Review: 'Thor: Ragnarok'

Thursday, November 2, 2017

And So He Strikes—Like Thunnn-der-baaalll!!!

2017 / USA / 130 min. / Directed by Taika Waititi / Opens in wide release on Nov. 3, 2017

Andrew Wyatt

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has always had an irreverent side, going back to the feature that started the whole multi-media merchandising colossus, Iron Man (2008). As inhabited by Robert Downey Jr., war profiteer-turned-hero Tony Stark riddles friends and foes alike with volleys of disarming snark. However, Iron Man's solo features are about the pleasure of watching Downey direct his deadpan shtick at the rest of the world. The star, not the film itself, supplies the attitude. Other early MCU features played with fish out-of-water gags (Thor in 2011) and hangout tomfoolery (The Avengers in 2012), but Marvel Studios didn’t quite find a bona fide action-comedy groove until Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), which turned the comic publisher’s more obscure ‘cosmic’ heroes into the Bad News Bears of a kooky space opera.

The Guardians formula—sharp comic acting, wacky characters, locker room antics, subverted expectations—has subsequently leached into other MCU films, generally to the benefit of the mega-franchise. To date, Ant-Man (2015) and this summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming constituted the most noticeable instances of this ‘Guardians-ification’ phenomenon, but Thor: Ragnarok might be its most unambiguous exemplar yet. Certainly, the Thor entries are the solo films that were in deepest need of a dash of zaniness. While conceptually cartoonish, the God of Thunder’s two previous features harbored some of the self-seriousness of the high fantasy genre. Even after several films’ worth of humbling encounters, actor Chris Hemsworth’s take on Thor—who remains a bit of a hot-headed jock with a compulsion for dick-measuring—could still stand to be taken down a few pegs.

Enter New Zealand director Taika Waititi. His endearing but relatively small-bore dramedies Boy (2010) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) couldn’t be further afield from the CGI spectacle of the Marvel juggernaut. However, the Waititi joint that one can discern in Thor: Ragnarok—and likely the feature that got the part-Māori filmmaker the job—was his hit 2014 vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows. The odd special effect notwithstanding, Shadows is a shaggy indie comedy at bottom, one that gleans much of its humor from turning undead fiends into needy, oblivious sad sacks. Granted, the third Thor feature is scripted by a trio of veteran superhero television and film writers: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost. Their screenplay is rich in genre savviness and situational silliness, but Waititi’s stamp is discernable in the way the film wittily humanizes its hero, presenting a God of Thunder who is plagued with self-doubt about his abilities, privilege, and worldview. Ragnarok might not be the auteurist MCU film the world is (still) waiting for, but it hits a sweet spot between flashy adolescent fun and engaging characterization, at least where the principal heroes are concerned.

Much like the earlier Thor solo features, Ragnarok isn’t quite so deeply embedded as other Marvel films in the sprawling MCU mythos. The plot of Waititi’s feature builds primarily on the events of Thor and Thor: The Dark World, with a dash of Bruce Banner’s arc from Age of Ultron. Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) makes an appearance, but it’s largely just to push the hero along to his next destination—and to provide a rare occasion for the God of Thunder to look like a hopeless schlemiel. Hardcore devotees of the MCU’s arcana will be pleased that Ragnarok fills in some stray blanks, such as why Thor sat out last year’s Civil War. It turns out that the mighty hero has been plagued by dreams of Asgard’s fiery fall, and he has accordingly been zipping around the Nine Realms, attempting to head off any looming evil forces before they gather too much strength. In the film’s opening, he stymies the apocalyptic ambitions of the volcanic Surtur (Clancy Brown), king of the fire giants. However, the more insidious threat lies closer to home.

Thor’s adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is still sitting on Asgard’s throne, using magic to pose as their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Thor finally sees through the God of Mischief’s illusion, only to learn that Odin has gone into seclusion on Earth to live out his few remaining days. Unfortunately, the Allfather’s imminent demise will free Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, who also happens to be Odin’s firstborn child and Thor and Loki's sister. (The brothers’ shock at this news, which reads as “Why are we just now hearing about this?”, seems to anticipate the audience’s reaction.) Hela, who resembles a goth-tinged femme fatale from a Heavy Metal cover, pops by the moment Odin passes on to the golden, sparkly hereafter. She summarily tosses Thor and Loki into a wormhole and seizes Asgard, all without so much as breaking a sweat. For good measure, she shatters Thor’s magic warhammer Mjolnir into smoldering bits.

Thor lands on the cosmic scrapheap planet Sakaar, where he is quickly snatched up by a drunken scavenger (Tessa Thompson) and sold into slavery. Sakaar’s oddball dictator, Jeff Goldblum (Jeff Goldblum), has a taste for gladiator games, and is perpetually seeking fresh challengers to pit against his champion. Thor’s impossible path is thusly laid out before him: survive the games, escape the planet, return to Asgard, and somehow defeat an invincible death deity who commands an army of zombies and the Tyrannosaurus-sized wolf, Fenris. Meanwhile, the exiled, all-seeing Asgardian Heimdall (Idris Elba) is waging a one-man guerilla resistance against Hela and the warrior Skurge (Karl Urban), newly appointed as the guardian of the dimensional gateway Bifrost.

