Friday, November 03, 2017

Zaki's Review: Thor: Ragnarok

The last time Chris Hemsworth graced the screen as his muscle-bound alter ego Thor was in Avengers: Age of Ultron nearly two-and-a-half years ago -- practically an eternity in Marvel Cinematic Universe terms. In that time, we’ve seen Captain America and Iron Man square off with one another, Ant-Man and Doctor Strange join the Marvel pantheon, and the Guardians of the Galaxy do more of...whatever it is they were already doing. That’s a lot of plot and characters to juggle, signifying how the multi-platform behemoth that is the MCU has become such a sprawling thing that it’s easy for its foundational characters to get lost in the shuffle.

As such, and with the big Marvel superhero jam pic Avengers: Infinity War right around the corner, the timing was just about right for Marvel's hammer-wielding he-man to make a return engagement via Thor: Ragnarok, the belated third entry in his solo series (after all, his last one was waaaay back in fall of 2013, almost exactly four years ago). Now, a bit more than the adjacent Iron Man and Captain America franchises, the Thor wing of the Marvel Universe has had a bit of problem finding its tonal footing. Sure, the 2011 original directed by Kenneth Branagh did a lot of the heavy lifting of establishing the characters and their world of magic and monsters while situating them within a relatable, fish-out-water, god-meets girl/god-loses girl framework.

It did the job and did it well, but it also couldn't help but feel a bit “small” when you consider the pomp and portent that usually accompanied Thor’s most expansive comic book escapades. Still, when the wheel came back around again a few years later, the Alan Taylor-directed Thor: The Dark World leaned more heavily into the bombastic, mythological, underpinnings of the character while still trying to find room for Natalie Portman as erstwhile love interest Jane Foster and her wacky sidekicks. It was a mixture that never sat comfortably, and set The Dark World off to the side of everything that’s come since in the MCU, including Thor’s prior and subsequent Avengers appearances. 

So that was the lay of the land before Thor’s third solo go. And as such, Ragnarok is tasked with reinventing a series that successful enough to have reached a third installment but still feels somehow underserved when compared with its Marvel franchise fellow travellers. To that end, the MCU braintrust (headed by its own Allfather Odin, producer Kevin Feige) hit on the masterstroke of hiring director Taika Waititi (he of last year’s delightful Hunt for the Wilderpeople) to close out the Thor trilogy, emerging after the extended layover with a film that borrows a tonal page from the Guardians of the Galaxy films, losing some of the romance and depth, but nonetheless managing to be so zippy and fun that you barely have time to notice how inconsequential it all is. 

As this latest installment (the 17th MCU movie, for those of you keeping score) begins, the golden-maned Thunder God is searching for his missing father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), in whose absence their homeworld of Asgard will soon fall under siege by the fabled Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett, modeling the latest in Asgardian Goth with her jet-black hair and black eye shadow). But while her arrival threatens to plunge the universe into chaos, our hero finds himself without his trusty hammer and stranded along with ne’er-do-well adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, in his fourth turn as the God of Mischief) on the far-off planet of Sakaar, where he’s forced to engage in brutal gladiator battles presided over by the enigmatic Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, at his most Jeff Goldblum-iest). 

Of course, who should Thor find on this distant world than his fellow Avengers powerhouse the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, playing both the big brute and his nebbishy alter ego Bruce Banner), who’s been on the planet long enough to become its local champion and decide he rather likes the adulation that comes from being the idol of millions. Still, the Realm Eternal won’t save itself, and Thor must convince the Big Green Guy, as well as the enigmatic Valkyrie (Creed’s Tessa Thompson, replacing the noticeably absent Natalie Portman as Thor’s object de desir), to join him him on his quest for home, where he can beat the baddie and prevent the portentous “Ragnarok” promised by the title.

With this entry’s arrival, there are now three completed “trilogies” within the Marvel Cinematic universe. All are solid, but Captain America's is probably the most qualitatively consistent overall. Meanwhile Iron Man started stronger than it ended, and Thor does the reverse. With Ragnarok, the filmmakers feel unchained by the need to establish the parameters of the world -- if you’re this many flicks deep, it's a safe bet you've already done the homework -- and thus focus on making the film as much of a romp as they can. However, unlike other effects-heavy spectacles such as the laborious fifth Transformers last summer, we actually have enough of a care about the characters to enjoy watching the ball advance even as the story feels a little thin.

What's clear is how heavily Waititi was influenced by the fantasy and effects pictures of the ‘80s like The Beastmaster and The Neverending Story, right down to composer Mark Mothersbaugh practically channeling Giorgio Moroder’s synth-heavy score for the latter (and mad props, by the way, for the liberal sprinkling of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” on the soundtrack). Waititi has created an unlikely buddy pairing with his two heavy-hitting heroes that makes their banter just as much fun to watch as the smashy-smashy stuff. Hemsworth holds his own, exhibiting a dry humor along with the comfort of having inhabited this part for five flicks over six years, but I need to give it up to Ruffalo, who not only practicallys steal the movie out from under Hemsworth, but showcases new and interesting sides of both Banner and Hulk that feel new and refreshing.

From Hemsworth and Ruffalo to Thompson, Goldblum and Blanchett (not to mention Karl Urban as axe-wielding henchman Skurge), there’s not a weak link in the cast. And while Thor: Ragnarok is a solid 130 minutes, it feels like half that, whirring and humming along like the practiced piece of franchise machinery that it is. Another rock solid entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, it would have benefited from the heavier moments having more weight, the stakes feeling more real, and maybe even a little romance to liven up the proceedings, but it still winds to a conclusion that feels like a nice culmination of the journey begun with the first Thor in 2011. Next up: Infinity War next May. A-

For more Thor: Ragnarok talk including plenty of spoilers, plus plenty of other conversation on all the latest out of Hollywood, check out the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below:

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