"Thor: Ragnarok," the latest volley in Marvel's bid to take over the known entertainment universe, delivers exactly what devotees have come to expect from the regular onslaught of comics-based blockbusters: it's a towering, rip-roaring adventure that pairs familiar heroes against a new set of enemies, and occasionally against each other, with liberal in-between breaks for witty banter and a handful of bonding moments that ultimately bring home the camaraderie among these well-loved characters. It's also over-designed (if you've seen the movie poster this will come as no surprise), lacks narrative grounding, and contains what may be Jeff Goldblum's oddest performance ever. But let's not kid ourselves: "Ragnarok," like most Marvel offerings, is virtually review-proof, so a few dings from critics aren't going to keep fans from lining up at theaters well before the doors open this weekend. And, if Marvel's products have earned the right to be judged on a more relaxed scale, then so be it: putting aside its occasional faults, this "Thor" entry is pretty good fun.
The third installation in the God of Thunder's franchise is looser than its predecessors ("Thor" had a lot of ground to cover, as origin stories do, but did it have to be so self-important about it??) while at the same time upping the stakes with a tale that puts the Norse deities' homeward of Asgard in peril of annihilation. Seasoned fans will know exactly where this story picks up, and even neophyte viewers will catch up quickly as Thor (Chris Hemsworth, "Ghostbusters") and his trickster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, "Kong: Skull Island") learn that heretofore unknown sister Hela (Cate Blanchett, "Truth") is en route to Asgard on a mission of vengeance-fueled destruction. The brothers fare poorly in an initial skirmish with Hela, get jettisoned out of Asgard, and wind up on another planet entirely, where Thor is forced to become a combatant in a series of arena games staged by the unhinged Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, in a louche showing that almost calls back to his turn in the late-70s disco classic, "Thank God It's Friday"). Things seem hopeless; though if you've seen the trailers you know that an old friend may be waiting on the battlefield...
Meanwhile Hela's tearing up Asgard, terrifying the populace (yes, apparently there are a few non-gods who actually live there), and getting stronger every minute. Thor's got a few cards in hand, including new pal Korg (voiced by director Taika Waititi), a fellow combatant who looks like a walking pile of rocks and has a way with a one-liner, and a disillusioned former Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, "Creed") who might just be persuaded to come back to Asgard and fight the good fight. On the minus side, brother Loki is up to his old tricks and seems intent on switching sides every time a better opportunity appears on the horizon. This antipathy is bound up in the same brotherly love-hate dynamic that's fueled previous entries in the Marvel Universe, and it's either a comfortable crowd-pleaser or a trope that's getting a bit roadworn, depending on your perspective.
Still, Mr. Hiddleston is game through and through. The secret weapon of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been, since 2007's "Iron Man," the serious talent willing to play earnest with occasionally silly material, and "Ragnarok" is no exception. In addition to Mr. Hiddleston we have the usual heavy-hitters (Idris Elba as Asgardian watchman Heimdal; Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner aka The Hulk; the venerable Anthony Hopkins as Odin) anchoring the proceedings, and with the addition of Ms. Blanchett, the film's talent pool virtually overflows. The actress is known for her patrician cool, but "Ragnarok" is her chance to take things in another direction - and boy, does she. Her Hera is brimming with grim good humor, lingering over line readings and emitting a smoldering heat that's as scorching as her skintight black body suit. She also wields a signature ebony headpiece with élan; and if she takes an occasional bite out of the scenery, well, it's all part of the fun.
On the minus side, "Ragnarok" is a bit frantic, and it can be visually exhausting. Everything is presented on a massive scale. While this approach worked marvelously for the recent "Blade Runner 2049" and served to impress in 2015's "Mad Max: Fury Road," here it means that the tendency toward visual clutter is magnified. The salvage yard where Thor lands after being booted out of Asgard is awash in pile after pile after pile of junk. The Grandmaster's capital city is crammed with towering multi-level buildings that go on and on. And on. There are flashy interstellar and otherworldly travel sequences that involve lots of bright lights and sparkly bits and likely reflect a king's ransom in CGI costs (a nod here to my screening companion who observed, as the credits rolled...and rolled...and rolled: "I'd love to know what piece each one of those effects houses was responsible for...") but also feel like mini deus-ex-machinas when they occur, as though there's a rush to get along to the next fight scene and the solution for hiding the storytelling shortcut is glitter.
And about that storytelling: it's rather unbalanced. The long stretch on the Grandmaster's planet has the feel of a side story that was blown up into a centerpiece, and the film completely forgets to cut back to the proceedings on Asgard while we watch Thor fight and then chum about with his old pal and nemesis The Hulk. These segments are entertaining and often hilarious, and Mr. Ruffalo in his Bruce Banner incarnation continues to display the heart and depth that makes him such a welcome presence in this superhero pantheon, but the timing feels off. By the time we do follow the heroes on their way back to Asgard we've almost forgotten why they're headed there in the first place.
But the audience for "Thor: Ragnarok" isn't going to consist of cinephiles looking at the technical specs or considering how effectively the classic three-act structure was conveyed from page to screen. It's going to be made up of fans who've grown to love these characters for their heroics and their humor, and those viewers will be rewarded here. "Ragnarok" scatters little gems of character development amidst the massive-scale fight scenes, and those moments of banter and bonding among comrades are well worth watching for. Director Taika Waititi ("Hunt for the Wilderpeople") seems at his best with the character-focused scenes, delighting in the humor and effectively tapping into heavier emotions when the script calls for something weightier. In the end those human moments aren't quite enough to balance out the over-the-top effects extravaganza, but they do put up a good fight.
Note: "Ragnarok" has some great cameos, so keep an eye out for unexpected Marvel characters to pop up, and look for a few well-known faces in unexpected places. As a wise man once said: "There are no small parts, just small actors."
|Movie title||Thor: Ragnarok|
|Summary||This latest volley in Marvel's bid to take over the universe is a rip-roaring adventure that's visually cluttered but lots of a fun and a sure-fire crowd pleaser for fans and casual audiences alike.|