Ragnarok has roughly the same plot as the first Thor feature, only with much nastier odds stacked against the God of Thunder. A powerful, malevolent despot again threatens Asgard, only this time the banished Thor hasn’t merely been separated from Mjonir: His hammer has been irrevocably destroyed. Fortunately, the screenwriters are canny enough not to replicate the first film’s arc beat for beat. Thor already proved his worthiness to wield Mjolnir two features ago, and learned some needed lessons about power, responsibility, and humility along the way. Ragnarok gives him more straightforward, physically lethal challenges to overcome, as well as tests of leadership befitting the once and future king of Asgard. Namely, Thor is obliged to play the rabble-rousing persuader, winning Sakaar’s scum and villainy over to his admittedly hopeless cause. His reluctant recruits include: Thompson’s boozing ex-battle-maiden, who fills the Han Solo antihero role; Karg (Waititi via motion-capture), an azure rock monster with a winningly mild disposition; brother Loki, who has managed to insinuate himself into Jeff Goldblum's court; and the arena champion himself, who (to the surprise of no one who has seen Ragnarok’s trailer) turns out to be Thor's long-lost fellow Avenger, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).

Humor alone doesn’t sustain Ragnarok, but it’s the primary reason the film is such a rollicking good time. Over the past few years, Hemsworth has refined his take on the meathead Thunder God quite marvelously, allowing him to nimbly and credibly shift through Thor’s various modes: glowering warrior, strutting jock, and grinning goofball. The whole cast is in fine form, although Waititi’s Karg is a singular pleasure, as is Ruffalo when a shell-shocked Bruce Banner eventually re-emerges. Crucially, the film’s deadpan levity acts to minimize the monotony that attends the wearying digital mayhem of monsters, starships, and explosions. Indeed, it often lends the film the rhythm of its original comic book source material, in which strikingly rendered violence is punctuated by quips, gibes, and the odd Olympian boast. There are even some genuinely amusing meta-jokes, including a couple involving a ridiculous propaganda play staged at Loki’s behest. (The subtlest gag is nestled within the stunt casting of Matt Damon as the hammy Asgardian actor who portrays Loki. Dogma, anyone?)

The Thor films have always been indebted to the striking, fantastical Silver Age artwork of Marvel visionary Jack Kirby, but Ragnarok takes the cinematic Asgardian saga to a new level of cosmic nuttiness. Taking a cue from writer and artist Walt Simonson’s iconic run on the comic in the 1980s, production designers Dan Hennah and Ra Vincent emphasize the gaudier, weirder science fiction elements of the setting. The “Art Deco Tolkein” look that has already been established for Asgard itself is still in evidence, but elsewhere the film’s design reflects the disco kitsch of Flash Gordon (1980) and the surreal album artwork of 1970s prog rock bands like Yes and Van Der Graaf Generator. Sakaar is an especially bizarre creation, equal parts Mumbai, Rome, Studio 54, and District 9. Mark Mothersbaugh’s propulsive synth score fits the film’s visual aesthetic perfectly, with its relentless bleeping and thumping delightfully suggesting a space shooter video game.

Most of the weaknesses one expects of an MCU entry are dutifully accounted for in Ragnarok. The chaotic, CGI-drenched action sequences are eye-popping in the moment, but leave virtually no lasting impression. The screenplay is dismally reliant on the same cluster of Daddy Issues that crop up in every other Marvel film. The storytelling has the familiar elements that are now firmly entrenched as part of the studio’s house formula: three or four major locations, nebulous MacGuffins, and a villain whose ambitions never rise above destruction for its own sake. There is an obligatory epic battle in the third act, although Ragnarok subverts this MCU standby a bit by concluding with a twist on the usual apocalyptic devastation.

While Ragnarok’s story is mostly superhero boilerplate, the screenplay does subject the characters to a bit more ruin and bloodshed than one might expect. Over the course of the film, the God of Thunder is not merely enslaved, pummeled, humiliated, and stripped of his legendary weapon—he's permanently disfigured by Hela’s enchanted blades. (He's also repeatedly and painfully electrocuted by his captors, which doesn't make a lot of sense for a thunder deity.) It’s bold but dramatically sensible to reduce a celestial champion like Thor to such a vulnerable state, forever robbing him of both his defining possession and his physical flawlessness. Early in the film, Hela’s brutality is conclusively demonstrated by the offhanded way she fatally dispatches Asgard’s ‘Warriors Three’: Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Zachary Levi), and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano). Hogun is at least afforded an opportunity to stand and fight—perhaps as compensation for his marginal role in The Dark World—but the others barely get a line in before they perish. (Fortunately, Lady Sif is nowhere to be found, so she at least is spared a similarly cruel end.)

Ultimately, the most unexpected and intriguing element that crops up in Ragnarok is its theme of forgotten imperial horror, as embodied in the bloody saga of Asgardian conquest that Odin had sought to erase from history. (Perhaps coincidentally, Waititi is the first MCU director of indigenous descent.) Beneath Asgard's enchanted frescoes of valorous deeds is a nastier narrative in which the Allfather and Hela rampaged through the cosmos, dominating entire worlds. For all her wickedness, Hela seems more clear-eyed than the heroes when she gestures to the gilded vastness of Asgard’s throne room, scoffing “Where did you think all this gold came from?” Indeed, Ragnarok partly concerns Thor’s overdue need to reckon with the formative atrocity and plunder that made his father’s kingdom possible. Finally face-to-face with this suppressed and shameful history of violent subjugation, it’s perhaps understandable that the hot-blooded deity’s reaction is one of anarchic revulsion: Burn it all down.

Rating: B