Ragnarok n’ Roll

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Now I know what you’re thinking. “Oh no, STinG isn’t in love with the new Taika Waititi-directed film the way he wanted to and has to reckon with whether or not it was as huge a disappointment as he expected.” How did we end up here? Well, it’s kind of a long story.

I was expecting a Taika Waititi movie. Well, that’s not such a long story after all, never mind.

And to be fair, Thor: Ragnarok – the third film in the Thor series and 17th in the gigantic Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise – is not not a Waititi film. But it’s interrupted by the side of it that’s a Kevin Feige-produced MCU film. There’s no reason to hold that against Thor: Ragnarok since the result is still roundly the best Thor film and the out-and-out funniest MCU picture in their whole lineage, but the fact that it’s unfortunately short bursts and portions does leave me a bit disappointed with the result.

For one thing, it takes its sweet ass time getting to the good stuff. The previous Thor film, The Dark World, and the second Avengers film, Age of Ultron, left so many threads open ended that co-writers Franco Escamilla, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost had no choice but to address and resolve from square one the threat of Ragnarok – the end of Norse home world Asgard to be brought by demon Surtur (mo-capped by Waititi, voiced by Clancy Brown) – and the absence of Thor’s father and ubergod Odin (Anthony Hopkins) replaced by Thor’s trickster step-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, who has now reached the sort of casual obligatory tone in playing this character as Robert Downey Jr. in playing Iron Man), neither of which are the main conflict of the story for our thundergod himself (Chris Hemsworth). For a movie where Waititi claimed in an interview that his modus operandi was to ignore the previous (and frankly) mediocre Thor films, Ragnarok is certainly happy to do a lot of clean-up.

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Now granted, the movie is still joyful and funny at points, as Hopkins does a hilarious job imitating Hiddleston and we witness a cult of personality formed around Loki with a wonderful play featuring three brilliant cameos I must remain mum over for the poor souls who haven’t seen Ragnarok yet. But the fact that we also get the obligatory MCU character cameo before Odin can proper introduced us to the villain in a very clunky monologue is quite frankly annoying and a nuisance in storytelling.

The villain herself is Hela – Odin’s firstborn daughter and the goddess of death – and played by the brilliant Cate Blanchett in full ham and scenery-chewing glory commanding every fucking shot she gets to appear in effortlessly and the sad thing is that Hela is the only reason I enjoyed the Hela/Asgard end of the story. Because quickly after her appearance the film splits based on her expulsion of Thor and Loki and her subsequent conquest of Asgard and attempts to expand her realm being thwarted by the brave Bifrost guardian Heimdall (Idris Elba). That’s her side of the story and it’s mostly just a reminder that evil stuff is happening that Thor must stop, while meanwhile, Taika Waititi is making a Taika Waititi movie (that just so happens to be a low-key adaptation of the “Planet Hulk” story) on the industrial trash planet Sakaar where Thor and Loki have landed.

Ruled by the flamboyant Jeff Goldblum Grandmaster (but it may as well just be recognized as Jeff Goldblum himself), Sakaar turns out to be home to a vicious gladiator deathmatch tournament that Thor is shanghaied into participating in against the grand champion: The Incredible Hulk himself (Mark Ruffalo). And this reunion is the catalyst to Thor’s attempts in building a team to save Asgard with Hulk and his troubled scientist alter-ego Bruce Banner, the comfortably lucky Loki, an alcoholic and disillusioned former Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, best in show that’s not Goldblum and a born action star), and a failed revolutionary yet infectiously friendly rock monster gladiator named Korg (Taika Waititi) and his robotic sidekick Meek.

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Sakaar isn’t necessarily the stuff of brilliant visual craftsmanship – the lighting is mostly as muted as any other MCU film beyond a mindblowing flashback sequence and this is not the best effects work of the franchise – but the physical design of it is absolutely fun to look at in all of its shapes and mounds and kitchiness, full of a mix of tones between bazaar and industrial and nightclub. It’s clear that Waititi himself walked into this production ready to make a space opera and he sure as hell gave his all, providing a wonderfully colorful and bouncy world full of a variety of bipedal alien races. All of which tuned into a vibrant weirdo tone that takes a few leafs out of the 1980s thanks to Goldblum’s absolute relaxed rock star of a performance and Mark Mothersbaugh’s techno epic of a score. And with a hangout atmosphere courtesy of Waititi’s wonderfully amiable brand of humor, best personified in Korg’s lovable presence even when in the middle of a fight trying to act polite. It’s exactly the MCU film I was waiting for and unfortunately it only lasts as far as the movie spends time in Sakaar.

This is not to say Asgard is a slouch in design, but Waititi’s heart is so obviously in Sakaar and not Asgard that returning to Hela’s storyline where she has literally no momentum thanks to Heimdall’s efforts feels a severe buzzkill to what is otherwise an extremely fun movie. That doesn’t override the fact that the sum of it all IS that is a poppy concoction that’s even able to make the best of the usually unbearable Hemsworth, who proves so much more capable at comedy than he is at drama. Nor is it unclear that there are full consequences to Ragnarok, ones that feel a lot more permanent than the last few times in the MCU where it seemed like consequences of Iron Man 3 and Captain America: Winter Soldier were just brushed aside. Whatever obligatory MCU drama we have to push through, it’s rewarded by a much more engaging film than at least half of the MCU preceding it and while it seems like a good illustration of how studio interference obstructs with auteurism, the biggest thing I took away from Thor: Ragnarok is that we should give Waititi money for science fiction and fantasy extravaganzas that have really personable talking rock creatures in a Kiwi accent.

P.S. Rachel House from Hunt for the Wilderpeople (my favorite Waititi film) is also in this playing no less a psychopath than her character there and I’m rooting for her to be in, like, everything now.

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