Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Ice and snow


It falls into almost all of the usual Marvel movie traps—and then thrives within them anyway.

Directed by Taika Waititi
Written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost
With Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner), Tessa Thompson (the Valkyrie), Anthony Hopkins (Odin), Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Stephen Strange), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Tadanobu Asano (Hogun), Ray Stevenson (Volstagg), Zachary Levi (Fandral), Taika Waititi (Korg), Rachel House (Topaz), Jeff Goldblum (the Grandmaster), Clancy Brown (Surtur), Karl Urban (Skurge), and Cate Blanchett (Hela)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Thor: Ragnarok is a mess, and that's just how Marvel's cookie crumbled this time.  It has the distinction of being a different kind of mess than the messiest Marvel flicks, which is, at least, enough to make it interesting.  Beyond that, it's a mess that comes off as a much more cohesive chapter in the continuing Marvel Cinematic Universe saga than, frankly, it actually even is, and this is an outright miracle, when you consider the enormous severity of its baked-in flaws.

In truth, those flaws are, in some sense, the flaws of just about every Marvel film, and that would be just as righteous a lens through which to view them.  Ragnarok simply pushes them to their logical extremes, you see: the forced frivolity of the shared-universe cameos; the clumsy rejiggering of plot elements to fit a new course; the cosmic villain that nobody involved appeared to find interesting enough to bother writing a character for; the sense that you're actually watching two (or more) movies smashed together; and, above all, the comedic lightness that swallows the emotional tone of the film whole, so that even in the very moment that our hero has lost literally almost everything that has defined him as a person (or, rather, as a space alien god), somebody makes a stupid fucking joke, and that person is actually the director of the Goddamn movie, albeit wearing a CGI suit and pretending to be a wisecracking monster made of rocks.

But bear in mind, I'm mainly venting here; the perfect is always the enemy of the good, and sometimes it's the enemy of the great, too.  That director, incidentally, is Taika Waititi—responsible, inter alia, for one of last year's best films, The Hunt For the Wilderpeople, a very funny comedy.  That's important, because it's become abundantly clear that Marvel's masterminds have tabulated the outsized response to 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy (and have also, perhaps, noted the collective scowl generated by the DCEU's grim-and-gritty counterprogramming), and, once they had, they decreed that shaggy-comedy-with-superhero-fight-scenes would be the way forward for their franchise. Such has been the basis for Guardians' sequel, and for Ant-Man, and for Spider-Man: Homecoming, and now for this film, as well.  (For our present purposes, let's not dawdle with the fact that this sounds far more like a list of Marvel's best movies than its worst.  I'm not saying it's necessarily a bad thing.)

It works, anyway: Waititi was an inspired choice for the task.  But then, he's one of the more inspired comedic directors we've got working today, and one of the few who actually knows how to make a well-considered aesthetic work hand-in-hand and cut-by-cut with their comedy.  Ragnarok certainly proves his pedigree: it's very, very funny.  Probably too funny, actually.  Therein lies the problem, or at least a problem.  But the heart's usually in the right place, and the laughs tend to coexist surprisingly easily alongside Waititi's gorgeous Flash Gordon-style cosmic odyssey, popping with color and kineticism and the best and most personable score a Marvel movie has ever had, an in-your-face descent into cheesy electronica, courtesy Mark Mothersbauch, that ranges from sub-Carpenter glory to tunes that wouldn't be out of place in an 8-bit video game.  Note well: I mean that in a complimentary way.  Apparently, Marvel Studios can correct the problems it has with their production line, if only one at a time.

So maybe Black Panther will have a good score and manage not to feel a little like the script was overseen by Disney's accountants.

But we were talking about what it looks like, and that's Guardians' influence too, though Ragnarok is so dedicated to its own Jack Kirby pastiche that it reminds you as much of Godland as it does actual Jack Kirby.  (Okay, it reminds me of that, because I'm a comic book nerd.)  It's outright goofy when you see it rendered into three-dimensional live-action—but, gratifyingly, Ragnarok's 60s-comics-meets-80s-sci-fi feel never becomes an overt joke.  Thus does Waititi split the difference between his predecessors, with a strong personality to call his own: Ken Branagh's original Thor found something more sincere beneath the space opera, but Ragnarok has triple the imagination and verve that Alan Taylor brought to Thor's second solo go-around, in The Dark World.

Ragnarok has the good fortune, too, to be able to coast on the original Thor's godly melodrama, and even advances it on the margins—though I suppose it's worth reminding the reader that I might be the only person on Earth whose favorite Marvel movie, and possibly favorite superhero movie, period, is that original Thor.  The result—for all its problems!—is (maybe) the best Marvel movie since then.

