Friday, November 3, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok — Thud and blunder

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for intense sci-fi action and violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.3.17

Thor has succumbed to a case of the sillies.

Perhaps concerned by the grim sturm und drang that has turned so many recent superhero epics into dreary slogs, Marvel Studios has authorized a rather drastic realignment of its cinematic God of Thunder. They shifted too far in the opposite direction: The results here feel more like a new try-out team for Guardians of the Galaxy.

Having rather miraculously survived their first gladiatorial punch-out, Thor (Chris
Hemsworth) and the Hulk discover they've been forced to become unlikely roommates
in an oddly appointed cell.
Granted, the myth-specific costumes and flowery Shakespearean dialogue drew snickers in the first two Thor films, but they nonetheless let viewers know that none of it was to be taken seriously. The tone was light, particularly with respect to the sniping between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), whose villainy never was as dire as he would have preferred.

But Thor: Ragnarok is a full-blown comedy interrupted only occasionally by super-heroics, and that’s an unfortunate miscalculation. The film’s three credited writers — Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost — seem far more interested in replicating the playful banter and witty one-liners that were characteristic of 1930s and ’40s screwball comedies, little realizing that crafting such repartee, and making it sound organic, requires far more skill than is on display here.

Delivering such dialogue also demands a level of thespic skill that Hemsworth sadly lacks. Co-stars Cate Blanchett, Anthony Hopkins and Hiddleston have the acting background required to chew up the scenery, but Hemsworth is far outside his comfort zone. Too many of his line readings smack of desperation.

Worse yet, the core plot — highlighted by Blanchett’s marvelously malevolent über-villainess, Hela — gets sidetracked by an interminable second act that piles on the dumb-bunny gags. It’s sad to see Thor become an object of ridicule in his own series.

The film’s subtitle — ragnarok, also known in Norse mythology as “twilight of the gods” — refers to a final apocalyptic battle that (depending on interpretation) concludes with the destruction of the world, or the universe, or godly realms. For this story, the threat is to Thor’s ancestral home of Asgard, gateway to the “nine realms” that include Midgard (Earth).

Thor seems to have this threat well in hand during a prologue; he handily defeats Surtur, an immense fire demon who is the fabled harbinger of ragnarok. But Loki once again has been up to no good, back in Asgard, having usurped the throne and stripped their father Odin (Hopkins) of his magical power. In this weakened state, he’s no longer able to secure the enchanted prison that has long protected the nine realms from Hela (Blanchett), goddess of death ... and — surprise, surprise — Thor and Loki’s hitherto unknown older sister.

Hela is one baaaaaaad babe; she makes quick work of all adversaries, leaving her two brothers cast elsewhere in the universe. Blanchett is terrific, radiating haughty contempt and Machiavellian evil with every word and deed. She puts delightful malice into each syllable, and it’s a genuine shame we don’t get to spend more time with her.

Instead, we follow Thor as he crashes onto the junkyard planet of Sakaar, ruled by a high-camp Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) who stages gladiatorial bouts to the death, between enslaved warriors kidnapped from throughout the universe. (These doings on Sakaar are adapted loosely from a 2006 Marvel comic book storyline dubbed Planet Hulk.) Once fitted with an “obedience collar,” Thor is forced to participate in these great games.

Not that he’s expected to live long, because the Grandmaster immediately sets up a match against his long-undefeated champion ... who, in a nice twist, turns out to be Thor’s fellow Avenger, the Hulk.

Thor’s imprisonment is down to Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), a galactic scavenger/mercenary with an apparently boundless capacity for otherworldly alcohol. She’s clearly A Woman With A Tortured Past — A Bad Gal Secretly Needing To Be Heroic Again — but Thor doesn’t have much luck with her.

Thompson is appropriately feisty, with enough attitude to make up for her diminutive 5-foot-4 frame. (Mayes C. Rubeo’s costume helps a bit.)

Sakaar’s gladiatorial pen also has become home to the rock-creature Korg (voiced by this film’s director, Taika Waititi), a Kronan from the planet Ria, who looks like a down-market cousin of the Fantastic Four’s orange-hued Thing. Depending on one’s expectations, Korg either is this film’s comedic saving grace, or a tone-deaf, one-liner scourge far worse than Hela or Surtur.

Many (most?) of Korg’s frequent attempts at humor fall quite flat; some are poorly timed and even eye-rollingly tasteless. The film grinds to a halt every time, Waititi — as director — apparently pausing to allow for audience laughter. In fairness, he got plenty of chuckles from Monday evening’s preview audience ... but an equal number of folks clearly weren’t amused.

Sad, but true: This isn’t the Thor we grew up with.

Goldblum’s Grandmaster is even worse: a chatterbox scoundrel in love with the sound of his own voice. Even within the context of this ludicrous environment, one can’t help wondering how such a dweeb ever could have maintained control of an entire planet.

Thank Odin for the likes of Blanchett’s Hela, and Hiddleston’s sly-as-a-fox Loki, who often steals the show. Loki gets all the best — and most story-appropriate — lines, and Hiddleston delivers them with arch, oily insincerity.

Wherever Hulk goes, his alter ego Bruce Banner can’t be far behind; Mark Ruffalo has his usual fun with this deeply conflicted Jekyll/Hyde character. The primary note this time out is wounded pride, Banner harboring the deep suspicion that Thor prefers his meaner, greener personality.

The production design, special effects and world-building are terrific, as always; we definitely can’t complain about the look of this film. Thor’s introduction to Sakaar is particularly impressive: an immense, horizon-spanning junkyard nightmare that would have made Wall-E burst a processor.

Devoted franchise followers will be pleased by a few surprise guests, and of course Stan Lee pops up for his usual light-hearted cameo.

Mark Mothersbaugh’s thunderous orchestral score is complemented by the continuity of familiar Marvel superhero themes from Patrick Doyle (“Thor Theme”) and Brian Tyler (“Avengers: Age of Ultron Theme”). Waititi also injects a few pop/rock classics; some work, while others don’t. The use of “Golden Ticket”/“Pure Imagination” — from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory — is flat-out weird, and typical of Waititi’s kitchen-sink approach to this film. On the other hand, Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” is placed superbly.

Marvel Comics purists are likely to have the most trouble with this third Thor outing; the tone simply isn’t right. On the other hand, fairness dictates that my own Constant Companion — by no means a comic books reader — regards this as the series’ best yet. Marvel Studios execs certainly knew what they were in for, based on the two jokey Team Thor shorts that Waititi directed as end-credit inserts for earlier franchise entries.

But caution is advised. Sliding too far into self-referential parody — a line this film definitely crosses — is a fast path to irrelevance and viewer hostility.

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