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Friday, February 16, 2018

Black Panther



Wakanda Forever!

Greetings from Wakanda! It's a nice place to visit and... goddamn it, why can't I live here forever? The Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken us to far-flung locales like Asgard, Knowhere, Sakaar, and uh, Queens, but it turns out the greatest destination of all is right in our own backyard. Well, Africa, which secretly houses the hidden nation of Wakanda. Director Ryan Coogler's Black Panther builds a sensational and inviting new universe within the Marvel Universe and populates it with a noble king, a dastardly but provocative villain, dynamic and inspiring women, and only two white people. (Okay, three, counting Bucky Barnes.) Truly, Wakanda is the best place on Earth.

We first met and immediately grew to love T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War, but Black Panther only deepens our admiration for the Wakandan King. Newly crowned after the death of his father King T'Chaka (John Kani), T'Challa fends off two challengers to his throne while hunting down an old enemy, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), the devious black market smuggler who has spent decades heisting Vibranium, the strongest metal on Earth, which is only found in Wakanda. Aside from an explosive jaunt in South Korea (and trips to Oakland, CA), the bulk of Black Panther vividly explores Wakanda and asks pointed questions about the sins of its past and its hopeful future.

Soon, T'Challa discovers a long-buried secret of his father's: a tragic tale of fratricide and the existence of his American-born cousin, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, all amazing swagger). The gradual reveal of Killmonger's history and why he covets the Wakandan throne elevates Black Panther to another level of superhero movie altogether. As does the thoughtful political debate the film inspires, where T'Challa wrestles with whether to shed Wakanda's millennia-held guise as a poor Third World nation and use their Vibranium technology to benefit the world. Meanwhile, Killmonger has his own ideas about that: conquest, and arming people of African descent with Vibranium weapons to forge a Wakandan Empire. T'Challa and his cousin Erik are two sides of the same coin, and their conflict is thrilling, deeply personal, and by the end, genuinely moving.

The Black Panther has a ball playing with all of the toys at his disposal, gleefully provided by the scene-stealer Shuri (Letitia Wright), T'Challa's irrepressible teenage sister who also happens to be the smartest person on the planet. Along with Shuri, the king is also surrounded by the most resplendent female cast ever in a Marvel movie. His mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) is noble and proud. Wakanda's greatest warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira), the leader of the elite all-female Dora Milaje, is every bit as formidable as the king she protects. Best of all, Nakia (Lupita N'yongo) shatters the "Marvel Girlfriend" tradition by being devoted to her king while remaining independent, brave, globally-minded, and heroic in a fight. Nakia is as personally responsible for saving Wakanda as T'Challa is, a fact that does not escape his attention or appreciation.

Black Panther is not just a great Marvel superhero movie, it's one of the best-ever examples of the genre. Coogler stages thrilling action set pieces and not just honors Marvel's proven comic book movie tropes but also invokes classic James Bond movie iconography with a "Q scene" of T'Challa receiving upgraded tech, an eye-popping casino action sequence, and a glorious Bond-like end credits sequence. (Black Panther is as great a Bond movie as Skyfall, in fact.) The third act is reminiscent of and betters The Phantom Menace, with three simultaneous action sequences: a battle between two armies in a field, an aerial dogfight, and the hero and villain battling in a high-tech subterranean location that seems to descend into infinity. Through it all, we heartily cheer on the heroes while the villains maintain understandable motivations as they commit their nefarious acts. Also, Black Panther is the only superhero movie where two of the only three white people in it are missing their left arms. Like Wakanda itself, that's a record that should remain forever unbroken.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Cloverfield Paradox



Show of hands if the origin and backstory of the Cloverfield monster from 10 years ago was a pressing concern to you. All right, everyone at Bad Robot, put your hands down. 

The Cloverfield Paradox, long delayed and suddenly appearing on Netflix without warning like the giant monster did in Manhattan a decade ago, used to be a sci-fi film called God Particle. On a space station, an international bunch of science-y types are trying to solve the Earth's enegy crisis by firing a particle accelerator in orbit. The plan is to produce limitless clean energy which would prevent the wars brewing across all nations. Somehow, when they fired their particle accelerator, they made the Earth disappear. And somewhere along the way, J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot got ahold of God Particle and decided to Cloverfield it up. They took a hacksaw to God Particle and then shoehorned the Cloverfield backstory into it. The shoehorn was emblazoned with the Bad Robot logo and came with a coupon for a free Slusho.

