Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok – What Were You The God Of, Again?

Chris Hemsworth in Thor: Ragnarok.

“I don’t hang with the Avengers any more. It all got too corporate.” – Thor, Thor: Ragnarok
You’d be justified in thinking I’ve been too kind to Marvel’s most recent films. They really are singularly excellent at the art of seduction; of presenting you with dazzling visual spectacle anchored by just enough plot and character coherence that you leave the theatre feeling satisfied, even if their appeal begins to wither once you’re back outside. I really have no desire to ever watch Doctor Strange again, even though I gave it a glowing review. I can understand the shame that sometimes follows, where you feel you’ve somehow been duped. But I don’t ever feel taken advantage of, personally. Disposable, enjoyable, escapist chicanery on the silver screen is as much an essential part of a balanced cinematic diet as anything else. It’s quite enough for me that Marvel’s legion of technicians, production designers, digital artists, costumers, and stunt performers work their asses off to deliver what most moviegoers see as exciting one-off experiences (especially since the sequel is already coming down the pike right behind the one you just saw, guaranteeing that these talented people are still getting work). I don’t hate the formula. The formula works.

That said, I think the cure to the “superhero fatigue” that so many people complain about is to actually watch and evaluate these things as films, to identify and celebrate the small ways in which they break from formula and manifest some kind of real creative expression. Thor: Ragnarok is easily the best argument for the “auteur blockbuster” method that Hollywood studios love so much, and (unlike Doctor Strange) it’s the rare Marvel film I can see myself watching again and again. The studio gave director Taika Waititi a couple inches, and he ran away with miles and miles of fun, exciting, gut-busting comic book farce. It’s almost hard to believe this film exists at all.

I suspect that Waititi, like the rest of us, really didn’t have much of an idea of what to do with Thor. He sticks out like a sore thumb from the rest of the Earth-bound Avengers – he’s an invincible god, while they’re all squishy humans; he’s stately and regal, where they’re wisecracking. Kenneth Branagh leaned into this more Shakespearean angle for the first Thor outing to decidedly mixed results (I’m in the minority of people who thought that the stuffy Asgard scenes were more interesting than the fish-out-of-water shenanigans on Earth). Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor brought his gritty sword battle expertise to the sequel, Thor: The Dark World, but leaning into that stuff didn’t feel right, either. It took Waititi – a kooky Kiwi whose credits include such excellent comedic fare as Flight of the Conchords, What We Do In The Shadows, and Hunt For The Wilderpeople – to find the right groove for the musclebound God of Thunder, and he seems to have found it by throwing all that other crap out the window.

Turns out the groove in which Thor feels most comfortable is pure goofiness. Ragnarok is a brash, unapologetic farce, a complete refutation of the self-serious tone that typified earlier entries like Captain America: Civil War. Waititi delights at every turn in taking the piss out of his characters, their world, and this whole ridiculous superhero blockbuster rigmarole, making even the pathos-laced ribaldry of Guardians of the Galaxy look positively stodgy by comparison. There’s very little dramatic investment to be found here, and I didn’t miss it for a second. I was too busy laughing my ass off and having a great time.

Rachel House, Jeff Goldblum and Tessa Thompson in Thor: Ragnarok.

Under Waititi, Ragnarok’s plot feels more like an episode of late-80s cartoon television than an entry in the MCU. Hela (Cate Blanchett), the hidden sister of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), threatens to raze Asgard to the ground to slake her thirst for revenge against their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). But Thor can’t do much about it after Hela crushes his hammer, Mjolnir, and banishes him to the planet Sakaar, where someone called the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) enslaves beings from across the universe to participate in his gladiatorial bloodsports. It’s only after discovering that the Grandmaster’s prize fighter is none other than our very own Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) that Thor hatches a plan to escape Sakaar, with the help of Hulk, Loki, and the grumpy drunk Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), who has reasons of her own to help take back her homeworld. It’s some real He-Man shit, enhanced by the film’s bright neon acid-trip visual palette, and its casual disregard of any plot or character element that might get boring or slow things down. I can’t describe how refreshing it is, after years of trying to take these comic book films seriously, to be let off the hook. Enjoy yourself, Waititi says, with every hilarious slapstick gag and perfectly timed quip. We’re all here to have fun, mate.

It’s Waititi’s strength at guiding his ensemble that really makes the film’s comedy land. Hemsworth, constantly positioned as the stoic, noble hero archetype, finally gets to play to his strengths and offer a version of Thor that’s more of a blundering Prince Charming. He’s hilarious, and the feeling of the character finally working – the way he seems to just effortlessly click into place from the opening scene – is supremely satisfying. Same goes for Ruffalo’s Hulk, who is finally allowed to talk (!) and uses this opportunity to deliver some of the film’s funniest material. (He’s exactly the kind of arrogant oaf that you would imagine Hulk to be, especially after a long time spent crushing puny rivals and being richly rewarded for it.) Ruffalo even explores new ground with his Banner, busting out of the flat, uninteresting “tech guy” he played off Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark and finding new life as an awkward, dweeby scientist who is just as much an utter outsider on Sakaar as Hulk is a perfect fit. Thompson is great as the salty Valkyrie, honing in on the character’s likable nature despite her antisocial behavior. Even bit performers like Karl Urban as Asgardian turncoat Skurge and Waititi himself as rock-alien Korg are given space to find something hilarious and memorable about their characters, and exploit it for maximum comedic effect.

But it should go without saying that Jeff Goldblum runs away with it. It should also go without saying that when you hire him for your superhero movie, the performance you’re going to get is simply Jeff Goldblum in a funny costume. Ragnarok thrives when he’s onscreen, fluently integrating his oddball personality and his unique affability into its overall tone, letting him gently poke and prod at the edges of what makes this maniacal galactic overlord tick. The Grandmaster is Jeff Goldblum in a funny costume, to be sure, but he’s also surprising and wry and nuanced. Waititi gives generously of his total screen time to this character, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

Listen, you want an example of a franchise that truly coasts on formula, look no further than the works of Warner Brothers. (The upcoming Justice League is an example of their willingness to break from their established formula by artlessly plagiarizing the formula that works so well for their rivals.) At least Marvel, once in a while, is comfortable enough to let its freak flag fly a little bit. Ragnarok is a total outlier, and we’re unlikely to see its kind again in the MCU. Let’s just have a bit of fun with it while we can, eh?

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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