Sunday 5 November 2017

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) - Movie Review

I never thought I would get to this point but I think I’m starting to get burnt out on all these Marvel movies. I’ve mentioned before how much I love superhero and comic book inspired films, and I still stand by all of that, but as more time passes, I’m beginning to realize that my zeal to see these films in the cinema has severely diminished. Yeah, I’ve still seen all of the MCU to date, but I ended up getting to some of them like Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming far later than I would have expected. Whether it’s down to the sheer volume of releases per year, the fact that all of them are interconnected so that they all need to be seen to get the full experience, or just down to me discovering other sub-genres that interest me more, some part of my subconscious is hesitant to keep seeing these. Not that it should be; I mean, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 is still an astounding work, Homecoming gave us the first real Spider-Man movie and even Doctor Strange has some of the greatest effects work I’ve ever seen full stop.
So, yeah, maybe it’s less that I’m losing my love for these films and more that they are starting to feel more like work. No change there then, honestly. Anyway, enough waffle; time to get into this latest MCU offering that seems to be taking the franchise in a different direction. A very weird direction.

The plot: The goddess of death Hela (Cate Blanchett) has returned to Asgard, set to fulfill the prophecy of Ragnarok and destroy everything in her way. Unfortunately, a newly-reunited Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) are stuck on the trash planet Sakaar, with Thor being forced to participate in gladiatorial matches set up by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Thor has to make it back to Asgard, hopefully with Loki and a few old friends in tow, and stop Ragnarok.

I don’t think Chris Hemsworth as Thor has ever been as engaging as he is here. Wearing cocky pride like a champion, he really gets a chance to show off his comedic timing here and it makes for a damn effective lead role. Hiddleston is much the same, rounding off what could be considered his character’s arc to bring him warmly into the Marvel fold in terms of antiheroes. Tessa Thompson is made of awesome here as Valkyrie, the hard-drinking, taketh no shits, giveth no fucks warrior. Not only is this damn refreshing to see in a female lead, her dialogue with Thor highlights the real power behind equal representation for action leads; it succeeds and shows why others should as well.
Blanchett as Hela is Hela good, having all the fun on screen as this incredibly chaotic villain. Goldblum brings the kind of bizarre magnetism older audiences have come to expect from the guy, Idris Elba gets to flex some serious badassery as the leader of the resistance against Hela, Karl Urban gives us hilarity and stone-cold bravado with equal efficiency, Mark Ruffalo reminds everyone what we’ve been missing over the last couple years without his turn as the Hulk and Stan Lee as a crazed hairdresser… honestly, do I need to elaborate on that?
Of course, there’s a couple of weird spots in the cast, all for the good though: Clancy Brown fits perfectly as the fire demon Surtur, Rachel House makes a return from Hunt For The Wilderpeople as essentially the same brand of watchably malicious as the Grandmaster's chief of security, Sam Neill, Luke Hemsworth and Matt “I shit you not” Damon get a very funny sequence all to themselves that seems to mock everything Thor has done in his last two films, and director Taika Waititi appears in a strangely effective role as a gladiator that Thor befriends in the barracks.

And speaking of Waititi, between this and Wilderpeople, I am growing increasingly convinced that the man can do wrong. Holy hell, does this film look incredible. Waititi and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (Blue Jasmine, Goosebumps, The Promise) give this wide and expansive feel to what we’re seeing, from the ancient halls of Asgard to the trash planet situated below The Devil’s Anus (oh, we’ll get to that in a second), complete with some very inventive camerawork in the fight scenes. The CGI can get obvious a few too many times, but with how fluid the pacing is both in narrative and action, it becomes something that only becomes noticeable if you’re actively looking for it. You can see why I picked up on it.
Frankly, it’s way more interesting to see the garish sets, especially when the locales are explicitly used for both comedy and tragedy to this extent. However, real respect is due for the soundtrack by Mark Mothersbaugh, easily the most Devo he’s sounded in a long-ass time. The deliciously retro synths add to the highly stylised visuals to create a natural continuation to the 80’s nostalgia of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. Except here, somehow, it's even goofier.

Between the involvement of the reigning king of social cringe in Waititi and the aforementioned Devil’s Anus, it should be clear that this is going to be a bit of a departure from the MCU norm. It’s a departure for the better, though, as this is without a doubt the funniest film Marvel has produced to date. The comedy here deals in Waititi’s wheelhouse of embarrassing conversations, only it’s expanded to the nth degree. Some of the humour is motivated by the setting, like Thor’s introductory conversation with Surtur while tied up in chains or the colour scheme of the Grandmaster’s housing, while some of it is generated by the events, like Dr. Banner seeing how much Sakaar loves the Hulk.
But the huge bulk of it comes from the characters and their relationships with each other. Every character pairing generates ample joke material, pretty much all of which is taken advantage of, and it even dips into the series’ history in a few sequences. I’ll put it this way: This is the first time Loki and the Hulk have seen each other since the Hulk laid the mother of all smackdowns on Loki back in the first Avengers film. Hiddleston sells that tension perfectly and it’s the biggest belly laugh I’ve gotten out of any superhero film in years.

Not that it’s all smiles and laughs, though; along with a fresh take on overall direction in terms of comedy, it also heads into new territory dramatically. Now, initially, the film’s two main plots feel way out of whack with each other. On one hand, Hela is priming to destroy all of Asgard and likely spread out from there. On the other hand, you have Thor and the Hulk fighting in an alien arena. It definitely feels off, almost like the writers had one too many ideas for the story… and then, they both come together in a seriously impressive way.
And it all starts with Led Zeppelin, a key feature of the sizzle reel that got Waititi the director’s chair here in the first place. Their song from the trailer is used to bookend the film, used in the two major fight scenes, and while I would get annoyed at it being used this liberally, that would detract from how much of the main conceit of the film it conveys. For a start, the song is about Vikings; it makes too much sense that it’s being used here at all. As the Asgard story continues, and we get more of an idea of just how malicious Odin was when first establishing his kingdom, it becomes clear that the old ways are over. Odin went all New Testament and Hela won’t let anyone forget both his and her actions in creating Asgard as it stands in the story. Without dipping too deep into spoilers, let’s just say that that Led Zeppelin song ‘Immigrant Song’ takes on a whole new meaning as everything comes together, our main characters rediscover their true essences, and the future of Asgard takes form.

All in all… I’m really starting to regret saying that I was getting burnt out on these films. Ragnarok is an insanely funny ride, full of new and returning actors all on their A game, a superhuman understanding of how every aspect of production can lend itself to humour, and an overall story about shedding the old ways and pressing forward to new horizons with bits of colonial commentary; between this and the game-changing moments of Spider-Man: Homecoming, it seriously looks like the MCU is shifting around for the better. Here’s hoping Infinity War lives up to this level of build-up.

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