The hack'n'slash is evident from the opening credits, which are comprised of multiple cuts of scenes that probably explain the story better and deepen the characters. Instead, what we're left with is a half-cooked sci-fi thriller with very little explanation of what's happening. The scientists on board the now-rebranded Cloverfield Space Station - it's never made clear what most of their jobs are besides that David Oyelowo is the mission leader and Chris O'Dowd is the doofy mechanic whose arm gets painlessly ripped off - are faced with a lot of weird happenings. Elizabeth Debicki suddenly materializes within a wall, despite the fact that no one has any idea who she is. Meanwhile, a Russian guy and a German guy played by Daniel Bruhl are reentacting World War II in the year 2028 and really hate each other. Each claims the other is a traitor, and depending on which parallel universe they are actually in, they both could be right. 

Oh yes, the space station ended up in a parallel universe - though the movie adds confusion by showing the Cloverfield Station drift off into space so when they 'lose' Earth, it's not clear if the planet is really gone or they just floated too far away from it. There's no super smart techsplaining in Cloverfield Paradox, and the fix is pretty simple: just fire the particle accelerator again and all will be well. It really was just that easy; the only complication was most of the astronauts deciding to kill each other. 

Our sympathies are firmly with Gugu Mbatha-Raw from Black Mirror, the only actual character in the movie. She mourns for the family who died because of a tragic mistake she made, and she's tempted to stay in the parallel world because her kids are alive there, never mind how that could possibly work. Eventually, she makes the obvious but difficult decision to not go live in a Mirror Universe, which already has a perfectly fine version of her. Meanwhile, on Earth, her husband Roger Davies runs into the path of the giant Cloverfield monsters now rampaging all over the planet, and he has to get himself and a young girl he found to Ned Flanders' emergency bunker in a half-baked subplot. 

The Cloverfield Paradox reveals that the monsters from the first movie and the ones from this movie we barely see are all on Earth because of the horrific goofup by the Cloverfield Station. So there are our answers. These astronauts are entirely to blame. While the parallel world Debicki is from is caught up in a world war, at least there seem to be no kaiju there so maybe Mbatha-Raw should have stuck around the Mirror Universe after all. And speaking of Mirror Universes, does this one need an Emperor? Because I know of one who's out of work and looking for a new gig.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets



Behold science fiction cinema's worst on screen couple, a romantic pairing so repellent, they make Anakin and Padme look like Jack and Rose. Dane DeHaan is Valerian, a Major in the ill-defined United Human Federation. Cara Delevingne is Laureline, a fellow agent who, despite being infinitely more competent than Valerian, is ranked beneath him as a mere Sergeant, so that's what the future's like. Valerian and Laureline are partners, but more than that, together or apart - but especially together - they are cosmic black holes of human empathy. Valerian is a total creep; a smarmy, self-obsessed waste of matter who is somehow the hero of this movie because his name is in the title. Laureline is forever fending off his lewd advances of love and marriage, all the while secretly attracted to him because she herself is devoid of anything resembling palpable humanity. They are gross.

Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, based upon a 'beloved' series of graphic novels you probably have to be a Frenchman to have ever heard of, is a lot like his well-regarded The Fifth Element, except with Valerian, Besson cranks up the splatters of colors while wringing out all of the charm and whimsy. The skeezbag and supposed lady killer Valerian is no Bruce Willis, not even close. Willis possesses the gravitas and charisma of a true movie star, while DeHaan is pure anti-matter. Milla Jovovich was vulnerable and loveable in a way that Laureline could never be because Laureline is a sociopath just like Valerian, encased in a 'cool female action hero' facade that wears thin mere moments after being graced with her presence. Valerian and Laureline are meant to be together and save a universe you're screaming to escape upon entry.

It starts off so well too: The City of a Thousand Planets was once Alpha Station, the International Space Station celebrating the cooperation and unity of mankind before aliens started arriving and joining their technology to ours in a charming montage set to David Bowie's "Space Oddity." Exponentially growing to become a gigantic, multi-species city, Alpha Station eventually leaves Earth orbit, and 500 years later, it becomes the fabled City of a Thousand Planets, home to 70 million humans and aliens working together in intergalactic harmony. However, something's rotten in the City of a Thousand Plants, involving a secret conspiracy within the government and the genocide of a planet over a MacGuffin: a little alien critter that poops out countless priceless alien pearls. 

