Sunday, November 5, 2017

Peak Pop Culture - Thor: Ragnarok, Reviewed

I pity the person whose first exposure to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Taika Waititi's Thor:Ragnarok; there is a real risk of someone looking at, oh. let's say, next year's Infinity War and asking, "Hey, were did all the colour go? And the dialogue? And why does it sound like everyone is just saying lines?" Some directors refresh a franchise by perhaps moving the goalposts, but Waititi has redefined the sport.

Coming from a series of low-budget New Zealand comedies like the brilliant What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Waititi probably seemed like a risky choice for a multi-million dollar event move like the third installment of Thor. But where someone like Kenneth Branagh sought to reframe Thor as a Shakespearean family drama with larger-than-life characters and fantastic settings, Waititi instead displays an uncanny knack for seeing ways in which the intrinsic weirdness of being a mythologically-inspired space-Viking (or flat-dwelling vampire) could play out amongst real human interactions.

And he does all of this while bringing together a number of Abramsverse Star Trek alumni (Chris Hemsworth, Idris Elba, Karl Urban, Benedict Cumberbatch) and a couple of big names from Lord of the Rings (Cate Blanchett and Karl Urban (again). Between this and a sprinkling of excellent cameos on top of the obligatory Stan Lee, and you have a movie which is at once hilariously self aware and completely indifferent to itself.

Thor quickly moves to resolve Loki's usurping of Odin's throne from the end of The Dark World, but this turn of events unleashes their sister Hela, the Goddess of Death, portrayed by the ever-amazing Cate Blanchett with equal parts lethality and sultriness. A battle on the Bifrost leaves Thor stranded on an alien planet surrounded by wormholes, centered on a gladiatorial arena and overseen by the Grandmaster, Jeff Goldblum in what may be his Goldblummiest role to date. Valkyrie, a fellow Asgardian captures Thor for the Grandmaster, and the God of Thunder is sent to the arena.

It is in this arena that Thor encounters his fellow Avenger the Hulk, as well as Korg, a Kronan with a rock-like hide who provides equal parts comic relief and exposition. All Thor must do to triumph is survive a fight against one of the strongest creatures in the universe, win over two people who hate him, escape servitude and figure out how to get off of a hostile planet and return to battle Hela, who grows stronger the longer she remains in Asgard.

Did I like everything about Thor:Ragnarok? Yeah, well, nah, as Korg might say. Some long-established characters are dispensed with fairly early on in an almost cavalier fashion, which I found regrettable, and the absence of Natalie Portman's character Jane Foster is barely addressed at all. This is offset to some degree though, by some excellent fanservice for those who enjoy either comics or Norse mythology.

As you may have heard, the movie is a laugh riot, working just as well as a comedy as it does as an action adventure. Improvisation was encouraged on the set, resulting in dialogue that feels loose, easy and very natural, and which also gave us more scenes with Korg, played by Waititi himself and based on the massive but delicately-voiced Polynesian bouncers of his homeland. In terms of tone, Ragnarok takes its queues less from Shakespeare or the eddas and sagas, and more from films like Midnight Run and Big Trouble in Little China.

Hemsworth has demonstrated tremendous comedic potential before but here is finally given the chance to really make us laugh, but never at the expense of the integrity of the character. Also, he put on 20 pounds of muscle for the movie and looks absolutely enormous in some of the shots.

Ragnarok has a lot of fun pointing out the innate silliness of the tropes of comic books and comic book movies, but its all done with a clear love for the genre, and the pokes are balanced out with a handful of strategically placed smaller moments the emphasize the intrinsic humanity of these god-like beings.

The best example of this is probably the interaction between Chris Hemsworth's Thor and Tom Hiddleston's Loki, which for me, is one of the most realistic depictions of siblings onscreen since Simon and Simon. There is also a greater range of emotions for Hiddleston to play with, rounding out Loki's naturally conniving nature with a couple moments of genuine surprise and some fairly touching scenes as a son and a sibling.

Cate Blanchett is a better villain than we have come to expect from the MCU, and hopefully this will see them turning the corner and moving away from two-dimensional, unrelatable baddies. A decade-and-a-half since playing Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, Blanchett's Hela has a lot going for her: the woman scorned, the overlooked sibling, and conquest-hungry would-be ruler. No one has told her that she is pushing 50 either, because she carries herself with all the intensity of that elf-queen while still holding her own end in several knock-down drag out fights in the Mighty Marvel Manner. Best of all, she tempers it with a veneer of modernity, sass, and dark humor.

The best thing about Ragnarok for me though, is just how bold it looks. The colour palette is vivid and inventive, and every setting from the fire giants' land of Muspelheim to a fight inside the Bifrost to the streets around the arena of Sakaar is dialled up to 11. Instead of the uniform, practical and humanocentric armour and costumes that have begun to look ubiquitous in modern sci-fi and fantasy films, the helmets, outfits and protective gear of the denizens of Sakaar look like they came from an actual comic book, probably drawn by Jack Kirby or maybe Steve Rude. The filmmakers appear to be less worried about how practical these outfits are and more concerned about how they look, and what they tell the audience about who is wearing them. And it's about time! The psychedelic colours, asymmetric spaceship engines, and unwieldy weapons are all a breath of fresh air.

A strong 80s vibe permeates Ragnarok as well, from the heroic fanfares in the  synth-heavy soundtrack to the Nagel t-shirt that features prominently for a while.It also marks the rare and effective use of LEd Zeppelin on not just one, but two occasions, which is clearly cause for rejoicing.

In addition to looking and sounding bold, Waititi also uses Ragnarok in a bold manner, one intent on  upsetting the status quo, in clear violation of the age-old comics and franchise mandate of "when you are done with the toys, put them back the way you found them". Eric Pearson, who wrote a number of the beloved Marvel One-Shot shorts, has crafted a screenplay that cleverly addresses mysteries from past movies while careening along on a madcap road-movie/buddy picture of Olymp- sorry, Asgardian proportions, but takes Thor's story in some bold new directions. Many of these angles have been explored in the comics, but some seem entirely new, and for a character who has often struggled in terms of his won definition, this is by no means a bad thing.

Unlike the last installment, Thor: Ragnarok will undoubtedly many viewers wondering what's next for the God of Thunder (and many of his new companions), and thankfully, as I write this, Infinity War is only (checks watch) 181 days away.

1 comment:

  1. While not a perfect film, I thought this was pretty delightful, and your highs and lows pretty much mirror mine. I hope Waititi gets to direct another Marvel film at some point - he really is a breath of fresh air, and I adore Korrg.