FILM REVIEW: In THOR: RAGNAROK Funny Super Hero Shares Spotlight With Next Wave
It must be difficult being a world-renowned hyper-muscular superhero, particularly if you are a member of the Asgardian Royal Family, what with the demonic, murderous siblings and all. That is the cross that Thor must carry in the third and for-now final installment of his movie trilogy, where Chris Hemsworth shares the stage aplenty. In Thor: Ragnarok it is not with his fellow Avengers (sometimes only with Revengers), but with his trickster half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and with a long-lost, revenge-lust sister Hela, the Goddess of Death, played with amusing perfection by the sublime Cate Blanchett. And then some.
In a way, Ragnarok is a fitting conclusion to the story of the Norse God of Lightning from origin to next realm, perhaps in Scandinavia. In others, it is clearly setting up what most movies in the Marvel Universe these days are: the next phases of the hyper-profitable, action-ridden, effects driven sequels. Caught in between these two purposes, Ragnarok is lost in space at times, but overall delivers effectively on the implicit bargain that these films have struck with audiences by reinventing itself and narrowly escaping peril, more realistically than its superheroes.
A common issue with comic book movies is that they normally fail to create a true sense of danger. The outcome is rarely in doubt. It is not like Thor is going to die or something. Even the baddies like Loki have to be kept around over and over again for repeat helpings. The lack of stake in the outcome robs the audiences of their desire to view the movie as anything but an extended joke. But, clever as their protagonists, the filmmakers find a way to reinvent themselves, fully embracing their own status as comedy. The dopey, slap-sticky humor that worked so well in Spider-Man: Homecoming is back with a vengeance, making its appearance known from the very beginning and dominating throughout the rest of the run time.
While not all jokes and puns are created equal, Hemsworth is absolutely at his best as the silly, even emasculated superhero, whose grand gestures bounce back to hit him on the head and who suffers the indignity of not even being considered the strongest Avenger, and who has to share the stage with badder, meaner, and even stronger women of all ilk. The filmmakers realize that the audience is here for entertainment, after all, and that comedic relief may be the safest way to deliver it. In Ragnarok, it just works.
Of course it does not happen by magic. Seasoned comedians like Jeff Goldblum, who appears as a flamboyant evil tyrant that reigns over a Disneyland-version of New York City, runs a gladiator-like spectacle and boasts a “melt stick,” do much of the heavy-lifting. Mark Ruffalo is with a simplified version of his Hulk as almost the straight-man to Hemsworth’s god. Karl Urban is a rock-like creature, an amalgam of some of Guardians of the Galaxy’s best characters. He is pretty funny as well.
The confluence of their humor permits the vessels of the serious parts of the film to shine in contrast. Blanchett appears early on to announce the destruction of Thor’s native planet, a mythical event known as Ragnarok. From the moment she takes to the screen, the film is elevated to a higher level. She is fierce, diabolic, and impossible to discount. Indeed, she is criminally underused for most of the heart of the story – you will want more and more of her. Tessa Thompson also shows up alongside Thor as a benevolent Valkyrie bent on exacting revenge against the evil Hela, but it is Blanchett’s sinister and all-powerful witch that steals the show. Anthony Hopkins and Idris Elba reprise smaller roles.
In the end it is impossible not to admire the crafty filmmaking talent of the individuals behind these movies. The visual effects, created by a list of people bulkier than Thor’s exploding biceps, are magnificent, particularly in a slow-motion, comic-strip sequence of a battle between Hela and the Valkyries. The audiences who come for eye-popping wowing get it in droves. Those who come for their love of Marvel and its characters will also leave satisfied—the question in these films is who of who’s who will make a cameo appearance. I will not spoil it, but the two out-of-film characters that appear compliment the other amusing cameos that show up during a staged theatrical performance at Asgard. And those who come for the Hemsworth eye-candy also get what they signed up for—the obligatory, extended shirtless sequence is right there for you to enjoy.
During one episode of playful/serious roughhousing between the embattled brothers, Thor mocks Loki and warns him that the “predictable” will lose out to “growth and change,” heralding himself as a champion of the latter. Being the product of a multi-billion dollar empire, it will not surprise you to hear that this is the key moment of self-awareness for Thor: Ragnarok, or at least of wishful thinking. If the filmmakers think their product is not predictable they are sorely mistaken. The plot proceeds from set-up, to middle problem, to obvious resolution, one two three in the steps I myself could draw out.
But I will concede that director Taiki Waititi (and, really, producer Kevin Feige) do have a point if they consider their movie to exhibit growth and change. Gone are the thematic platitudes that characterize origin stories (father anxiety, family anxiety, growing up anxiety). In their stead is a much more relaxed atmosphere, a transitional period, a forlorn goodbye to the first phase of what is obviously an infinite timeline—as infinite as the money comes in at least. It may not make for compelling moviemaking, but it sure is quite entertaining.
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