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COURTESY OF MARVEL ENTERTAINMENT

November 5, 2017

Two Takes on Thor: Ragnarok

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Just What the Doctor Ordered

Nick Smith, Sun Staff Writer

I’ve diagnosed myself with the flu. I don’t have a cough or a runny nose but I did skip class yesterday morning and I’m pretty sure that means I’m deathly ill. In my defense, I did have a fever and I’m ready to forward my doctor’s note from Gannett (I’m not calling it Cornell Health) to any unconvinced readers (Mom).

Similarly, Thor, at least in terms of solo movies, isn’t doing great. Though the character has faired well in various other Marvel Cinematic Universe appearances, Thor (2011) was alright by virtue of the character’s novelty and Thor: The Dark World (2013) felt like a clunker. With Thor: Ragnarok, however, Marvel’s finally found a remedy for one of its most underserved, ailing heroes.

The post-release trailers will tell you Ragnarok is the best-reviewed Marvel film ever. At this point it seems every movie that comes out is miraculously the “number one movie in America” but just this once I’m buying the claim. This isn’t just “good for a Marvel movie” or good by proxy of getting us closer to the next Avengers team up. Ragnarok is a great movie on its own footing.

I think all my issues with the first two installments in the stand-alone series can be boiled down to the character being too grounded — “grounded” as in too sensible, but also in the fact that he was on Earth at all. Of course I understand the need for the character to be on Earth 616 (that’s “main” Earth for all you non-nerds) for the Avenger team-up films, but this necessity simply doesn’t exist in his solo movies. I mean, this is the god of thunder we’re talking about! Why subjugate him to the role of a glorified strong man opposite “normal” humans?

It seems after the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, Marvel realized they didn’t need to dumb down the more comic-y elements of their films to find box office success. “Thor 3” is unapologetically alien, and all the better for it! Ragnarok is a bit of a perfect storm for the thunder god. It’s got a stellar cast, a colorful atmosphere and it’s gut-bustingly hysterical.

A lot of times you’ll hear that someone “stole the movie,” that a cast member acted so well that they became the overwhelming focus of the audience, whether or not that was the director’s intention. With a cast as strong as Ragnarok’s — Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Cate Blanchett, Anthony Hopkins, Benedict Cumberbatch, Idris Elba, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban and Jeff Goldblum (that’s not a joke… all of those people are in this movie) — you might expect one or two actors to elevate themselves above the pack, thereby washing out the others. Surprisingly this isn’t the case, not because no one’s particularly good but rather because everyone’s on top of their game. There truly isn’t a single weak link here.

Hemsworth and Hiddleston continue to showcase their endearing chemistry as the deity sons of Odin (played by Hopkins, who turned in a very nuanced performance in his brief appearances). Blanchett does the whole “evil goddess of death” thing frightening well. Thompson and Elba were really badass as Valkyrie (super cool warrior) and Heimdall (dude with a cool sword). Goldblum is his usual hilarious self as the Grandmaster of Sakaar’s Roman Colosseum-style tournaments. I really can’t say enough about how well this cast was put together and how well the actors executed their roles, but I do have to finish the review (so we’re gonna move on).

Like I mentioned earlier, one of this movie’s biggest strengths is in its return to comic book-esque form and that includes the color scheme. Ragnarok is bursting at the seems with technicolor exuberance. Because the movie mostly takes place on Asgard (Thor’s homeworld) and Sakaar (another foreign planet), the set designers clearly got the go-ahead to go crazy. We’ve seen Asgard in the earlier films, and not much about that world has changed, but Sakaar is new and I’d best describe it as a Star Wars cantina scene on a planetary scale. It’s delightfully unfamiliar and does a lot to compound upon the prevailing sense of fun on which this movie’s appeal is largely built.

While all that stuff I mentioned earlier is great, this film is gonna clean up at the box office because it’s funny. Well, that and the fact it’s opening opposite A Bad Moms Christmas (just… ugh). Ragnarok can almost be seen as a retaliatory antithesis to the DC Extended Universe’s  misplaced dark and brooding tone. It’s not like the new film is dealing with particularly lighthearted subject either. I mean the word ragnarok literally means “the final destruction of the world.” Ragnarok’s true strength comes from its masterful writing, switching seamlessly between cracking up the audience and more serious plot-driving moments when necessary. The movie plays like a well-constructed comedy, guiding viewers from one laugh to another with just enough time in between to relax our glee-panged faces. It was interesting to see the Hulk, not Bruce Banner, really interact with a character other than in pissing contests with Black Widow and Thor. But it’s Korg, a new addition to the cinematic universe voiced by director Taika Waititi (who also directed 2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople), who takes the cake. Every time the dude spoke I was just in fits, which is almost a shame because people might remember Waititi’s contribution to the movie as just the hilarious voice acting when he clearly also did a great job directing. The film’s healthy dose of humor is just what the doctor ordered for both my “flu”-ridden self and the Thor series, which suffered after The Dark World was a decidedly not funny let-down of a sequel. It’s great to see Hemsworth being utilized in a more multi-dimensional way because, as he proved in the new Ghostbusters and again in this movie, he can excel outside the tough guy typecast.

