Sunday, November 5, 2017

THOR RAGNAROK Rocks Your World and the Rest of the Nine Realms

It’s that usual time of the year again (somewhat) for Marvel Studios to unleash the latest installment of their now-sprawling Cinematic Universe. Recently released on cinemas is “Thor: Ragnarok,” the third film headlined by the Marvel Comics Norse god/superhero in the MCU, and likely the last if following the pattern of three films for “Iron Man” and then “Captain America.” Anyway, if this is the final “Thor” film, then it certainly makes for a grand send-off in terms of storyline and definitely production value. Seriously, “Ragnarok” is like a composition of all the various elements that make different MCU movie awesome audience pleasers, all in one flick.
Now, “Thor: Ragnarok” is a feature-length chapter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, therefore it takes story cues from past movies of the franchise, in particular “Thor: The Dark World” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” The former establishes at its ending that the rule of Thor’s realm of Asgard has been secretly usurped, and the latter sets down what Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been up to while a superhero “civil war” was going on. There are six relics of power in the universe, the Infinity Stones, and a great evil is looking for them so Thor must find them first.
At least that’s how he tells the story at the start, when he is held prisoner by the fire giant Surtur. Surtur is trying to carry out the prophesied end of Asgard – Ragnarok – and Thor is taking time out from searching for the Infinity Stones to stop that. In doing so he learns that his thought-dead brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is pretending to be their father and ruling Asgard.
Exposing Loki’s deception, Thor ropes him into retrieving Odin (Anthony Hopkins) from Earth (with help from Doctor Strange in a bit appearance by Benedict Cumberbatch, elaborating on the post-credits scene from his own movie back in 2016). They find their old man just in time for another threat to Asgard, long imprisoned, to make her presence known: Odin’s firstborn, the Goddess of Death Hela, portrayed by Cate Blanchett in fine form as the first main villainess in the movie side of the MCU. Just so you know, Sigourney Weaver was first in the Marvel Netflix streaming TV series, but I digress.
What happens next pretty much throws the Norse Mythology concept of the past “Thor” movies out of the window in favor for something more cosmic in scale, like what the “Guardians of the Galaxy” have shown MCU audiences as late as this May. In an attempt to fight Hela, Thor’s trusty hammer Mjolnir is destroyed, and a mishap while retreating to Asgard throws Thor and Loki out into the wider universe to land in the planet of Sakaar, arriving there several days apart.
Thor, who appears later than Loki, finds himself captured by a bounty hunter whom he later recognizes as a Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) of Asgard, who sells him off as a slave gladiator to the lord of Sakaar, the Grandmaster. Played by Jeff Goldblum, Grandmaster comes off as a hedonistic man-child who lives his extremely long life only to be entertained, at the expense of his “prisoners with jobs.” With his hammer gone, having a taser on his body to compel obedience, and seeing how Loki has managed to ingratiate himself with the Grandmaster while refusing to aid him, Thor is brought into the Contest of Champions to face Sakaar’s defending champion in battle.
The trailers have made such a major deal with this scene, where the God of Thunder finds himself facing off against a “friend from work,” the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). From this point on, more changes happen that really throws the path Thor must take to a loop, Back in Asgard, Hela is establishing her tyranny, but is frustrated in her plans to start conquering the universe by Heimdall (Idris Elba) sealing off the Bifrost dimensional bridge, necessitating her sending her appointed executioner, the unappreciated Asgardian Skurge (Karl Urban) to hunt him down. And even as Thor tries to get Loki, Valkyrie and Hulk to help him out with escaping from Sakaar, returning to Asgard and facing Hela, there is still the matter of the prophecy concerning Ragnarok. Thor has stalled it, but what if it’s something that must be allowed to happen?
As if it hadn’t been made quite clear, “Thor: Ragnarok” is cut from a totally different cloth than the previous films starring Hemsworth’s thunder god. Aside from the Norse mythological apocalypse hanging over Asgard’s collective head, the real meat of the plot is Thor and company being sidetracked by a stay in an arena planet, trying to get back to confronting the borderline-mad Hela before she starts conquering other worlds. It sounds like a flimsy story, but the directorial efforts of New Zealand’s Taika Waititi (who also voices an alien and Thor’s fellow gladiator) have inexplicably elevated it into a narratively sound crow-pleaser.
Perhaps one of the major points for “Ragnarok” was in how seamlessly integrated the humor is with the flow of the narrative, and the fact that it plays off of the length of time that the characters involved have known each other in-universe. Any comedy between Thor and Loki (and Hulk) is fueled by their familiarity while his scenes with Doctor Strange and the Grandmaster are from the fact that they are strangers. Waititi is not ashamed to admit that he was making a big deal with the humor for the movie, and it shows every time something funny happens onscreen.
Visuals for the film take plenty of inspiration from the style of legendary comic artist Jack Kirby, who worked with Larry Lieber and Stan Lee to create the Thor character in Atlas (now Marvel) Comics back in 1962. Speaking of Stan the Man, yes he is in the film, along with inspired cameos from Sam Neill, Matt Damon and Chris’s brother Luke Hemsworth. The soundtrack also gets a shakeup in the fact that most of the background is drawn from Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” which has lyrics appropriately mentioning Norse myth. It certainly intensifies the action scenes where it tends to play.

All in all, “Thor: Ragnarok” is shaping up to signal a renaissance of sorts for the now long-running Marvel Cinematic Universe. It really does seem to need one, with how long its Phase 3 myth arc involving Thanos seems to be taking to wrap up. The fantastic cinematography, acting, set aesthetics and music has combined to give birth to a new sort of MCU installment that might just be the new bar for its successors to follow. And while this may be the last time we see Chris Hemsworth as Thor headlining a film for the character, at least it ends on a high note.
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