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Saturday, November 04, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok

I enjoyed Thor: Ragnarok in the moment that I was watching it, but looking back on it, the movie does seem a bit inconsequential in the grand scheme of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  It's a total sugar rush of a movie - Bright, fast-paced, and it kind of gives you a giddy high as it plays out.  But when it's over and you go crashing back down to Earth, it can be easily forgotten.  I am recommending the movie to a certain audience.  If you want to see Thor tossing out a lot of one-liners while he pals around with the Hulk and battles weird aliens, this is it.  But, if I must be honest with myself, I kind of wish Marvel would stop spinning its wheels so much and get to the Infinity War already.

At the very least, you can't blame Chris Hemsworth for not giving it his all as Thor.  He's able to tackle everything this movie throws at him, from being a hulking action star, to being a common everyman, and even a physical comedian.  It's that charisma which holds the movie together, which largely seems to be an excuse to throw as many special effects and sight gags into one movie as possible.  There is only the slightest connection to other Marvel films here, including a cameo, and an opening scene where Thor finds himself imprisoned by the fire demon Sutur as he searches for the Infinity Stones.  Sutur tells him that his home of Asgard will soon be destroyed by Ragnarok, the coming apocalypse.  There's a trip back to Asgard, where Thor tires to find his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and has another run in with his antihero brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

Eventually, it is revealed that Thor's long lost sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), has designs on ruling Asgard and destroying anyone that stands in her way.  During the chaos of Hela's initial attack, Thor is warped to the alien world of Sakaar, and this is where the movie truly begins, and takes on a more comedic tone than viewers might expect.  The planet seems to be made up largely of a junk heap, except for the center of the city, where a massive coliseum has been built for the entertainment of its alien inhabitants.  Thor finds himself an unwilling combatant in the games, and is pitted against the champion on the planet, who is none other than the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).  Turns out he's been warped to the planet as well, and now largely fights for the entertainment of the ruler of Sakaar, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum).

Goldblum not only is one of the best aspects of the film, but serves as a wonderful addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  His trademark droll performance fits so well in the part of an alien ruler who is a bit too cool and detached to be actually threatening, but also clearly takes sadistic glee in the cruel games he forces his people to participate in for his amusement. ("Let's have a hand for all of our competitors who died so gruesomely", he says at one point.) Even though Blanchett is the main villain of the piece (and does a perfectly fine job, as expected), it is Goldblum who walks away with all the best scenes and one-liners in the film.  He's clearly having a blast playing this villain who specializes in withering put downs (he refers to Thor as "Sparkles" when he sees he can produce lightning from his fingers) and calm, cool detachment.

There are a lot of moments where Thor: Ragnarok comes dangerously close to spinning out of control, especially during the large battle scenes, which seem to be built around CG bodies flying around the screen as they're tossed about with wild abandon by whoever happens to be fighting in the current scene.  But, the characters do help keep things grounded, especially with the sense of humor they have been given.  As the new female lead, Tessa Thompson gives a memorable turn as a fallen Valkyrie who is facing a troubled past, and has mostly turned to drinking to forget her past. (The first time we see her, she staggers drunkenly off a spaceship, and falls from the ramp leading down to the ground.) And of course, Ruffalo is fantastic pulling double duty in a motion capture performance as the Hulk, and as his human alter ego, Bruce Banner.  The interplay between between Thor and Bruce/Hulk create some very funny moments, and a few surprisingly poignant ones as well, such as when we learn that the Hulk likes it better on Sakaar rather than on Earth, since the aliens on the planet treat him like a celebrity there, rather than with fear.

These are the moments that make the film worth watching.  When the movie turns to action, it gets to be a bit overpowered yet strangely forgettable at the same time.  There is often so much happening with cosmic battles, giant demons, rampaging armies and bodies falling from the sky that the battle sequences kind of lose shape, and just turn into massive technical demos.  There is little involvement whenever these characters start fighting one another.  We almost want them to go back to exchanging one-liners instead of fists and blows to the head.  And like I said, the movie as a whole does little to push the overall Marvel narrative forward.  This is yet another largely comedic stop to something much bigger, much like this past summer's Spider-Man: Homecoming.  The difference is I thought Spider-Man worked because it still felt like it belonged in the Universe as a whole, and you could see it was leading to something.  This just feels like a very silly little stop that has little to do with anything in the long run.  Yes, there are some third act developments that will definitely lead to next year's Avengers movie, but you have to wait until almost the end for them.

Regardless, what does work here works very well.  I don't want to give the impression that this is a bad movie.  It's a lot of fun while you're watching it, you just might be left wondering how much of an impact it will have when it's done.  And besides, whenever it does feel like the movie is going to fly off the rails, it catches you off guard with a funny quip or one liner, such as how Thor will comment on the tacky decor of the alien planet.  Thor: Ragnarok is pretty mindless, but I have a hunch that was the goal all along.

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