A film review by Craig J. Koban November 14, 2017

THOR: RAGNAROK  jj
  

2017, PG-13, 130 mins.

 

Chris Hemsworth as Thor Odinson  /  Tom Hiddleston as Loki  /  Cate Blanchett as Hela / Halja  /  Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner / The Hulk  /  Jeff Goldblum as The Grandmaster  /  Tessa Thompson as Brunnhilde / Valkyrie  /  Idris Elba as Heimdall  /  Karl Urban as Skurge / The Executioner  /  Anthony Hopkins as Odin  /  Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange / Doctor Strange  /  Taika Waititi as Korg / Surtur (mo-cap)

Directed by Taika Waititi  /  Written by Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost, and Eric Pearson

 

 

 

SCREENED IN
3D

In my original review of the first THOR movie - a Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise installment that I was in the minority for greatly enjoying - I spoke of what a thanklessly difficult job Chris Hemsworth had in playing the titular character: Too much self aware camera mugging and the Norse God would approach levels of high camp, but a performance too needlessly solemn and the character would be a monotonous bore.  In the first two THOR and AVENGERS films Hemsworth managed to embody a tricky middle ground with the God of Thunder: He was in on the joke while not directly winking at the audience that he was, and that's a hard dichotomy to pull off.  

My main misgiving with THOR: RAGNAROK - the third film in the self contained THOR trilogy - is that it all but abandons the previous films' healthy balance of  sly humor and stern minded theatricality and instead embraces an aggressively silly tone that's ostensibly played for maximum chuckle value.  Director Taika Waititi - who previously made the uproarious HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE - deserves some points for boldly trying to inject some caffeinated energy and life into the proceedings, a difficult task when it comes to third films in established trilogies.  The problem with his overall approach, though, is that the mischievous and cheeky tone that permeates THOR: RAGNAROK makes it come off as more of a blatant GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY clone than a faithful in mood and spirit sequel to the established THOR cinematic mythology.  THOR: RAGNAROK is an unending joke generating machine, and while it certainly delivers in some well earned laughs, it has the detrimental side effect of making the stakes in the underlining story seem less grave and significant.  More often than not, the film feels like a grand and epically staged $200 million budgeted SNL parody version of the THOR character that seems to undermine the comic book hero that has been developed and cultivated in the MCU over multiple films. 

 

 

The opening scene of THOR: RAGNAROK is indicative of what works so well for this franchise and what really holds this sequel back from me fully embracing it.  In it we catch back up with Thor (Hemsworth) - after being AWOL from the events in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR - that's bound in heavy chains and dangling above lava while being taunted by a giant flaming demon named Surtur, who yearns to launch the coming of an Asgardian doomsday event known as Ragnarok.  Characteristically, the crafty Thor manages to break free via the help of his mystical hammer Mjolnir and begins to methodically lay a beat down on Surtur's minions by the hundreds.  Visually, this sequence is an eye popping showstopper, filled with bright and lively imagery that looks like its was robustly lifted from a classic comic book panel drawn by Jack Kirby...but then Waititi drums up Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" in the background of the mayhem to distracting effect, drawing one of many unfortunate comparisons to the aesthetic style of the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY films, replete with snarky quip generating heroes and a propulsive rock soundtrack.   

After everyone's favorite hammer thrower emerges triumphant, Thor returns to Asgard believing that he has stopped Ragnarok from ever happening, but he does discover that his nefariously evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been impersonating their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) via a grand illusion.  Both siblings soon discover that the Goddess of Death Hela (Cate Blanchett) is set to return to Asgard and reclaim what she thinks is hers, defeating Thor early on and - gasp! - destroying his unliftable Mjolnir by crushing it - double gasp! - with her bare hands.  Morally and physically broken, Thor finds himself exiled on planet Sakaar, a junk world ruled over by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, in maximum quirky Goldblum-ness), who pits his prisoners against one another in vast gladiatorial contests to the death.  In his first match Thor finds himself surprisingly - and much to his delight - squaring off against an old gamma ray induced monster Avenger friend that has been long since missing, after which time he realizes that he will need his former ally's assistance with getting off Sakaar and stopping Hela before she lays Asgard to waste. 

