captain America: Civil War). His instinct that what both character and series needed was a spot of levity is completely on point. The tricky part comes from what, in his estimation, exactly constitutes a “spot”. Ragnarok is a fairly dire apocalyptic space opera saturated for a great deal of its running time in broad comedy. If that makes it sound interesting, you’re not wrong. Blanchett’s Hela is in the top percentile of Marvel villainy, as is Goldblum’s Grandmaster. By contrast, the now-lucid Hulk is more often than not a lumbering distraction outside the arena – remember how jarring it was to hear South Park infant MVP Ike Brovlofski suddenly speaking in complete sentences apropos of nothing? – and Loki, finally freed from default MCU villain purgatory, spends much of the movie figuratively crashing on the couch instead of driving any action. From conventional beginnings, in anticipation of a conventional, however engaging, end, Waititi shoehorns a killer Flash Gordon-style serial into the middle third and almost pulls it off. Some of his touches – turning the climax into a tense refugee exodus co-starring a twelve-story-tall attack dog – are deft; some spin an already unbalanced enterprise dangerously close to derailment. Never does the film smoothly become the full-tilt, take no prisoners entertainment that is so clearly its goal, or even settle into a groove sustainable for more than fifteen minutes, or its next hard right turn. Thor: Ragnarok does constitute a fairly radical departure, even for a Marvel formula that has spent the past several movies becomes becoming increasingly less earthbound. In the end, shockingly, it may not have quite been radical enough.

“Thor: Ragnarok” (2017) 2.5/4 stars                                                                                         dae2.5

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