Everything in the movie is fine for about 10 minutes, which is not coincidentally when we meet Valerian and Laureline. After this, the movie itself becomes poop, with a convoluted plot offering zero surprises to anyone paying attention or has seen any other sci-fi movie. Ethan Hawke and Rihanna drop in to ham in it up, but overall, everyone in Valerian, human or alien, looks either befuddled or downright embarrassed. Everyone except Valerian and Laureline, that is. Both DeHaan and Delevingne are at least gung ho about starring in this universe, which places them and their noxious 'will they or won't they?' love affair firmly at the center, like the fetid core of a rotten apple.

Clive Owen is also in this. What happened to his career?


Friday, December 15, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi



"This isn't gonna end the way you think," Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) admonishes Rey (Daisy Ridley). Indeed, this line is both a challenge and a primer to the audience from writer-director Rian Johnson, the once and future steward of Star Wars. With Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Johnson takes the lightsaber from J.J. Abrams' The Force Awakens (and will pass it right back to Abrams for Episode IX) and crafts his continuation of the story of both the new guard of the saga, Rey, Finn (John Boyega), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the old, the Skywalker twins Luke and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). The result is a grand, unwieldy, inspiring, endlessly surprising, weird, but uplifting Star Wars for the ages.

"There's something inside me that's always been there. Now it's awake. And I'm scared," Rey admits to Luke with her unique brand of endearing honesty. She tells the old Jedi Master she has come to return him to his sister Leia so he can save the Resistance in their time of greatest need. Luke has other ideas: "I came to this island to die." And with him, he hopes, will die the ancient Jedi order, the source of so much of the Galaxy's greatest failures. Rey is really on the isolated island of Ahch-To for a personal reason: she wants Luke to train her to be a Jedi. Luke refuses, despite Rey pointing out: "I've seen your daily routine. You're not busy." Rey does get her training, to a degree, but her indoctrination into the mystic arts of the Jedi is less about "moving rocks" but more about understanding the importance of the choices she makes. As the welcome sight of Yoda (Frank Oz) - Empire Strikes Back edition - tells "Young Skywalker" when they burn the last of the ancient Jedi tomes, "There's nothing in those books that isn't already inside her." 

Being a Jedi was never about your lightsaber color, or your ability "to control people" (how Rey described the Force to Luke). It was about choices, and ultimately, poor choices and an inability to see the big picture is what doomed the Jedi and the Galaxy for a long time. Rey's lessons on Ahch-To were less about learning cool new Force tricks as it was uncovering the truth behind Luke's choice to isolate himself from the Force and hide from the Galaxy - his greatest failure: Kylo Ren. Luke has a certain point of view about how Kylo turned to the Dark Side and destroyed Luke's fledgling new Jedi Order; Kylo, through a mental Force communion with Rey, has his own point of view: Luke tried to murder him and drove him to Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). The truth is somewhere in the middle, mired in Luke Skywalker's eternal weakness as Yoda once told Young Skywalker: "I sense much fear in you." Luke's fear of his nephew Ben Solo's potential drove him to make a fatal mistake. But in the end, they made the choices they made and they are who they are because of them.

The Last Jedi also wisely speaks to Luke Skywalker's legend, and how legends are always crafted around imperfect people. The truth never quite lives up. Luke scoffed at the idea that he would just march back into the fight, "laser sword" in hand, and stand up to the First Order. (Which is exactly what he does in the fantastic final moments of the film). Meanwhile, Rey believes in the legend, so much that The Last Jedi goes full on into a homage of Return of the Jedi, with Rey allowing herself to get captured and brought in front of Snoke, hoping she can turn Kylo Ren back to the good side and become Ben Solo again. This leads to a series of genuinely shocking moments as Snoke suddenly and unwittingly is beside himself, and Rey and Kylo fight side by side against the Praetorian Guard in possibly the best lightsaber battle in the saga's history. But in the end Rey and Kylo are who they are - she remains unwaveringly good while he is indeed the monster she says he is. Despite their bond through the Force, they are enemies and will be until they face each other one final time.

