Friday, 27 October 2017

IN THEATRES: Thor - Ragnarok

After he is ejected from Asgard during a battle with Hella (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) finds himself stranded on a strange world of scavengers, gladiatorial combat and Jeff Goldblum. Teaming up with the Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Thor has to come up with a plan to escape and save Asgard from Hella's wrath.

This movie is awesome.

I was not a fan of the previous Thor movies -- they were a bit all over the place, and the character never made sense as the centre of attention - he always seemed to fit better as a straight man to the Avengers. But right from the announcement, everything about this movie sounded awesome: the premise; the director; the cast (Goldblum, Blanchett, and Creed's Tessa Thompson). And the first trailer was so much fun, it just validated my excitement.

Because Thor's previous films have never had a real consistent identity in terms of style or tone, he is the perfect vehicle for Taika Waititi's special brand of silliness.

This movie is silly - wonderfully so. The plot is not particularly complicated, the character arcs are fairly simple, and the stakes are not particularly high. But my god, as a comedy Thor: Ragnarok is perfect.

Thor's previous movies have flirted with the more ridiculous aspects of his world, but never has the potential been exploited as thoroughly here. After clearing the slate of the previous movies' plot threads, Waititi drops Thor into the colourful world of Sakaar - a wonderful hodgepodge of different aesthetics layered on top of each other with no regard for design or purpose.

Taking up most of the second act, Thor's Sakaar-based adventures are the film's highlight, as the befuddled god-ling bounces from set piece to set piece, and environment to environment, with no control over what happens. He is also de-powered, becoming something of an everyman.

These movies are not good at character development. It's the downfall of almost all of the movies, even the best ones (Spider-Man: Homecoming suffered a bit from this), and so while the movie is built on Thor taking on his father's mantle, that struggle never feels that important, and the focus on the yucks and the supporting players helps carry the movie to the finish line.

Along with Waititi's directorial talents, a large part of the movie's success is the cast. Hemsworth has always been good as Thor, but here he seems looser and more alive. Pushing his character's characteristic braggadocious-ness into complete buffoonish-ness, Hemsworth becomes a gleeful part of Waititi's crazy gumbo.

The Hulk gets another great showcase, going from ball of rage to petulant teenager, shifting between berserker rage and insecurity that no body likes him. While Mark Ruffalo does make a welcome return, this is the first time that the Hulk felt like a genuine character, rather than just a force that the other characters have to contend with.

And then there is Tessa Thompson as the hard-living, hard-drinking Valkyrie. I've been a fan of hers for awhile, and she does not disappoint here. Not only is she a badass, the filmmakers make sure she is a part of the fun - too often female heroes have to be the straight man to the jokes, but Valkyrie is just irreverent as everyone else. Her insistence on maintaining her alcoholism is a running joke that is hackneyed as hell, but they find enough natural variations on the trope that never gets tired. What was also interesting is that her drinking is never used as a signifier of her growth (ala Dean Martin in Rio Bravo) - it ends up being a sign of her own agency. She'll help the big galoot, but that doesn't mean she has to do everything he says.

Cate Blanchett has a great time, coming on like a combination of Angelica Huston's Queen Witch from The Witches (1990) and the shifty CEO of a dubious start-up company. Compared with most Marvel villains, she has far more personality. As with Thompson, Blanchett is not isolated from Waititi's nonsense, but an active participant and catalyst. Her interactions with Karl Urban's Skurge are a delight.

The movie is filled with great minor characters. Waititi gives himself a great supporting role as Korg, an average joe gladiator who looks like an old paddock wall. NZ theatre heavyweight (and Waititi collaborator) Rachel House is also great as the Grandmaster's no-nonsense second-in-command, Topaz. 

Karl Urban's role as Skurge is small, but he gets his own little character arc which is kind of poignant. His character ends up highlighting the movie's one central theme - all the characters have a desire to feel valued, and the movie is about all of them finding that value (or not). 

And then there is Jeff Goldblum. 

This is no stunt casting. This is a real Jeff Goldblum performance. With their unified aesthetic and tone, Marvel movies can sometimes smother unique voices, but within Taika Waititi's Cocoon of Inanities, Jeff is allowed to go the full Goldblum. 

Playing an egomaniacal tyrant can be somewhat limiting, but Goldblum offsets the character's ego with his trademark neurosis, creating a contradiction that makes the Grandmaster seem more threatening and unpredictable, and giving the movie some of its darkest laughs.

In tone the movie is vaguely reminiscent of John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China, with Thor as the befuddled, overconfident Jack Burton (Kurt Russell). The colour palette is bright and vibrant, the mise-en-scene resembles a mid-nineties video game and the character design recalls the artwork of comic book legend Jack Kirby. While it is not as memorable as the Led Zeppelin song that recurs through the movie, the score by Mark Mothersbaugh adds another layer of zaniness to proceedings, pulling Thor: Ragnarok further away from the MCU into its own surreal plane of existence.

The story is a little shaggy, but it fits the loose, comedic feel of the movie. Even once the movie heads into the home stretch, the tonal shift is a benefit to the usual bombast. And the film's conclusion puts a neat spin on the usual 'one all-powerful thing vs another all-powerful thing', with our heroes more concerned with helping people escape than the mayhem.

This movie is a great time. The laughs come beginning to end, and the usual formula never feels like its reining in the madness. The characters, old and new, are funny and memorable, and I'm hoping we get to see more of them in the future.

Go see it multiple times with friends and alcoholic beverages.

No comments:

Post a Comment