Monday, November 6, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

A staggering seventeen films into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, audiences are still prompted to ask, “Is this the best Marvel movie yet?” It’s a question that reminds me that I haven’t updated my Marvel ranking since doing a Top 10 since 2014, but it’s amazing that we’re still given occasion to ask that question, that we haven’t tired of the Marvel method just yet because the films keep finding new angles on these classic characters. Thor: Ragnarok continues the Marvel tradition of pushing its characters out of their comfort zones, both narratively and tonally, with a film that exudes so much style and fun without losing sight of emotional substance.

After recovering a dangerous artifact during his quest for the Infinity Stones, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns home to Asgard to find that his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has been supplanted by Loki (Tom Hiddleston). In claiming the throne for himself, however, Loki has upset the delicate balance of the Nine Realms, exposing Asgard to threats like Hela, goddess of death (Cate Blanchett). Cleaning up his brother’s mistakes will take Thor to the gladiatorial arena of The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) in combat with an old friend, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).

I’m not going to make proclamations about whether or not this is the best Marvel movie or even whether it’s the best Thor movie (I’m still quite attached to the stodgy Shakespearian Thor from Kenneth Branagh), because the premise of the question overlooks the bounty of riches we have gotten from Marvel over the last decade. After all, I’m old enough to remember when a single Batman movie was a treat years in the making; in 2017 alone we’ve seen four Marvel movies, three DC movies, scads of animated direct-to-videos, and more superhero television than a human can watch. What I will say, however, is that Thor: Ragnarok is more crowd-pleasingly fun than I can recall having at a Thor movie, but strikingly it’s funny in a way that isn’t overpowering; unlike in Guardians, Vol. 2, where I felt worn down by the deflating humor, Ragnarok knows which moments to punctuate with a gag and which to let linger (a somber sequence on a cliffside, for one). It is the funniest of the Thor films, with Chris Hemsworth displaying a potent comedic sensibility; the film is virtually stolen by Goldblum’s hedonistic Grandmaster, all finger lilts and self-congratulation, though even Anthony Hopkins gets in a good laugh as Loki-Odin (his reaction to Thor’s arrival, subtle and perfect, might be a new favorite Odin moment).

While the Thor movies have always felt a little bit perfunctory, neither advancing the overarching narrative nor developing an arc for Thor beyond being an action hero, Thor: Ragnarok does attempt to tie the previous two films together into an impromptu arc for the god of thunder, collecting little bits from the previous Thor and Avengers films and uniting them into a story about warring brothers, imposing fathers, and those who cannot help but lead. It’s a real treat to hear composer Mark Mothersbaugh take the same approach to the film’s score, weaving in bits from Patrick Doyle and Brian Tyler before him (as well as a conspicuous harpsichord, to match a small cameo). Ragnarok does, then, finally tie Thor into the larger Marvel world and his own narrative arc, which both provides a satisfying rush to those of us who’ve been here from the beginning and lends a sense of cosmic importance to the film’s proceedings.

There’s much in Thor: Ragnarok I would have liked to see more, which is usually the mark of a good film, that it leaves you wanting more. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, a kind of mirror-universe Lady Sif, is a fine answer to Thor, a hard-drinking survivalist who’d fit just as well on the deck of the Millennium Falcon. Hela and Skurge (Karl Urban) are compelling villains, particularly in light of Marvel’s notorious difficulty at crafting distinctive antagonists (though that does seem to be changing of late); the film does an astonishingly deft job at quickly characterizing them. I predict Korg (voiced by Taika Waititi) will become a Groot-level fan favorite, and the great thing about a shared universe like this is that we’ll surely see him crop up again soon. Then there’s the small cameos that could easily flesh out a film all their own, to say nothing of the surprising buddy chemistry between Thor and Hulk, which seems surprisingly obvious in hindsight; one wishes, though, that Bruce Banner had gotten as much screen time, because Ruffalo is really quite adept at Banner’s quick subvocal quips and perpetual disorientation.

Thor: Ragnarok might be the best Thor movie yet (and Waititi’s hints that he might be down for a Thor 4 are great news indeed), but its balance of bust-out humor and emotional weight stand as an example for Marvel going forward. Its score, too, distinctive in a way Marvel hasn’t approached since the “Awesome Mix” of Guardians of the Galaxy, reminds us how cinematically potent these adventures can be when they’re crafted carefully and thoughtfully. The film does a very good job breaking its characters down, taking them places they aren’t fully at home – Banner in space, Thor sans his hammer – to see what the characters really are. This one is worthy, and I’m quite excited to see it again.

Thor: Ragnarok is rated “PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material.” Directed by Taika Waititi. Written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher L. Yost. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, Jeff Goldblum, Mark Ruffalo, and Anthony Hopkins.

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