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Saturday, November 11, 2017

Review- Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok (2017): Written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost, and directed by Taika Waititi.  Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, and Anthony Hopkins.  Running Time: 130 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            Thor: Ragnarok is the Marvel movie I’ve been waiting for my entire life.  While I am no doubt sure that, one day, someone very talented will take the legends of a space Viking and his lightning hammer, or the antics of a man with a shrinking suit, or the big green one, and create a very searing, dramatic, artistic examination of the human psyche, let’s not pretend that was ever what Marvel characters were meant to be.  And such serious angles have never been what make the Marvel movies fun to experience.  The more tongue-in-cheek the MCU is, the more colorful it is, the more focused on just how damn charming its cast is, the better it is, and with Thor: Ragnarok, this extended Disney branding exercise reaches a particular height it’s otherwise only achieved in the first Avengers movie and both Guardians of the Galaxy features.

            I don’t need Oscar-worthy acting.  I don’t need a script filled with gravitas.  I don’t want the brown pallet of most modern action movies.  Give me a handful of lead characters dripping with charisma and chemistry, with a campy-as-all-hell villain strutting up and down every piece of scenery handed to her.  Give me a vibrant color pallet presented via gorgeous cinematography and production design.  Give me a head-pounding score, with a few choice rock classics thrown in for good measure.  And give me the laughs and the one-liners.  Oh, give me all the one-liners. 

            I may be one of the few people left on Earth who actually thought The Dark World was not only better than the first Thor movie, but was (at the time) one of the best Marvel movies to date.  At the very least, it started to move sharply away from the more serious, tedious world-building of previous MCU films and started to embrace much more of the camp that makes all these various genre films feel a part of the same universe.  Ragnarok takes that shift and pumps its veins full of acid, spinning away from the past Thor movies so hard and so fast that it very nearly threatens to fall out of the MCU entirely and into a parallel dimension where Jeff Goldblum succeeded in becoming the Greek God he was clearly meant to be. 

            More than anything else, this film’s pacing sets it up right from the start for success- we are briskly reminded that Thanos is out there, there are infinity stones that need finding, and we get a short (but excellent) cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange, but what little we need to know is explained quickly and let be so that we can get right to the fun times.  Pretty much every previous character from the franchise is summarily dropped- Natalie Portman and her coterie have been excised, and aside from Idris Elba (who remains one of the most underappreciated side actors in the entire MCU), the few Asgardians we knew from the past are killed when Thor’s long-banished sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett as Reverse Galadriel), returns to lay claim to the throne and launch war upon the universe.   

            Thor and Loki’s initial encounter with her goes disastrously- Thor loses his hammer and both find themselves cast into a parallel world ruled over by an absolutely delicious Jeff Goldblum, who’s so good he only fails to be the best new villain in the Marvel MCU by virtue of the fact that Cate Blanchett is also in this movie.  They soon find new allies- Tessa Thompson as a long-lost Asgardian warrior and Bruce Banner (who’s been stuck in Hulk form since Age of Ultron)- and have to fight their way out of enslavement and back to Asgard in order to prevent Ragnarok, the end of the world.   

            This movie is one of the best examples this year of the principle that the journey is always better than the destination, and that sticking to a time-honored, predictable formula is no problem as long as you do it right.  There are no big twists or attempts to make the film be more than what it is.  It just is.  Chris Hemsworth is as impossibly handsome and rogueish as ever, Tom Hiddleston is still having way too much fun with his life, and their chemistry with each other is so perfectly fine-tuned by now, I wouldn’t complain if they canceled the rest of the MCU (except Black Panther, obviously) and just let them both star in buddy comedies till they die, or bodily ascend to Valhalla. 

            They are balanced out by Mark Ruffalo giving two remarkable performances as both the aggressive Hulk and the mild-mannered Banner, as well as Thompson’s wounded and surly ex-Valkyrie, who better damn well get something to do in the next Avengers movie.  Even Karl Urban is finally back in a big picture as Skurge, a skeevy, opportunistic Asgardian who decides (slightly reluctantly) to hitch his wagon to the Hela Train as a means to wealth and power.    

            It’s amazing just how much detail is packed into every shot of the film.  Yes, the CGI use is extremely heavily utilized, but it’s gorgeous, detail-packed CGI, with a bounty of great character designs and a breezy, drive-by quality in how it takes us past one fascinating visual or new idea after another, but never bogging itself down trying to have it all make sense.  The new bits of the world we need to know about are explained, and those we don’t need to know about aren’t, which, in the best tradition of hint-don’t-tell, allows this film to be a fun, riveting, tightly-packed adventure that still feels like only a part of a larger universe, one that we may get to revisit in the future if we are so lucky.   

            The Gladiator-style planet Thor and Loki initially fall into is a perfect example of this; pretty much every other character, be it a named one or some extra in the corner of the shot, has a completely different costume design and look, with a thousand different styles and color schemes all intermingling on the screen.  And with each shot of a crowd or a street, I couldn’t help but remind myself that, whether what we’re seeing it CGI or not, someone still had to sit down and come up with each of the bonkers designs we see.  It’s the sort of obsessive effort that also made the luscious visuals of Valerian something to behold, but without the unequal acting that dragged that otherwise fascinating work down from the heights it sought to reach. 

            There will be many people wringing their hands over the lack of any real depth or variation to the story, or the fact that once again we’re given a villain below Iago-levels of complexity, or that yes, this movie is more about getting every laugh it can than about making you believe that the adventures of Space Argonauts matter in a broader societal sense.  I feel sorry for those people, for their lives must be dank, dark, and miserable indeed.  For Thor: Ragnarok is, put quite simply, fun as all hell.  It’s the most fun and hardest laughs I’ve had at the theater this year, and in these dark times there is a power and value in that that we underestimate at our own peril. 

            You may disagree.  You may want something else from your comic book movie.  And that’s okay.  I don’t, and now that Thor: Ragnarok has given me what I always wanted, I never will. 

-Noah Franc 

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