On top of all that, similarly to Doctor Strange, Ragnarok sees our heroes take down the big bad in an innovative and satisfying way. Unlike so many other comic book movies, the antagonist wasn’t some nondescript, power-ambiguous evildoer shooting a threatening beam into the sky only to be defeated by “the power of teamwork” or some other bullshit like that (cough cough Suicide Squad). Hela, the goddess of death played by Blanchett, was actually pretty well developed. I understood her backstory and motivation, so when she got around to attacking Asgard, I wasn’t scratching my head (not to say I necessarily agree). Our goodies took down the baddie — which is no longer a spoiler for these movies — in a way that caught me off guard, which I loved! It’s refreshing to be legitimately surprised by the cleverness of such a big budget film. This film takes risks and they all pay off. Ragnarok is a sign that Marvel isn’t afraid to push the limits and that’s really exciting!

To be fair, Ragnarok makes a couple missteps. But so do all movies (besides Baby Driver — that really might be my perfect movie). However, its small mistakes are just that: small. The two I would point out are pretty closely connected to plot developments you can’t glean from the trailer (so I won’t get into them for fear of spoilers) but rest assured, if you’re thinking about going to see Ragnarok, Waititi will give you something to smile about.

In the end, Ragnarok is just more evidence that Marvel is running laps around DC. Apart from Wonder Woman, every DC film since The Dark Knight Rises (that movie was good — that trilogy is above reproach) has had serious issues. Justice League comes out in two weeks and maybe DC will turn things around in their big team up film. For now though, Thor: Ragnarok has strengthened Marvel’s already impressive lead.

Nick Smith is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at nsmith@cornellsun.com.

 

Laughter Isn’t Always the Best Medicine

Zachary Lee, Sun Staff Writer

While watching Thor: Ragnarok, I wondered if anyone at Marvel Studios said “no” to an idea that director Taika Waititi proposed during filming. In a montage of scenes, a literally electrified Thor decimates swaths of zombified soldiers while his comrade Valkyrie shoots a gatling gun at a giant wolf whilst another Asgardian soldier, Skurge, fires machine guns at a spiked-headdress wearing Cate Blanchett who herself is hurling swords the size of mountains towards a towering fire demon (all of this set of course, to the backdrop of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”)

But this lack of restraint is the type of film that Thor: Ragnarok aspires to be, one that glorifies in its excess and insanity. The past two films, while far from atrocious, suffered from a lack of originality and a tendency to take themselves too seriously. Yet for this third-outing, Thor: Ragnarok feels far more like a riff on Guardians of the Galaxy; it embraces its absurdity and is a colorful, entertaining, and hilarious film, one the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best, whose only fault is that in its excess of humor, its story is left emotionally hollow.

The script is a Frankenstein’s monster of different famed comic book storylines, the most notable inclusion being Planet Hulk, but writers Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost make the plot comprehensible if not narcotizing.

Taking place two years after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ragnarok sees Thor, oblivious to the cataclysmic events occurring on Earth (see: Captain America: Civil War) is continuing his galaxy-wide search for the Infinity Stones. After he realizes that his presumed dead half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), has been masquerading as their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), Thor exposes his trickery. Hela (Cate Blanchett) the goddess of Death then arrives, destroys Thor’s hammer, and strands the brothers on Sakaar, a junk heap planet ruled by the fair yet firmly cruel Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). While Hela wreaks havoc on Asgard, Thor and Loki team up with Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) who has suppressed the human side, Bruce Banner, for the past two years, and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson),a prior member of Asgard’s legendary Valkyrior fighter force, to leave Sakaar and stop Hela.

Just as Mjolnir was a channel for the god of thunder’s electrifying powers, each Thor film has served as a showcase for each film director’s unique style. Branagh’s take focused on the character’s regality and echoed the tragedies of Shakespeare, while Taylor’s film was grittier and darker in comparison. Taika Waititi allows his zany and and eccentric sense of humor bleed through in every shot and adds unexpected spins to scenes where others would have gone for more traditional approach.

The opening sequence sees Thor chained up in the lair of the fire demon Surtur who mocks the asgardian prince that the destruction of Asgard is near. Thor exchanges banter his incendiary host before shouting a final insult and calling forth his hammer to free him from captivity, with the soundtrack heightening to an uplifting crescendo, signaling a dramatic escape.