Meanwhile, there is a whole other movie going on. The Resistance is all but doomed as the First Order chases them around the Galaxy in a head-scratcher of a space chase that lasts almost the entire movie. This involves several desperate gambles, including Finn and his new friend Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) going on a side mission to the casino planet Canto Bight to find a code breaker (Benicio Del Toro) who can get them into Snoke's Star Destroyer so they can destroy a Flux Capacitor - or something? The important thing is Finn once more gets to confront and have a final duel with Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), facing and overcoming his greatest fear once and for all. Poe Dameron gets a huge amount of screen time as he leads a mutiny to take control of the Resistance from Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) when Leia is incapacitated and learns the limits of being a headstrong, impulsive fighter jockey.

The Force Awakens effectively turned the saga over to our new heroes Rey, Finn and Poe, but The Last Jedi shows us that the new kids still have a lot to learn. None of the gambits the new generation tries actually pan out. Rey is unable to turn Kylo Ren. Finn and Rose went through the entire Canto Bight sequence for nothing as they couldn't shut down the Flux Capacitor and are captured. Poe's mutiny was easily foiled by Leia herself, who asserts that the old generation still has aces up their sleeves - watch and learn, kids. Leia and Holdo, whom Poe mistrusted, came up with a scheme to deliver the Resistance to a temporary sanctuary on the salt world of Crait. Holdo's sacrifice ramming the Resistance ship into Snoke's ship is what saved the Resistance. And Luke Skywalker finally returned to the fight, bidding his twin sister a sweet farewell, and confronting his former student Kylo Ren with a new bag of awesome Force tricks we've never seen before. There is still much to be learned from the generation who we now say goodbye to (RIP, Princess Carrie), and though the family is reunited on the Millennium Falcon at the end, the future of the Rebels and of the Galaxy is more precarious than ever. Episode IX will be the final test to see if Rey, Finn, Poe, and Rose really have what it takes to save the Galaxy on their own.

As for the mystery of Rey's parents, the truth is strangely satisfying. Two years of debating her lineage (is she a Skywalker or a Kenobi?) was for naught. She is no one special. Her parents are "filthy junk traders who sold and abandoned her. They're probably dead in a pauper's grave." As Kylo tells her, "You don't have a place in this story." Which is the most powerful possible choice. Rey is told she's "no one special" because she's not tied to any characters, but that's exactly what makes her special. She was chosen by the Force to be something new, to craft her own role in this story. It's a tribute to how unwaveringly good Rey is that she is never tempted to turn to the Dark Side. She can't do what Luke did because she isn't Luke. She is Rey, and she will be who she is and what she chooses to be. A new kind of Jedi for whatever the Galaxy will become next.

While awkwardly paced as the longest Star Wars film ever, The Last Jedi nonetheless boasts the best third act of any Star Wars movie and delivers several truly "HOLY SHIT" moments. By my count, they are Leia surviving death in the vacuum of space by the will of the Force; Holdo jumping to lightspeed THROUGH Snoke's ship and slicing it in half; Snoke himself being sliced in half by Kylo Ren (Unkar Plutt's famous line "One half portion!" now applies to Snoke); Rey and Kylo fighting together as if they'd been teammates their whole lives; and Luke Skywalker unleashing the awesome power of the Force on Kylo Ren and the First Order with the greatest mind trick he ever pulled. The Last Jedi bids his final breath in The Last Jedi, but both old Skywalkers go out in magnificent fashion, the film honoring their legacy and importance to the Star Wars saga. What happens now is the biggest question in the Galaxy, but The Last Jedi not only reshuffled the deck but tossed all the cards in the air so they're blown by the wind. The contrivances and outright strange aspects of Johnson's film are held together by the sheer charisma of Ridley, Boyega, Isaac, Driver, Fisher, BB-8, and Hamill and the good will we maintain for them throughout.