And, yes!  It does have a story: in the aftermath of way too many things to keep track of (but especially Thor's boring-ass disconnected subplot in the numbingly-mediocre Age of Ultron), our beloved God of Thunder has been questing across the Norsely-mythical realms in a bid to outflank the coming of Ragnarok, the doomsday foretold for his Asgardian home.  Upon his return, he rapidly unmasks the false Odin that's been sitting on the throne since The Dark World, revealing him to be none other than his naughty brother Loki, and Thor demands the God of Mischief lead him to wherever he dumped their royal father.  They accomplish this task together just in time to hear the old god's final words and witness his death (in the most unconvincing and lamest visual effect in any Marvel movie since The Incredible Hulk, I'm sorry to say, in conjunction with some YouTube-level greenscreen for Anthony Hopkins, notionally standing upon a "Norwegian shore")—and, practically in the very moment of Odin's demise, a goddess of death they've never even heard of (even though she's in, like, every book about Norse mythology, which is, in the Marvel universe, supposedly based on the true facts of ancient Asgardian astronauts) frees herself from the bonds of the netherworld to which Odin condemned her, aeons ago.  This is Hela.  She's their sister.

This is wrong wrong wrong.  But then, so is everything else, so it's no use to start complaining now.

She claims the empty throne, but not before smashing Thor's precious hammer Mjolnir and flinging both brothers off into the cosmic ether.  By random chance, they land on the garbage-strewn hellworld of Sakaar, ruled by its Grandmaster, a libertarian monster who (naturally) takes to Loki pretty much immediately—and (equally naturally) throws our hero into the gladiatorial slave pits.  From the lowest of lows, then, Thor must battle to find a way back to Asgard to save his home from Hela's inevitable reign of terror.  In the process, he'll meet allies who've now become his enemies—and enemies who might still be made into allies.

From the foregoing, you would be almost honor-bound to assume that Ragnarok is either really badly overstuffed or just outrageously choppy.  In fact, it's both, though to its credit these two bad features somewhat cancel each other out.

Even so: as obnoxious and thorny as interfilm continuity between the Marvel flicks can get (and it shall no doubt only get worse), there's not one other of this seventeen-film series that has been exactly like Ragnarok, where it feels like we've started missing whole feature-length pictures that Marvel decided it simply wasn't going to actually make.  The first ten minutes of Ragnarok feel like the last ten minutes of some other Thor film, possibly one that genuinely engaged with the cliffhanger Dark World left us on, though it's hard to tell given the level of palpable triviality it decides to pitch its "climax" on; and Ragnarok may represent flimsiest, who-gives-a-shit narrative reboot the MCU's so far perpetrated (welcome to the world of comics, mass audiences).  It's arguably even worse than the continued presence of Iron Man in everything they can still pay Robert Downey Jr.'s salary for.  Halfway through, a certain green gladiator bursts onto the scene, too (thanks, trailers).  Here we realize that we missed another movie.  This one was probably called World War Hulk.

Meanwhile, we're already watching two other movies, though at least these play out in tandem.  One of them is about Asgard, and it's not obvious anybody even came close to caring.  The best that screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost can do is pretend to care, by inserting scene after scene of Hela describing her backstory, and being generally cruel to the uniformly boring remaining populace of Asgard, including Idris Elba's most-boring turn of all as the stolid Heimdall; it's as if the writers and their bosses finally heard the ongoing criticism of Marvel's dull villains, and decided to address it, but still without putting any effort into it.  Hence the frequent cutaways back to Asgard, which transparently exist solely to give Hela something to do; hence this film's minorest minor character, Skurge, who transparently exists solely to give Hela somebody to talk to.  It's not merely a waste of Cate Blanchett, although it is that—Blanchett is deployed almost exclusively as a sneering, vamping canvass upon which to paint Hela's visual design with a Manifesto-worthy makeup transformation, and a heaping helping of chimeric CG.  (Yet, in fairness to Ragnarok's practical and digital artists, and to Blanchett herself, Hela absolutely does work on the level of pure villainous pose.)

But, in ascending order of importance, it's also a waste of: 1)poor Karl Urban, whose denouement as Skurge is one of the few truly miserable moments in the whole film; 2)the familial dynamic that Thor made work so well, and which doubtless could have benefited immensely from the introduction of a new player, though, in this screenplay, Hela never winds up interacting with her siblings in any way at all beyond throwing her weird powers at them; and 3)Norse religion itself, which has never exactly been this franchise's lodestone, but is drawn upon here in such incomplete ways that anybody who ever spent their childhood poring over books about mythology will be genuinely surprised that they left so many awesome ideas sitting on the table.