THOR; RAGNAROK looks positively sensational, and one thing that I will concede that Waititi does exceptionally well is confidently forging a boisterously colorful cosmic fantasy that honors and respects the visuals of its comic book roots.  With elaborate costuming, richly ornate production design, a wild menagerie of bizarre creatures, and a pop art inspired color scheme, THOR: RAGNAROK feels positively alive as one of the most richly textured and realized of all the MCU films.  I also appreciated the fact that Waititi wisely remembers that the THOR films are deeply rooted in fantasy, and he spares little expense throughout at exploring not only Asgarrd, but new locations of the Nine Realms that have been ripe for investigation since the first THOR entry.  There's a liberating freshness of approach on a level of imagery that makes THOR: RAGNAROK so thoroughly engaging to lose oneself in for two hours.  Perhaps more so that any other recent MCU film, this one wears its more obvious comic book inspired roots like a proud badge of honor.   

One of the other joys to be had in the film is the infectious odd couple chemistry between Thor and Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), the latter who has also mysteriously found himself marooned on Sakaar, but is in no real rush to leave, seeing as he's worshiped like a god-like celebrity by the masses of fans for the Grandmaster's gladiator matches.  Interestingly - and perplexingly without much explanation in the story as to why - Banner finds himself stuck in his gigantic beastly form and is able to emote and verbalize more, albeit with the intelligence of an infant.  Seeing the flourishing and unlikely bromance that blossoms between Thor and Hulk is a giddy highlight of THOR: RAGNAROK, not to mention that their duo is flanked nicely by CREED's Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, a gorgeous and vigilant fighter that's as good with the sword as she is putting booze in her mouth.  She gives the already testosterone heavy THOR series a much needed dosage of feminine might and resolve. 

Unfortunately, where THOR: RAGNAROK really falls apart for me is in its meandering and focus-free plotting, a woefully under utilized antagonist, and, as mentioned, an obsessive yearning to go for laughs at every waking minute.  For as much visual scope that Waititi brings to this sequel, the underlining screenplay here is a haphazard affair in terms of construction, which rickshaws from one scene to another without much of an overall game plan.  It's also indicative of a repetitive formula that's giving many Marvel films of late a redundant vibe, one that involves yet another CGI-heavy battle between multiple villains and heroes that builds to would-be exhilarating crescendos in the third act that instead feels like its coasting by on auto-pilot.  Then there's the main baddie herself, a fearful and lethally formidable opponent to Thor with deeply rooted personal ties to him and his father that's not a large enough of a threat and presence here to be considered a worthwhile and memorable presence.  Blanchett certainly looks fetching in heavy eyeliner, form fitting costuming, and antler-like horns protruding from her cranium, but having the presence of this Oscar winning actress here seems wasted, seeing as Hela is never given enough screen time to demand out attention. 

Hiddleston's Loki is also strangely developed here, especially for how he's transformed from being one of the MCU's most loathsome backstabbing antagonists and now into a fairly happy-go-lucky trickster that teams up with the heroes and propels the film towards its conclusion (bizarrely, THOR: RAGNAROK seems to forget that this was the same Loki just a few MCU films ago that was the mass murdering architect of the alien invasion of New York that cost the lives of untold thousands and nearly flattened the city).  And then, of course, there's Hemsworth's Thor himself, who's also given shoddy treatment and seems lost within the confines of his own movie.  There's always been a cheeky edge to this character buried beneath his physical might and supreme narcissism, but this Thor is schizophrenically all over the proverbial map.  Sometimes he's dramatically somber, then childishly naive, then a screaming simpleton, and then a gag dispensing piece of comic relief...and then a cunning rogue.  Throughout watching THOR: RAGNAROK I rarely felt like I was watching the same rooted persona that successfully populated the MCU; this film's version felt wholly foreign to me. 

Considering the hyperbolic hype machine building up to THOR: RAGNAROK's release, I was frankly disappointed in this lesser MCU entry, and it never rose to the occasion of superb MCU sequels like CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER and CIVIL WAR.  Waititi's comedic background is embedded in THOR: RAGNAROK's DNA through and through, but at the ultimate sacrifice of reducing a majority of the film being too bombastically daft for its own good (reports that 80-plus per cent of this film was improvised by the actors, which comes off in the final product and entrenches its undisciplined tone).  THOR: RAGNAROK is certainly more purely enjoyable than the mostly morose and forgettable THOR: THE DARK WORLD, not to mention that it avoids the dry and antiseptic repetition that befalls most franchise sequels these days.  Alas, the third THOR film drops the ball - or should I say hammer? - in being a full bodied and worthwhile continuation of his silver screen exploits.  Remove this film's staggeringly sumptuous visual sheen and franchise busting humor and all we are left with is another paint-by-numbers MCU entry that struggles to be taken seriously...mostly because it's too in on the joke.  

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