Saturday Features

God of quips

While not quite as irreverent or funny as one would hope coming from director TaikaWaititi, Ragnarok is still head and shoulders above most Marvel fare, and certainly the best Thor installment yet (though that really isn’t saying much)

Nov 11, 2017-Ratings: 3/5

The level of stress suffered by writers and directors working in these big-budget superhero franchises has to be off the charts. Paycheck sizes apart, imagine the kind of constraints someone taking on a Marvel or DC project must be under these days: with beginnings and endings and much of the broad arcs of the story already locked in tight so as to link a given film to others in its respective “universe”—it’s now become more a matter of filling in the blanks than anything else. This must be an especially tough ask for smaller, independent filmmakers, more of whom are increasingly being brought onboard these blockbusters to offer a unique take on the stories, but most of whom end up succumbing to studio pressures.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been the occasional happy anomaly, of directors and writers asserting their own voice and style, and if not fully transcending, at least pushing the boundaries placed around them enough to give audiences something that stands out from the crowd. And this is precisely what happened when Kiwi director TaikaWaititi was handed the reins of the new Thor: Ragnarok. While not quite as irreverent or funny as one would’ve hoped, and still fairly predictable in terms of  plotting, the film is head and shoulders above most Marvel fare, and without a doubt, the best Thor installment yet, replacing the dour self-seriousness of the series with a lighter, hipper tone—a smart, though not always convincingly executed, move. 

In this new chapter, it turns out thatThor (Chris Hemsworth) has an even more dysfunctional family than we suspected. As if all that shifty frenemy business with adoptive brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) that fueled the first two films in the series and an Avengers feature weren’t enough, the God of Thunder has just been informed by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) that he also has an older sister. You see, Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, had once fought alongside Odin in his bid to conquer the different realms surrounding their planet of Asgard. But she had proved too ambitious, too cruel, and fearing what she would do if left unchecked, her father had her locked up all these years, without a word to either Thor or Loki. For reasons I can’t get into here, Hela is now on the loose, intent on claiming her birthright and generally wreaking havoc in the universe.

It’s up to Thor to stop her, but he’s somewhat sidetracked when he accidentally lands on a giant garbage dump of a planet called Sakaar and is captured by a mercenary  (Tessa Thompson). Subsequently sold to a colourful crazy called the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum having the time of his life) who is in charge around here, Thor finds himself forced to take part in some kind of bizarre gladiatorial battle-to-the-death against other interplanetary warriors. He must find a way out of this dangerous circus, put together a team that is an approximation of the Avengers—he’s happily run into old “friend from work”, Hulk, so that’s one down—and head back home to Asgard to save his people. 

2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy had proved that audiences respond well to large doses of quippy fun in the superhero world. Not to imply that there were no such attempts before Gunn’s film—the Avengers, for example, was a hoot and half—but you can’t deny that overall, the genre had taken a distinctly over-solemn, “gritty” turn, possibly influenced by success of the Dark Knight trilogy. Since Guardians, however, there’s been a noticeable shift in the opposite direction, of more self-aware, more inclined-to-silliness scripts. And Waititi is certainly a great choice to be steering the Thor series—the inherent ridiculousness of whose premise was just begging for a good ol’ fashioned injection of goof—that way. The writer-director’s wacky, offbeat, and often just plain weird sensibility—as seen, for instance, in the hilarious mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows and last year’s adorable Hunt for the Wilder people—has already made him something of a cult favourite.

However, while Ragnarok definitely benefits from his inputs—particularly the sort of squabbly, bantery riffs that turns out he whips up just as well between superheroes as he does between vampires—there are times the film appears to be trying too hard. The jokes don’t fall flat so much as they feel a bit forced; it’s funny stuff, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a certain calculated edge to the gags that sometimes dampen the intended effect. An example is a play-within-a-film scene on Asgard early in the film, where the thespians on stage are revealed to be essayed by some fairly well-known names—but this sort of stunt-casting, purely superficial, having little to do with the story and aimed at nothing more than making audiences sit up in recognition for a brief moment, makes it difficult to really buy into the stakes. As Guardians and Deadpool have proven, you don’t necessarily have to sacrifice story for quips, something Ragnarok is frequently guilty of. 

Of course, this is probably owing to the difficulty, as mentioned earlier, of striking a balance between inserting your own personality into a project as a director and operating within the rigid bounds of the franchise framework—to his credit, Waititi has done a great job given those limitations. But now and then, there are flashes of what the film Could Have Been had the director been given full control—every time the character Korg voiced by Waititi himself comes onscreen, for instance—and you can’t help but see the missed opportunities.

On a more positive note, the cast appear to be having a ball. Poor Hemsworth, for one, whose comedic charms really only became apparent following the Avengers, looks visibly relieved here to be throwing off the memory of the two grim instalments of the series he had to scowl through earlier. Also impressive is Thompson as the drink-loving warrior who doesn’t suffer fools gladly—I hope we get to see more of her in the next one. And, of course, there’s Blanchett, an actress who just oozes personality and conviction, even while donning rubbery antlers. 

If you go into to the new Thor expecting to see the wheel entirely reinvented, brace yourself for disappointment. This is still very much a Marvel movie, with all the familiar beats and forgettable plotlines and CGI hammering. What you will get, however, is a funnier, quirkier variation on formula courtesy of Waititi. And it’s telling of the standards we’ve come to set for superhero films that this seems to be enough for now. 


Published: 11-11-2017 08:29

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