This movie about the Norse end of the world has no Midgard Serpent!  How is that even possible?

It manages, in the tail end of things, to grasp at the genuinely epic—not long after this film's second and most effective spin of Zepplin's "Immigrant Song" (which is, I'll admit, a pretty nice touch).  Happily enough, for its climax, Ragnarok takes a page from Doctor Strange; for this is also a film that posits an enemy so powerful she can't be defeated simply by punching her in the face, and therefore obliges itself to offer something slightly more clever than the usual supermovie dust-up.  It's good.

And, now that I think about it, it occurs to me that Ragnarok takes an actual Doctor Strange from Doctor Strange, too.  The good mystic artist's cameo is a phenomenal little crossover, doing justice to the concept of "magic" as well as anything in the sorceror's very own movie, with a real emphasis on in-camera tricks and editing to get across the unmoored otherworldiness of his milieu—apparently because Waititi was actually listening to me, personally, and wished to make me happy.  And he did!  My only complaint on this count is still a mildly serious one, though: when you ostentatiously display a Doctor Strange sitting on the mantle in your first act, it seems like you should use that Doctor Strange in the cosmic war which dominates your third.  Why, am I the crazy one?

Well, at the very least, I've surely been a nitpicking bastard to a film which, overall, I still adore: after all, the other movie we get to see is Thor and Loki's adventure in Sakaar.  And this is what the Guardians of the Galaxy movies would be like if they were even better than they already are.  There is real shit, even in this iteration, going on between Thor and his erstwhile brother.  Meanwhile, though it might have taken implausible contrivances to get Bruce Banner here, you're not likely to blame Raganrok itself, not when Mark Ruffalo's participation in it is so good—I have never been sold on his Hulk until right now, whereas his Banner's better than it ever was.  Both personalities' interactions with Chris Hemsworth's Thor are simply impossible not to love, as the doofy deity plays one against the other with manipulations so simple-minded it's hard to believe even the dumbest version of the Hulk might buy it (and he doesn't).  As for Hemsworth himself, he's still in top form as our pompous-yet-gormless thunder god.

And the Sakaar sequence introduces us to a new and better Thor sidekick than ever before, too: this is Tessa Thompson's nameless Valkyrie, riding her minor character arc out from exile and dissolution.  She's an enormously effective addition to the Asgardian pantheon, and Thompson rather effortlessly keeps you from ever wondering, during the movie itself at least, "Hey, wasn't there another warrior goddess here last time?"  Thompson gets some of the choicer moments of Waititi's always-unhinged, often-bawdy humor, most memorably realized in the image of Valkyrie spitting laserfire out of a giant cannon, framed like a big ol' strap-on cock.

Which, I'll admit, may be close to the last thing I ever expected to get in a Marvel movie, right in front of "a genuinely good score."  Plus two for Ragnarok.

Finally (of course), there's Jeff Goldblum.  His immortal Grandmaster proves that Marvel can do good villains, after all (though, apparently, only if they're contained in tangential subplots)—for Goldblum is a figure of film-defining energy, at once outrageously comic and astonishingly well-sketched, a perfect picture of banal and decadent evil who's old and bored, and so secure in his privilege and power that he's no longer even competent at exercising them.  In response to the dithering possibilities of the role, Goldblum offers up pure, uncut Goldblumium for our delight.  The man is amazing even within the context of unrestrained, hammy Goldblum performances.  (But God knows, he is assisted mightily by a Waititi repertory player, Rachel House, giving a generous and easily-overlooked performance as the Grandmaster's straightwoman assistant.  With that in mind, let us endeavor not to overlook it: because as much as Goldblum's Grandmaster is possibly the best comic turn of his career, it could not exist without her.)

And so it goes: the good and great vastly outweighs the bad here (for even the bad here is ribboned through with good).  Nor should it be underestimated what a fun and thrilling and cinematic experience Ragnarok is, not just in individual set-pieces—the signal quality of even most of the better Marvel movies—but throughout its whole candy-colored, synth-soaked runtime.  It could be better!  It wouldn't have even been that hard to make it better.  But, all told, it's a marvelous capper to a "trilogy" that, by all the evidence, never had any intent to be a trilogy in the first place.

Score: 9/10

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