"Let go of the past," Kylo tells Rey. "Kill it if you have to." The Last Jedi does its best to do just that, unshackling the saga as much as it can from the old characters, tropes, and traditions and even the old ways of what we thought the Force can do. Now, this new Star Wars trilogy probably won't end the way anyone thinks and that should ultimately prove to be a very good thing. We hope. And with that, it's time for this The Last Jedi review to end.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Justice League



"Children," Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) says with a bit of disbelief. "I'm working with children." Of course, Superman (Henry Cavill) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) giggling on the ground after they managed to save the world together earned a little bit of child-like goofy revelry. Child-like goofy revelry is the theme and provides the high points of Justice League, a superhero movie designed to please the Super Friends-loving children inside us first and foremost. Director Zack Snyder (and Joss Whedon who directed reshoots but only shares screenplay credit Chris Terrio) finally unite the seven six World's Greatest Superheroes - Superman, Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman, Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg - together in one superhero smash-em-up movie. The Justice League comes together to face - what else? - an invader from another world, the CGI conqueror Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), and his army horde big group of flying space insects called Parademons from the planet Apokolips. But first, the Justice League has to learn to work together (i.e. learn to work with Batman). 

Justice League follows up the events of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Superman died saving the world. Batman, who was consumed by hatred of the Man of Steel in the previous movie, is now consumed by guilt over his death and fear about the coming alien invasion he's powerless to stop. Together, Batman and Wonder Woman go hunting for new super friends, which takes up half of the movie. In Newfoundland, Batman finds Arthur Curry, the Aquaman, a local legend who is not-so-secretly the disgruntled King of the Seven Seas. Bruce Wayne has really gotten sloppy in his old age; he didn't seem remotely concerned that by publicly chatting with Curry, an entire town in Newfoundland now knows he's the Batman. Wayne also recruits Barry Allen, a gee whiz wunderkind who also happens to be the Fastest Man Alive. Allen instinctively understands he's the comic relief of this group and plays his role with aplomb. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman and Cyborg find each other - Cyborg was a college athlete named Victor Stone who was caught in some kind of explosion. His scientist father rebuilt him into a Cyborg using technology from what he calls the Change Engine, but is actually one of the three alien Mother Boxes Steppenwolf has returned to Earth to collect.

Steppenwolf is the boring alien lynchpin of Justice League's mythology - he came to Earth five thousand years ago with three Mother Boxes and way more Parademons than he brings in 2017. In DC Comics, Mother Boxes are all-purpose super computers, but in Justice League, they're just alien power sources which, when combined into 'The Unity', will terraform the Earth and turn it into the planet Apokolips, Steppenwolf's other dimensional home world. (Terraforming Earth is the exact same plan the Kryptonians had when they invaded Earth in Man of Steel. Don't any aliens want Earth as it is? It's a nice planet!) The film barely explains the mythology of the New Gods (or anything else), expecting the audience to have seen the other DC movies and the comic book nerds in the know to fill the newbies in afterwards. So Steppenwolf tried to turn the Earth all fiery and horrible, and turn humans into Parademons, but an alliance between the Amazons (Wonder Woman's people), the Atlanteans (Aquaman's people), the tribes of man, and even the Greek gods and a Green Lantern (who got his green ass whooped real fast) stood against Steppenwolf and banished him. The Atlanteans, Amazons, and men each took a Mother Box (in this universe, shouldn't it really be called a Martha Box?) to keep them separated. Like geniuses, the Atlanteans and Amazons put their Mother Boxes on display. The humans (for once) had the good sense to bury their Mother Box. How it ended up in the lab of Cyborg's father is one of Justice League's many plot holes that go unexplained.

So where the hell is Superman? Well, he is dead, but not forgotten. Justice League retcons the mistrust and ambiguity the world felt about the Man of Steel's existence. Now he was a beacon of hope whose banner is flown at all points around the globe in a state of perpetual mourning. The man Superman really was, Clark Kent, is missed terribly by his mother Martha (Diane Lane) and his fiance Lois Lane (Amy Adams), but no one on Earth misses him more than Batman. In his private moments with his butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Batman bemoans his own inadequacies at length (he's right about all of them). He's convinced that Superman is who the world needs (he's right about that too.) When the League minus Superman faces Steppenwolf for the first time and get their united asses handed to them, Batman decides it's time to really go dark - Pet Cemetary dark - and bring Superman back to life with the power of the Mother Box. This leads to the moment no one ever expected to see in a superhero movie: The Flash and Cyborg in a Smallville graveyard digging up Clark Kent's coffin.

