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Saturday, November 4, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok

THOR: RAGNAROK

** SPOILERS **

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.

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