Review: Marvel pokes fun at itself with ‘Thor: Ragnarok,’ and has a blast doing it

It’s about time we got something like “Thor: Ragnarok.”

After nearly a dozen years of spinning an increasingly complex web of Marvel stories and characters, the studio realized a need for giving audiences something new and invigorating; something to keep the spark alive, if you will. And they picked the perfect franchise to do it.

With “Ragnarok,” one of the MCU’s least consequential (and – let’s face it – one of its least interesting) franchises doesn’t just get a facelift; it’s infused with a new energy. With the third solo entry for Thor – “solo” becoming more and more ambiguous the further along the MCU machine churns –  he’s officially the ugly girl you initially passed up on who went on to become a runway model.

Indie director Taika Waititi proves to be a great hire for the studio, and it was an even better decision not to put a leash on him. Over on the other end of the Disney mansion, Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy continues to muzzle the creativity of filmmakers hoping to making a “Star Wars” movie all their own, resulting in mutual separations over the evergreen excuse of “creative differences.”

So it’s a joy to see Waititi go all in with his brand of humor and exuberance here for “Ragnarok,” which might be the most turn-off-your-brain fun MCU movie not titled “Guardians of the Galaxy.” The cast certainly acts like it. Chris Hemsworth is easily having more fun than he’s ever been afforded previously, Jeff Goldblum is delightfully Jeff Goldbluming all over the place, and Tessa Thompson is a hell of a lot of fun as Valkyrie.

Besides being visually exhilarating – some shots are so gorgeous and colorful they reminded me of a Pixar movie – “Ragnarok” also blends an unexpected number of genres. Parts of the story of Thor, Hulk and Co. working to take down the evil Hela depict a medieval tale of sorts set in the cosmos, one whose greatest statement perhaps is that everything happening on Earth really is incidentally insignificant compared to what’s in store for our heroes in the great beyond.

It also sprinkles in – no, dumps – loads and loads of humor. “Ragnarok” isn’t just off-beat funny like “Guardians” is; it treads into downright parody territory. Among the superhero tropes being mocked: Logic-proof wormholes, dramatic heroic entrances and villainous destruction, all to purely satisfying effect. The film’s essence thrives on a mantra of constant self-deprecation, even if it sometimes might serve as an excuse not to provide any ingenuity when it comes to plot.

With Waititi it’s all about style – taking a paint-by-the-number story of saving the world and injecting it with 1980’s arcade game-inspired pizazz. Hell, just compare the poster for “Ragnarok” to those of the previous two Thor entries; it’s like David Fincher has gone Dreamworks.

That being said, the first half is the much more fresh hour of the film before it delves into more typical superhero fare. It’s still humorous, but even Waititi had to know sustaining the weightless and breezy techno-cheese candor of the first hour would be difficult; there are still epic stakes here, and epic implications for the MCU at-large.

The aforementioned Goldblum is a welcome addition to the universe, as is Karl Urban as the conflicted gatekeeper between realms, and Cate Blanchett is sublimely devilish given what she has to work with. It’s not a lot.

As a matter of fact, just a few months after it seemed Marvel Studios had turned a corner when it comes one-dimensional villains via Michael Keaton’s revelatory turn in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” it’s back to square one with Hela. Dubbed the Goddess of Death, she’s little more than an infinitely powerful figure with the appearance of an arachnid and a generally baseless ambition to conquer the universe.

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, it is, very much so. And even if “Ragnarok” is fine going with the cliches from a storytelling standpoint, it makes Asgard’s plight pale in comparison to Thor and Hulk’s buddy-cop mission to escape the technicolored Sakkar when it comes to entertainment value. You’re almost willing the franchise to stay there and let Asgard be reduced to ashes. The personality of “Ragnarok” isn’t totally diminished in the final act, but you’ll catch yourself checking your watch for the first time once Sakkar is left for good.

As different as “Ragnarok” feels aesthetically to the first “Thor” and its completely forgettable sequel, it is undoubtedly a trilogy-capper narratively. Closure is given to more than one aspect of the God of Thunder’s story, while teasing new developments for the next slate of MCU offerings.

Whether Waititi remains on board for any of those future movies remains to be seen. But if Kevin Feige can thank the director for one thing (aside from what is sure to be a rather profitable opening weekend at the box office), it’s the reminder that the occasional sacrifice of pathos for good old-fashioned fun can be appreciated by moviegoers.

 

 

“Thor: Ragnarok” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo

Directed by Taika Waititi

2017

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