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Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

DIRECTOR: Taika Waititi

CAST: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, Mark Ruffalo, Karl Urban, Jeff Goldblum, Idris Elba, Anthony Hopkins

REVIEW:

For the third solo outing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe starring Thor the God of Thunder, Marvel seems to have taken a page from The Guardians of the Galaxy with a more (sometimes excessively) flippant tone and more emphasis on Guardians/Star Wars-esque sci-fi elements.  To an extent, they succeed in mixing things up, and Thor: Ragnarok is a bright, colorful, breezy action-comedy/sci-fi fantasy adventure, but while it’s lively and entertaining, it lacks a sense of real stakes (even with its title referencing the apocalyptic war of Norse mythology) and aims too hard for laughs at the expense of drama.

We start with a cold open featuring Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in the clutches of Surtur, who sounds like Clancy Brown (because it is) and looks like the Balrog from The Lord of the Rings and is prophesied to destroy Asgard, but with the help of his hammer Mjolnir, Thor seemingly disposes of him in short order.  After that, he returns home and finally discovers (as we did in the closing scene of Thor: The Dark World) that his nefarious brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) faked his heroic death in battle to slip back home, usurp the throne, and toss a magically blinkered Odin (Anthony Hopkins) into a nursing home in New York City.  With a little grudging help from Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), they retrieve Dad, but he delivers a grave warning: their previously unknown evil sister Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, has escaped imprisonment and is returning to take over Asgard.  It’s not long before Odin has gone the way of Yoda in Return of the Jedi, Mjolnir is dust, and Thor looks like he’s been thrown across theater screens into a Star Wars movie on a strange alien world where he’s quickly captured and tossed into a sci-fi colosseum run by The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) to fight the undefeated champion….who turns out to be The Hulk (voiced by Lou Ferrigno, motion capture by Mark Ruffalo).  After eventually managing to recruit The Hulk, Loki, and AWOL Asgardian warrior woman Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Thor forms “The Revengers” to take back Asgard, but dislodging Hela from the throne might come at a steep price.

Marvel is known for having a lighter, more humor-infused tone than its DC counterparts, but Ragnarok rivals the recent Spider-Man: Homecoming for the most openly action-comedy in tone of any MCU offering thus far.  To an extent, the change of pace helps liven things up; the pace is breezy and lively and some of the comedy is genuinely amusing.  Other times, it tries too hard to get laughs and comes at the detriment of the proceedings holding any serious drama.  The action sequences, while pleasing some of his comic fans by finally allowing Thor to unleash his powers in a big way (and without being dependent on his hammer), are whiz-bang CGI-fests; too much of this sort of thing gets old and it’s hard to feel like there’s much at stake when we’re watching CGI figures flying around hitting each other.  In addition to seeming to infuse themselves with ever more humor to differentiate from the dark and dreary approach of the Zack Snyder-led DCEU (sometimes going to the opposite extreme), the MCU is also clearly increasingly untrusting of its individual superheroes to be enough of a draw on their own.  Captain America: Civil War was called a Captain America movie but Iron Man had as much screentime as Cap and 2/3 of the MCU cast also joined the party (though not Thor or Hulk).  Spider-Man: Homecoming prominently featured Iron Man in the plot, and here Thor gets teamed up with Hulk and Doctor Strange also drops by.  The days of superheroes truly going it alone seem to be largely in the past in favor of team-ups, large and small (of course, this is all leading up to Avengers: Infinity War, where Marvel’s entire cast of characters, including both The Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy, along with Spider-Man, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, etc., will be united against Thanos).

More enjoyable than the run-of-the-mill CGI-fest battles is the “buddy movie” element as Thor, Valkyrie, the ever-shifty Loki, and Hulk/Banner (once he finally reverts back to Banner-form and Mark Ruffalo shows up in the flesh) form a mismatched band against Hela and her minions (a giant wolf and a bunch of resurrected dead Asgardian warriors who strongly reminded me of Imhotep summoning Pharaoh’s mummy bodyguards in The Mummy—the one starring Brendan Fraser, not Tom Cruise).  With Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster apparently a thing of the past (their breakup is related in a throwaway line) and Jaimie Alexander’s Lady Sif MIA, there’s a hint of low-key sexual tension between Thor and Valkyrie, though nothing overt yet, and he and the frazzled Banner (who’s more neurotic and twitchy than ever after being stuck as The Hulk for the last two years straight) form an odd couple.

Chris Hemsworth gets to lighten up as a markedly more wisecracking Thor this time around (and get a haircut).  After spending half the movie playing The Hulk via motion capture, Mark Ruffalo eventually gets to physically be in the movie.  Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, who stole scenes in both previous Thors and the first Avengers, has been reduced to an uneasy ally who deadpans some snarky one-liners and switches allegiances continuously.  The biggest newcomer is Tessa Thompson, who is in nice “warrior woman”/potential budding love interest form as Valkyrie, though her character arc (the former hero become a down-and-out criminal who gets a shot at redemption) is generic and thinly-developed.  Cate Blanchett seems to be enjoying herself slinking around in evil queen mode (I dig the goth rocker look, too), though Hela is ultimately little more than a plot device/catalyst and is built up so invincible that the script resorts to a deus ex machina to get rid of her, with Karl Urban, looking nothing like Bones McCoy, as her sidekick.  Jeff Goldblum is onhand to do what he does best, act eccentric and toss out some one-liners.  Anthony Hopkins and Idris Elba don’t get much to do, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange gets a glorified cameo, and Zachary Levi, Ray Stevenson, and Tadanobu Asano have truly thankless walk-on roles (if you’re a fan of the Warriors Three, you won’t be impressed by how they’re treated here).  Director Taika Waititi himself provides the voice and motion capture of gladiator Korg, who serves as a sort of comic relief sidekick, and there are cameos by Matt Damon, Sam Neill, and Luke Hemsworth (brother of Chris), while Clancy Brown provides the voice of Surtur.  The Hulk speaks significantly more here than any previous time we’ve seen him (and not just “Hulk Smash!”) and his voice is, fittingly, provided by Lou Ferrigno (who also voiced his few utterances in previous Marvel outings).

Those who stay behind for the obligatory mid-credits stinger will find that it provides a direct lead-in to Infinity War (as Thanos finally gets off his space throne and steps into the fray, something that’s only taken five years and several movies), and that feels more consequential to the greater cinematic universe than much else that’s just transpired onscreen.  Like many of the MCU’s other solo episodes, Ragnarok is a breezy, entertaining diversion, but also feels like a bit of a placeholder.

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