Friday, October 27, 2017

"Thor: Ragnarok": review

Not as gut-bustingly hilarious as "Deadpool," but funny on its own terms, 2017's "Thor: Ragnarok" is a superhero-adventure movie directed by mad Kiwi Taika Waititi and starring Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo, Idris Elba, Karl Urban, Anthony Hopkins, and Jeff Goldblum. Benedict Cumberbatch makes an early cameo as Dr. Strange, whose magical abilities prove more than equal to the challenge of fighting Asgardians, and Waititi himself is in the film, covered in mo-cap CGI and playing a hulking stone alien named Korg.

The movie begins with Thor (Hemsworth) as a captive in some hellish cave, narrating his plight to a skeleton that's in his cage with him. He speaks of traveling the cosmos in search of the mysterious Infinity Stones, which several Marvel movies have already referenced (there are six stones, each representing a primordial cosmic power). Unsuccessful in this quest, Thor now finds himself the prisoner of Surtur (Clancy Brown!!), a Balrog-like demon lord who reveals that Thor's adoptive brother Loki (Hiddleston) has been impersonating Odin (Hopkins) and ruling Asgard. Surtur also reveals that the time for Ragnarok approaches: the prophesied apocalyptic destruction of Asgard, entailing the deaths of many gods. Thor manages to defeat Surtur and escape; he travels to Asgard to unmask Loki, then he and Loki travel to Earth to find Odin, whom Loki had apparently left in an old-folks' home that has since been demolished. With help from Dr. Strange, Thor finds Odin in Norway, where Odin imparts some seemingly final advice before disappearing, like Master Oogway in "Kung Fu Panda," in a gentle dispersal of shimmering light (do gods ever really die?). Odin also reveals, before his mystical disappearance, that Thor has an elder sister: Hela, firstborn of Odin and goddess of death, whom Odin has kept imprisoned for eons. Hela is now free, and after Odin departs, she appears. In the ensuing conflict, during which Hela easily destroys Thor's hammer Mjolnir, Thor and Loki attempt to use the Bifrost bridge to transport themselves back to their native realm of Asgard, but they instead end up on the garbage-dump planet of Sakaar. This world is crawling with scavengers and is ruled by The Grandmaster (Goldblum), a cheerfully gaudy ancient being who entertains the unruly populace by hosting a huge gladiatorial contest. Loki somehow manages to ingratiate himself to the Grandmaster, but Thor is captured and sent into the fighting pit, where he meets none other than the Hulk.

All of this is a massive setup for the rest of "Thor: Ragnarok," which is about Thor's attempt to escape Sakaar and return to Asgard to save it from destruction. With Thor absent from Asgard, Hela lays waste to the realm's army with the help of Skurge (Urban), who doesn't quite share Hela's taste for violence, death, and destruction. Thor, meanwhile, enlists the help of the Hulk, Loki, and an alcoholic Valkyrie (Thompson) who has abandoned Asgard after her own nasty run-in with Hela ages ago.

"Ragnarok" sets a fast pace and doesn't let up. A giddy, ridiculous mishmash of superhero action, sci-fi adventure, and lighthearted comedy, the movie reminds me of nothing so much as the old Indiana Jones films, with all their hither-and-thither gallivanting: now we're in the demon's realm, now we're on Earth, now we're on Sakaar, now we're on Asgard, and now we're flying into a wormhole-like gateway lovingly referred to as The Devil's Anus. Humor is seeded throughout the film; some are calling "Ragnarok" a "Thor reboot" because we get to see the less serious and more ludicrous side of Thor and Asgardian mythology. The musical soundtrack for the film is a weird blend of boilerplate sci-adventure and disco, which gives the film a retro feel that is reinforced by the movie's cheerfully flashy color palette—a homage to influential comic artist Jack Kirby.

Taika Waititi is a hoot both in front of and behind the camera: as the movie's director, he has an eye for action and spectacle, and he's obviously a fan of all these Marvel characters. As an actor playing the alien Korg, who is made of living rock, Waititi blends in perfectly with the movie's comic tone. I'd never heard of Waititi before; his filmography doesn't seem to include much in the way of internationally famous works. I have heard, though, that Marvel often likes to take risks by using heretofore-unknown directors, and in this case—as with first-timer Tim Miller, who directed "Deadpool"—the studio gambled and won big. Waititi is a talent to watch for; I'll be curious to see what films he does next. He brings a certain freshness and lack of cynicism to the proceedings; these qualities keep the Marvel brand from going stale despite the current prominence (some might say oppression) of superhero movies.

