Friday, November 3, 2017

Norsing Around: THOR: RAGNAROK

There’s not a lick of suspense to be found in Thor: Ragnarok, as weightless and mild-mannered as a superhero space epic can be. It’s partially because of its dedication to being a breezy lark. But it’s mostly due to its position as yet another widget dropping into the Marvel Cinematic Universe machine, every interlocking franchise entry continuing the pattern of containing endless forward momentum with little actual progress. The whole endeavor, diverting though it may be, is always moving to the next one, and the next and the next, with no time to shape its characters’ or settings’ development into anything more than whatever is convenient to serve up the latest flavors of fun lightshow action and design. That is how you end up with a movie that places beloved Norse God Avenger Thor in direct confrontation with the end of his home kingdom Asgard, an apocalyptic vision of Ragnarok coming true, and yet it feels like nothing is at stake. A people, a realm, a dazzling digital vista, might burn up into nothingness and there’s no danger. It’s too busy staging striking electric-day-glo Jack Kirby-styled CG adventure and lovingly holding on eccentric character actors in scene-stealing supporting roles. There’s plenty of fun to be had, but it adds up to the usual fleeting charms tied together with a climactic conflagration cliffhanger.

Like all the best of the MCU movies, the filmmakers behind Ragnarok make sure the production design is aesthetically pleasing in color and scale and the typical quipping script is handled with the peppy fizz of comic timing. The story features Thor knocking about space in lengthy sequences that team him up with a variety of lovable rouges and charming weirdos. It’s a nesting doll of buddy movies, director Taika Waititi taking the same loose, sweet, half-mumbled, aw-shucks delivery of his What We Do in the Shadows and tying it to the bombastic fish-out-of-water silly contrasts that are the Thor movies' stock in trade. It hardly matters that the plot’s engine is the God of Thunder’s long-lost older sister (Cate Blanchett) kicking him out of the family home, causing him to wander the cosmos in exile collecting a team that can take her down. What it really is up to is providing an excuse for colorful, half-funny/half-exciting set-pieces. That’s entertaining enough. He pals around with his slick trickster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston); he gets his feathers ruffled by Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch); he gets captured by an alcoholic swaggering-cool bounty hunter (Tessa Thompson, who should have her own spinoff); he is forced into gladiatorial combat by a trash-planet’s loopy ruler (Jeff Goldblum, delightful with every word); he befriends a soft-spoken rock monster (Waititi); he is knocked about by Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). It’s all fun and games, Thor so elastically invincible he can slam through walls and bounce back swinging, yet so mellowed by his many heroic deeds in the past that he now rides a chill pleasant vibe. He's in on the joke.

There’s a knockabout slapstick tone to the action that integrates the massive IMAX-sized spectacle and the little filigrees of personality allowed to the players involved. Waititi is given the space to build a massive painterly slow-mo vision of warriors atop winged horses diving toward a storm of arrows, and also let Thompson’s Valkyrie sparkle with a twinkle in her eye and a soft sway in her step. It has an enormous battle on a rainbow bridge for the fate of Asgard, and the soft splat of a body hitting the ground with a pratfall plunk. It has a concussive battle between a God and a monster – friends turned foe for the amusement of a rascally side-villain – and enough room to let Goldblum bring down the house with an arc of his eyebrow or a self-amused stammering surprise delivery of a wry line. (He confronts a captive with a seeming reprieve with a line bearing a stinging tail: the good news he’ll be spared…“from life.”) It’s all of a pleasant diverting piece, from the gleaming fake vistas – though why, in a movie with convincing mythological kingdoms and neon-landfill planets, a field in Norway is the phoniest setting is beyond me – to the likably bantering leads and every slick glowing digital swooping adventure sequence in between. There may be precious little there there, but at least the frivolity is enough for an entertaining couple of hours of shiny pictures, charming people, and a synthy noodling Mark Mothersbaugh score. Though it's fleeting and disposable, it's a successfully playful and tossed-off version of ingratiating Marvel bombast.

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