Taiki Waititi (2017)
If you hire Taiki Waititi, New Zealand’s reigning master of quirky comedy (who brought you What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople), to direct your new superhero movie, you shouldn’t be surprised when Thor: Ragnarok comes out the other end.
Not that it should be a surprise that Marvel, which includes Iron Man, Spiderman, Ant Man and for heaven’s sake Deadpool among its creations, should turn the heretofore stolidly grim Norse god of thunder into a character who seems to spring from the cast of Guardians of the Galaxy. After all, we’re not dealing with the super sober likes of D.C.’s Batman and Superman here. Marvel comics heroes have never forgotten the “comics” aspect of their existence.
Chris Hemsworth returns as a revamped, wittier Thor, and Tom Hiddleston as his cynical, mischief-making slippery-as-an-eel brother Loki, who no longer has to hold up the entire movie with the tongue he has wedged stiffly in his cheek. Anthony Hopkins returns as Father Odin briefly, but long enough to introduce the two boys to their long-lost sister Hela, the goddess of death—played by a barely recognizable Cate Blanchett, all very Goth and decked out in raven-colored hair and antler accessories. Dreadlocked and orange-contact-lensed Idris Elba returns as Heimdal, guardian of the rainbow bridge Bifrost, and Mark Ruffalo guest stars as Bruce Banner, along with his alter-ego, Thor’s fellow avenger, the Incredible Hulk. Jeff Goldblum plays the Grandmaster, a quirky (it is Jeff Goldblum) but sadistic ruler of a planet that is apparently the galaxy’s trash dump. Oh, and there are also surprise cameos by, for example, Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, who pops in for a short scene that is purely unnecessary to the plot. Oh, and an uncredited Matt Damon appearance, which ditto. Except for a quick laugh.
For those of you who might be unfamiliar with traditional Norse mythology, Ragnarok is the inevitable last battle between the gods of Asgard and the forces of evil, which, in contrast to the Christian Armageddon, the gods are fated to lose, bringing about the destruction of the world. This fate is inevitable, but it has always been Odin’s task to do whatever he can to postpone Ragnarok as long as possible. In the Marvel universe, it is only the destruction of Asgard, conceived here as a separate planet, that is at stake. As the film opens, Thor is imprisoned in a suspended cage, and immediately seems to address the audience: “Oh no, Thor’s in a cage! How did this happen?” Turns out he’s actually talking to the skeleton with whom he shares the cage, and whom he goes on to ask, “How much longer do you think they’ll keep us here?”
This pretty much sets the tone for the whole movie. Thor does get dumped out of his cage immediately following, to face his jailer, a very creepy fire giant called Surtur, who is fated to lead the forces of evil against Asgard and bring about Ragnarok, and who lets Thor in on the news that he has just reclaimed his magic battle helmet that will give him the power to do this—a piece of headgear that Odin was supposed to be keeping tucked away in safety in a vault in Asgard. Well, apparently Surtur didn’t reckon on Thor’s ability to summon his great hammer from anywhere in the universe, and the hammer arrives—though not quite on cue, which is cause for another moment of levity. Well bang, bang. Thor’s silver hammer comes down upon Surtur’s head, and the thunder god gets back the magic helmet and escapes. But he knows something is amiss in Asgard for this to have happened, so homeward he treks.
Asgard turns out to be in turmoil, mainly because Loki has usurped Odin’s place, and when Thor forces Loki to come with him to find their exiled dad, they are met by sister Hela as well, who easily defeats them and sends them off to a trash planet called Sakaar. Here Thor is immediately captured by a renegade, stumbling-drunk Valkyrie played by Tessa Thompson (from TV’s Westworld), who immediately turns him over to Goldblum’s camp Grandmaster, who nicknames him “sparkles” because of the anemic lightning bolts he manages to squirt from his fingertips, and can never quite get his “god of thunder” title right. The Grandmaster imprisons Thor to use him as a gladiator in his Roman-style games, and Thor meets fellow prisoner Korg (a rock-monster played by Waititi himself), who is imprisoned for trying to lead a rebellion against the Grandmaster, which failed, he says, because “I didn’t print enough pamphlets.” But Thor learns that he might gain freedom by defeating the Grandmaster’s current champion, who turns out to be a certain very large green guy. This would have been a wonderful surprise, and I wish it was a spoiler, but since every trailer for the film had this scene in it, unfortunately I’m just telling you what you already know.
Loki, of course, has already insinuated his way into the Grandmaster’s trust, and doesn’t want Thor messing up his cushy life here. But in the meantime, in what has essentially become a subplot, Hela has taken over Asgard, obliterating anyone who opposes her without much more than a blink of her evil eye, and raising up a huge CGI army of the dead with which she plans to, oh I don’t know, conquer the universe or whatever. Meanwhile Heimdal is protecting all the innocent citizens of the planet in an underground hideaway, just hoping for some kind of deliverance.
So naturally Thor needs to convince Loki, the Hulk, and the Valkyrie to join him, get away from Sakaar and save Asgard and, by extension, the universe, from his freak of a sister. I won’t throw in any spoilers about the ending, but it will probably surprise no one to learn that many long and nap-inducing battles and explosions ensue, as in every other superhero movie ever made, so even this film that tries to break the mold falls right back into it before the credits roll.
And that is the film’s main flaw. There’s a kind of schizoid quality to it where much of the film tries to undercut the superhero conventions that the rest of the film is trying to get us to buy into. Hiddleston is his usual smarmy self, and Hemsworth is refreshingly mortal, while Goldblum is a hoot, and Thompson is amusing and very likeable. Ruffalo doesn’t get a whole lot to do when he isn’t actually the Hulk, but he does have one hilarious stunt that’s worth waiting for. Blanchett and Elba, though, seem as if they are in a completely different movie, with a pretty standard superhero plot that takes over everything else in the end, which is some time in coming: The film runs for 130 minutes, and there at least another 20 minutes of fight scenes that could have been cut and never missed.
Don’t get me wrong, Thor: Ragnarok is certainly worth seeing. It’s not your run-of-the-mill superhero movie, and so is highly entertaining until it falls into the same-old-same-old trap. Three Tennysons for this one.
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