Given the extent to which "Ragnarok" is a comedy, all the principal actors had to bring their comic chops. Chris Hemsworth gets to show off his funny side, and his Thor has obviously relaxed and acquired Terran speech habits: his diction is more modern and slangy than ever before; Karl Urban is also surprisingly goofy as Skurge, who loves to show off to the ladies. Cate Blanchett, in full-on Galadriel mode, ably incarnates the teeth-flashing, blade-throwing goddess of death; Tessa Thompson does a good job standing toe to toe opposite Hemsworth. Mark Ruffalo and Jeff Goldblum show off their trademark diffident charm. Poor Idris Elba is about the only actor required to remain lugubrious: his Heimdall is all business as the Asgardian who leads the general population to safety, away from the destruction of the realm.

Not to say the movie is without its problems. I still have trouble figuring out the theology of the Marvel universe. Obviously, if Marvel is following the Norse myth, then the gods are destructible—hence their Götterdämmerung. That being said, they're extremely hard to kill, and it's not obvious that they can or do stay dead. Given their native toughness, I don't understand how Valkyrie, on the order of a goddess herself, is able to get drunk on so little alcohol. What makes her so susceptible to the power of grapes and hops? The same goes for Thor who, while a prisoner on Sakaar, receives the equivalent of a "Star Wars"-style restraining bolt on his neck to keep him from wreaking havoc. How can he be so easily restrained? Does Sakaar regularly receive a complement of gods—enough to have learned how to develop god-subduing technology? (There may be evidence that it does, in fact, receive a steady stream of mighty beings from all over the cosmos.)

My second quibble is that Ragnarok, the event, happens fairly late in the story, when the movie is about three-quarters done. That's a lot of buildup for what should have been the movie's primary focus, given its title. Instead, most of the movie depicts Thor's various trials and attempts at team-building, creating a protracted prelude for relatively little payoff.

Then there's the problem with Hela, who is supposed to be the goddess of death. Given that death is a deeply inscribed fact of life, I'd have thought she would be far more powerful than she appeared to be in "Ragnarok." Death is a cosmic principle—a species of change, ensuring that nothing lasts forever. Why would the entity who governs that cosmic principle even need to engage in physical combat with anyone? Also: death is, traditionally, an even-handed cosmic principle that comes for the rich and the poor, the good and the evil, the weak and the strong alike. What we see instead is that Hela-as-death is actively evil, more of a demoness than a hooded, reaping angel with an impartial scythe. It could simply be that my unfamiliarity with the Hela from the comic books, coupled with my religious-studies background, keeps me from fully appreciating the character as presented by Marvel.

Those problems notwithstanding, "Thor: Ragnarok" is a fun ride. Its brisk pace, humorous tone, engaging story, and splendid visuals make it a worthwhile viewing experience for both the initiated and the uninitiated.


Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Should "mystical disappearance" be "mysterious disappearance"?

Jeffery Hodges

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Kevin Kim said...

That's an interesting question. I chose "mystical" quite deliberately because what we're witnessing, in that scene, is the fraying-apart of a god, which has aspects of the theological and the apophatic.

More interestingly: when you go to, you see that one of the definitions of "mystical" is, in fact, "mysterious." I didn't choose "mysterious," however, because to me, a "mysterious disappearance" connotes a disappearance (as of a child) whose causes and reasons can't be explained, and which, in some way, feels like a violation of the proper order of things. For the two sons who witness Odin's apparent departure from this plane of existence, Thor and Loki, there's no question about what's going on, and far from being a violation of cosmic order, this loss feels like the proper next step in Odin's journey (if Odin can be said to be on a journey).

Anyway, "mystical disappearance" gets at the heart of what I'm trying to convey, as opposed to "mysterious disappearance." on "mystical":

mystic; of or relating to supernatural agencies, affairs, occurrences, etc.:
a strange, mystical experience.
of or relating to mystics or mysticism :
mystical writings.
spiritually symbolic:
a mystical vision of the hereafter.
obscure in meaning; mysterious:

Definitions (1) and (3) are what I was aiming for. As for the adjective "mystic":

involving or characterized by esoteric, otherworldly, or symbolic practices or content, as certain religious ceremonies and art; spiritually significant; ethereal.
of the nature of or pertaining to mysteries known only to the initiated:
mystic rites.
of occult character, power, or significance:
a mystic formula.
of obscure or mysterious character or significance.
of or relating to mystics or mysticism.

Here, too, definition (1) certainly applies (spiritually significant; ethereal); (2) is relevant to the idea that, even if we viewers don't understand what's happening, Thor and Loki do; (3) is relevant to the apophatic aspect of the fraying-apart of a god; (4) also speaks to the deeper theological reality of that moment.

Kevin Kim said...

Much-belated comment: in the first "Thor" movie, Odin specifically says "we are not gods." This separates the Marvel Asgardians from actual Norse mythology. But in "Ragnarok," Odin seemingly contradicts his earlier statement when he asks, "Are you Thor, the god of hammers?" So the MCU isn't consistent on how it views Asgardians. Are they just pumped-up space aliens, or are they reifications of cosmic principles?