Thor: RagnarokReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/02/17 11:00:34
(Worth A Look)
Thor may be the God of Thunder in the pages of the comic books but on the big screen, he has, to be frank, been a bit of a dud. As one of the players in the Avengers movies, he has largely existed to provide ballast while the other characters have gotten the fun stuff or the more dramatic beats. As for his solo ventures, “Thor” (2011) and “Thor: The Dark World” (2013), they have proven to be so profoundly boring and unnecessary that the only thing that I can immediately remember about either of them is that they somehow managed to give co-star Natalie Portman material so thin and substandard that it made the stuff she had to work with in the “Star Wars” prequels seem deep and fully fleshed-out by comparison. It seems that even the Marvel machine realized at some point that his screen adventures, while lucrative, were not exactly inspiring and decided that they could afford to go in a different direction without alienating the fanboy contingent too badly, starting with the unexpected hire of director Taika Waititi, a filmmaker from New Zealand known for the low-budget cult comedies “What We Do In the Shadows” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” Oftentimes, when an indie filmmaker of his type gets hired on to head a blockbuster behemoth, most of the unique personality that they displayed in those earlier efforts gets excised along the way so that the final product is indistinguishable from others. Here, Waititi has apparently been more or less given free rein and the end result, “Thor: Ragnarok,” is all the better for it, a cheerfully goof work that both embodies and spoofs the superhero movie subgenre and allows us, at long last (and with apologies to Randy Newman), to finally laugh at this mighty Thor.The goofiness begins right away with the opening scene that finds Thor dangling in chains over a fiery chasm on some distant planet at the hands of some vicious demigod who is planning to destroy his home planet of Asgard as part of a prophecy known as Ragnarok. However, the dangling causes Thor to slowly rotate, forcing him to interrupt his own speech whenever his back is to the beast. Nevertheless, Thor handily defeats the beast (which is not exactly a spoiler since there would hardly be a film otherwise) but when he returns to Asgard, he finds that things are somewhat off, most notably the fact that his evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who supposedly died a semi-heroic death in the previous film, not only survived but is in charge of the planet instead of their now-absent father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). The two set off to track him down and when they do find him in Norway, he has two disturbing bits of news for them. First, he is dying. Second, and much worse, his death will bring about the return of Thor and Loki’s heretofore unknown sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), who is better known as the Goddess of Death.
Hela arrives on schedule and as advertised and in the ensuing chaos, Thor eventually lands on the planet Sakaar and the audience lands in the most inspired section of the film. This is a world ruled by a dictator known as The Grandmaster and it should say a lot about the attitude of the film as a whole when I tell you that this particular despot is played by none other than Jeff Goldblum at his Jeff Goldblumiest. Riffing and scatting as only he can—including threatening underlings with his “melting stick” and referring to Thor as “Sparkles” at one point—while presiding over the never-ending gladiatorial battle that Sakaar society evidently revolves around, he kills so much that when Thor’s opponent in the ring turns out to be none other than Hulk (Mark Ruffallo), who has been missing in action since the last “Avengers” film, even the hardcore comic book geeks may wish that they could focus on him for just a little bit longer. However, Hela is continuing to wreak havoc and once Thor and Hulk make it out of the arena (again, you cannot possibly consider this to be a spoiler), they, along with Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), the lone wolf renegade who initially captured Thor and sold him to The Grandmaster, and a reluctant Loki, band together to try to stop Hela from fulfilling her destiny and destroying Asgard and, inevitably, the universe as well.
Presumably emboldened by the huge grosses of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise, Waititi has given us a film that somehow manages to combine the over-the-top special effects and elaborate action set pieces that are de rigueur for the genre with the quirky and offbeat humor of his earlier films. Take the opening sequence between Thor and that demigod hellbent or whatever—it contains all the required elements for a scene of its type but then adds enough humor (including a particularly inspired soundtrack choice) to let us know that this is going to be the rare superhero movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The effects are sufficiently spectacular but it is the byplay between the players that really shines—they all manage to find just the right approach to their performances that shows that they are all in on the joke without ever coming across as condescending to the material. Hell, the film even manages to contrive to give the character of Thor an actual personality, something that I would have thought to be impossible at this stage of the game—Hemsworth is genuinely likable this time around and once again demonstrates an unexpected flair for comedy that will probably wind up serving him more in the long run than the chiseled good looks. (There are also a few amusing cameos on hand as well and if anyone you know chooses to reveal them to you before you get a chance to see the film, I recommend that you seriously question that particular relationship.)
Unfortunately, “Thor: Ragnarok” has two problems that keep it from landing in the top tier of superhero films alongside the likes of the original “Superman” and the Christopher Nolan Batman films. One is the fact that once the action leaves Sakaar and heads back to Asgard for the big confrontation between Thor and Hela for the final section, things begin to sag as the energizing weirdo humor is mostly put to the side for the inevitable orgy of visual effects that has pretty much come to define the climactic acts of films of this genre. All this stuff is reasonably well handled by Waititi, which is impressive when you realize that he has probably made entire movies for less than the amount it most likely cost to fund a day or two of this, but it lacks the fizzy energy of what came before it. The other is the same problem that has dogged too many of the recent string of superhero epics—the lack of a suitably impressive villain. The idea of Cate Blanchett as the all-powerful Goddess of Death sounds like a slam dunk in theory but the character is just another run-of-the-mill seemingly impossible-to-overcome entity without any particular flair or style to speak of and to set them apart from the rest. You would think that Blanchett could infuse the character with some kind of personality—that is presumably why she was hired in the first place—but the character is so thoroughly augmented with CGI that we might has well be watching a cartoon character utilizing her voice instead of her.So “Thor: Ragnarok” may not go down as one of the great superhero films of all time and it may not even ultimately reach the heights of this year’s “Wonder Woman” (which also had problems with the lack of a memorable villain and a finale that reverted to the usual fights and explosions after offering something genuinely fresh for most of its running time). However, when compared to the vast majority of recent films of its type and especially put up against the previous Thor-related enterprise, it comes as a genuine and welcome surprise. As someone who has grown increasingly weary of such things, I liked the way that Waititi was able to adorn the standard formula with welcome bursts of self-mocking humor so that it came across as fun and lugubrious. It even brought me to the point where the notion of another Thor film, assuming it went along the same path as this one, for once sounds more pleasurable than painful. Better yet, if Marvel can spin off a few zillion dollars for a spinoff film centered around Jeff Goldblum—hell, even just a documentary of him wandering around behind the scenes commenting wryly on all he sees—I, for one, would be eternally grateful.
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