Gal Gadot thankfully returns as the Wonder Woman we fell in love with last summer. Wonder Woman is unequivocably the best character in the movie and perpetually the only adult in the room. The best scene in Justice League is the argument when Batman goes full-on asshole and accuses Wonder Woman of failing the world by not being the beacon of hope Superman is. The other best scene is when Aquaman doesn't realize he's sitting on Wonder Woman's magic Lasso of Truth and start spilling his guts about his true feelings (Wonder Woman is gorgeous, he doesn't want to die, etc.) These character interactions between the League are terrific and savvy, full of knowing wit and a pleasing understanding of the characters and how they bounce off each other. The movie really picks up momentum when Superman comes back to life - complete, of course, with the obligatory fan service of Superman fighting the Justice League (and racing The Flash) - before Lois Lane's appearance calms him down and puts the human back in control of the Kryptonian. Superman is worth waiting for, and it's wonderful to see Henry Cavill smiling, relaxed and cracking jokes for the first time (no matter how weird his CGI'd face looks after the mustache he grew for Mission: Impossible 6 was digitally erased).

With so many superheroes and their disparate corners of the DC Universe (Gotham, Atlantis, Themyscira, Central City) being serviced - the Atlanteans and their Queen Mera (Amber Heard) really got short shafted; wait until the Aquaman movie next year to find out what all that Atlantis business was all about - Justice League takes on multiple tones not unlike what Stephen Soderbergh did with Traffic. The movie literally looks and feels different depending on what location they're at - Gotham looks like a cartoon city, then all of a sudden we cut to London and it looks like the real world - and the effect can be jarring. Imagine if Star Wars: Attack of the Clones was jammed together with A New Hope mixed with huge chunks of The LEGO Batman Movie and you get the idea. The first half of the movie leaps around like two dogs fighting over a stick, and the action scenes are mostly frenetic and unmemorable eyesores, with deafeningly loud and abrasive sound design that drowns out composer Danny Elfman's weaving of his classic Batman and John Williams' classic Superman scores into the music. Five years ago, The Avengers assembled for a crowd-pleasing and multi-layered 30 minute battle against aliens to defend New York City, showcasing each Avenger's powers, abilities, and strategies. The Justice League's final showdown with Steppenwolf is a rush job in a tiny town in the middle of Russia where they just keep punching Parademons and Steppenwolf until they win. The League may have been All In, according to the marketing, but in terms of everything it could be, the movie is Not All There.

After so many years of dreaming about this movie, the Justice League finally united but it only barely rises above the level of live action cartoon. However, the small, human moments: Bruce Wayne admitting to Wonder Woman that he's barely physically capable of being Batman anymore; Aquaman mocking Bruce Wayne dressing up "just like a bat" in response to wisecracks about "talking to fish"; Wonder Woman using her compassion to try to make Cyborg feel human and wanted; the look on Batman's face when his crazy plan worked and Superman came back to life; Batman: "Oh yeah, something's definitely bleeding..."; and Clark Kent and Lois Lane reuniting in a Smallville cornfield - the love story holding together the fate of the entire DC Universe - are worth celebrating. These are the moments that make Justice League worth it. There's potentially nowhere to go but up from here; a wise choice by DC Films as to who will helm the sequel now that Zack Snyder is reportedly stepping aside will hopefully deliver an even better version of the part 2 teased in the rebuilding of Stately Wayne Manor into the Hall of Justice ("room for more") and in the post-credits scene. After a lifetime of dreaming about a Justice League movie, it's finally here. Now fulfilled, we can share a new dream: one of a coherent Justice League movie. For that, I will be All In.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok



Strongest Avenger

"You'll always be the God of Mischief," Thor (Chris Hemsworth) tells his adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), "But you could be so much more." Those words form the thematic crux of director Taika Waititi's raucous house party of a Marvel film Thor: Ragnarok. Waititi's electric and colorful palette and wall to wall jokes brings the hammer down on the crusty old Marvel formula of how to do a Thor movie. In Ragnarok, Thor has evolved, and continues to, from the haughty muscle of the Avengers into something more, and better. To accomplish this heroic feat, Waititi rips Thor from the things about the franchise that never worked like it should have (Asgard, the Warriors Three, the faux-Shakespearean pomposity) and things that have become crutches (Thor's magical hammer Mjolnir, which is destroyed in the first act and never comes back). The result is a leaner, funnier and better God of Thunder than ever before, ready for whatever the future holds.