Yet Thor’s clapback was spoken too early which leaves him embarrassed and Surtur confused as the two stand awkwardly in silence for a few moments before mjolnir returns and an explosive fight ensues. As Thor destroys Surtur’s legions of expendable fire demons, the camera at one point follows the fight from the hammer’s point of view as it is tossed to and fro on the battlefield. This is just one of the many examples of Waititi’s idiosyncratic filming style shining through.

Waiti’s strong and unique direction is further amplified by Chris Hemsworth’s animated take on the titular character, who makes Thor feel like a character out of Monty Python. Thor’s kryptonite has always been his deus ex machina type powers; every obstacle in his way is resolved by smashing it with his fists. Yet by stripping stripping Thor of everything dear to him (his home, hammer and hair) Waititi is able to better humanize the character, presenting him as vulnerable and one who can no longer hide behind an aura of chauvinism.

Hemsworth turns the character’s personality flaws (pride and arrogance) into humorous tools of comedy (the voice recognition on the Quinjet identifies Hulk as the strongest Avenger and not him for example). He has a lot of range and while he gets in touch with his inner goofiness, he does so with such captivating charm and effervescence. It is shame that he never slows down enough to think about what he is doing, frequently stating “this is what heroes do” without asking why.

Likewise, Tom Hiddleston remains charming as ever as Loki and it’s hard to believe that he was the same power-hungry villain of the first Avengers film. His signature craftiness and selfishness return (somehow making him more likeable), but his story arc does not really go anywhere; he has fallen from grace and subsequently redeemed so many times that even the peace struck between him and his brother seems ephemeral.

Hulk and Valkyrie’s character arcs are more fleshed out and interesting. The emerald giant finally feels like a complete character and not a side-piece; when Hulk is not smashing or pummeling opponents, viewers get to see how he thinks and interacts with the world around him, being an intersection between curious child and raging monster. Thompson’s Valkyrie is the most fun to watch on screen; her level-headedness and snarky comebacks are a wonderful foil to Thor’s seemingly childish idealism. While inseparable for most of the movie from some form of alcohol, she is headstrong and takes nonsense from no one, whose piercing scowl is the physical embodiment of “looks can kill.”

While Ragnarok is supposed to be about the destruction of Asgard, one sees that Waiti’s passion really lies in Sakaar, which feels like a souped up version of Mos Eisley. Yet what really gives Sakaar life is Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster, the ruler of the planet whose lackadaisical attitude, deadpan delivery and inclination to take things literally acting as a meta-commentary of sorts on the film’s attitude: if Thor: Ragnarok is to be escapism, it is of the highest kind. It wants nothing more than for its audience to disconnect from reality and be entertained. Rock gladiators, cybernetic bug warriors, purple lasers, flying saucers, zombified warriors and aliens of every shape and size are all present. There is a kind of giddy excitement seeing Thor smash the Hulk like a piñata using a hammer twice as big as himself.

However innocent or crude (try keeping a straight face when the crew has to fly through a flaming wormhole called The Devil’s Anus), what the film lacks in gravitas it makes up for in laughs as jokes in various forms, consisting of but not limited to: self-deprecation, witty banter, irony, sarcasm and puns. A few well-placed and unexpected cameos as well add more meta-commentary that the film is trying hard to not take itself seriously.

Indeed, the only seriousness of the film lies in its reassurance that it does not try to take itself seriously. Yet the film’s flippancy and lack of gravitas becomes its greatest weakness. Waiti’s unpredictability of undercutting serious moments with humor becomes predictable and by the film’s end it borders on insensitivity. For a film about confronting one’s past and not burying anything, Ragnorok does not seem to follow its own advice and often buries any serious moments with a joke, almost afraid of lingering on a moment for too long.

This shows mostly in its treatment of the supporting cast like Anthony Hopkins and Idris Elba who seem to be phoning in their roles as Odin and Heimdall; both seem bored of the “end of the world” trope. The Warriors Three likewise are tragically underused, and even Cate Blanchett’s Hela, the first female antagonist of the MCU, is another wasted villain. While she is charismatic and striking whenever she is onscreen, her vague and unconvincing motivations of revenge seem almost juvenile. Even as Waiti tries to establish her as a force to be reckoned with by having her wipe out all of Asgard’s attack force, it comes off as cartoony and satirical rather than truly threatening.

Ultimately, Thor: Ragnarok is a non-stop rollercoaster ride of comedy imbued with dazzling and exhilarating action sequences and bright set pieces. It is refreshingly new and exciting, and your jaw will probably be sore from laughing, but all of this humor comes at a cost. Life is hard yet the humor of life does not always come from taking sensitive issues and belittling them; there is a humor that comes with hope, that the things once meant for evil could be changed into something good, and that trails that once seemed so daunting were formative.. This is not always the humor found in Thor: Ragnarok, which tries to kill its audience through humor. But then again, there are worse ways to go.

 

Zachary Lee is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at zlee@cornellsun.com.