Thor: Ragnarok is really a treatise against stagnation, of the Thor character and his side of the Marvel Universe, and of the Marvel brand itself. The yeoman's work of introducing Thor and the concept of Asgard is long past us and there is no time for looking back at those innocent times when Thor was in love with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Thor is on to new things and he never stops moving. When we reunite with Thor in Ragnarok, he's been on his own for a couple of years since he left Earth at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron to find the Infinity Stones (he didn't find any). No, instead what Thor found and continued to find throughout Ragnarok was something greater: himself and his true compass of what makes him a hero. Also, he found jokes. Lots and lots of jokes.

During those missing two years, Thor developed a wicked sense of humor. His wit was always there, kind of, but now it's been unleashed. Thor maintains his alpha god swagger, but it's tempered. He is much more laid back and self-aware than ever before. Hemsworth, who was the comedic highlight of the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot, fuses his inherent goofball wit into Thor and the result is as electric as Thor's newfound powers. Whether lying to both Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and his raging goliath alter ego the Incredible Hulk about which one of them he prefers, trying to charm the last Valkyrie of Asgard (a revelatory Tessa Thompson), or being much wiser to the machinations of Loki, Thor becomes more than just a hammer and a mane of hair (not coincidentally he loses both). Thor becomes, at long last, a great character.

Of course, the selling point of Thor: Ragnarok was the big showdown between Hulk and Thor, and it is indeed a fantastic and worthy smackdown riddled with sly in-jokes. In this, and in the grand spectacle of an intergalactic superhero film filled with gods and monsters, Ragnarok succeeds mightily. After a jumpy opening act where much Marvel admin has to get done - dropping by the Sanctum Sanctorum of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), for example - the film finds its sure footing and begins to run at breakneck speed in its second half. Waititi sends Thor bouncing around from Earth to Asgard to the junkyard planet of Sakaar, where he's captured and forced to become a Sakaarian Gladiator. All throughout, Thor encounters a bevy of whacko oddball characters, including Waititi himself playing the affable rock monster Korg.

Thor's fight to save Asgard from his heretofore unknown older sister Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett having a ball) is really a fight against his own status quo. Odin (Anthony Hopkins), ancient symbol of stagnation, shuffles off this mortal coil, and with him goes the old Thor movie paradigm - and good riddance. Hela wants to restore an order even older than Odin. Thor, whether he knows it or not, is looking for what comes next. Thor must save the people of Asgard from the total destruction of Ragnarok - "Because that's what heroes do" - but what both Thor and this movie really want is to move beyond Thor always being the same. As he tells Valkyrie in a revealing moment that gets lost amidst a sea of jokes, his destiny to sit upon the throne of Asgard meant stagnation to Thor. Asgard is eternal (or was), but in his heart Thor is looking for more. 

When Thor forms his team with the purposefully stupid name the Revengers to save Asgard from Hela, he urges his friends to move beyond their status quo to fight for a greater ideal. For Hulk, it means not staying on Sakaar and continuing as the prized champion gladiator of the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum delightfully playing off his rocker). For Valkyrie, it means to stop burying her memories of the Valkyries being slaughtered by Hela millennia ago in a haze of alcohol and once more fighting to save the people of Asgard. And for Loki, it means trying just a little bit harder to be a better person and not resorting to his usual bag of tricks to achieve some vainglorious end. Loki takes the longest to get with the program, but even he finds a glimpse of his better self. Thor cheerleads them all with an unyielding sense of optimism that things will work out all right.

By the time the giant fire monster Surtur (voiced by Clancy Brown) destroys Asgard and Hela along with it, Thor and his franchise have finally cut the cord with what a Thor movie used to be. Marvel itself seems to be evolving as well. 2017 was the year where its superhero films, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and now Ragnarok threw out the dusty old Marvel movie playbook and really explored what their superhero movies could be through color, humor, and the personal idiosyncrasies of their directors. Waititi splendidly seems to take it all the way with Ragnarok, and the result is a joyous and rowdy party with Thor as the Lord of Jokes and Revelry. Though Thor learns Ragnarok is inevitable, there's a victory here because Thor succeeded in saving his people, and he did it his way. Thor is Asgard's king, but more importantly, he is their hero, and he's ours. "They love me on Earth," Thor reminds Loki, at the end. "I'm very popular." After Ragnarok, Thor is more right about that than ever.