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Saturday, March 9, 2019

Director Report Card: Taika Waititi (2017)

5. Thor: Ragnarok

People prone to bitching about such things often say the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn't director driven. While there's a degree of truth to this belief, it seems to me Marvel has frequently sought out really interesting filmmakers to make their movies. It seems unlikely to me that Shane Black or James Gunn would have ever directed blockbusters with 100 million dollar plus budgets if the Marvel higher-ups hadn't decided they were the right people for these big jobs. The same could be said for Taika Waititi. While the first two “Thor” movies were major money-makers, they weren't terribly well liked. “Thor” was generally considered the lame duck of Marvel's original franchises. Waititi was selected to re-invent the franchise. It seems to have worked. “Thor: Ragnarok” would become the highest grossing film in the series and win enthusiastic reviews from both fans and critics.

Following the events of “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Thor is being haunted by dreams of Asgard’s destruction. After defeating Surtur, the fire giant that will bring about Ragnarok, he returns home to find Loki ruling in his father’s place. Odin has been displaced on Earth but his time is running short. As the Highfather dies, his eldest child is unleashed. Hela, the immensely powerful goddess of death with an unquenchable thirst for conquest, is freed. She easily destroys Mjolnier. As Hela heads for Asgard, Thor and Loki are tossed off the bifrost. They arrive in Sakaar, a planet at the distant end of the universe. Forced into the gladiatorial games of the deranged Grandmaster, Thor is reunited with the Hulk. As Hela subjugated Asgard to her rule, Thor and a group of new and old friends try to find a way home.

A genuine criticism that could be made of the first two “Thor” movies is that Asgard was the least interesting part of it. Waititi brings his well-established love of eighties pop culture to “Thor,” allowing the franchise to embrace its day-glo fantasy roots. This is a movie that starts with Thor fighting fire giants and a dragon while Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” blares on the soundtrack. Most of the movie is set on a bizarre alien world, full of strange creatures and colorful set design. The Asgard segments feature an army of undead warriors, a giant wolf, and Surtur emerging at full power. Moreover, “Ragnarok” takes full advantage of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s narrative connection. As in the comics, this is a movie that allows Dr. Strange or the Hulk to show-up without much set-up. Yet, unlike overstuffed flicks like “Captain America: Civil War,” the film’s identity as a “Thor” movie is never compromised. This is “Thor 3,” not “Avengers 2.5.”

The true indicator that Waititi made “Thor” totally his own is how much the film reflects his sense of humor. His non-Thor roles have made it clear that Hemsworth’s strength lies, not in his smoldering good looks or action hero physique, but in his goofball charm. Hemsworth proves adapt at Waititi’s style of comedy, gracefully running with stumbly dialogue about haircuts, hammers, getting dumped, and snakes. There’s a satisfying running gag about who is the strongest Avenger. A cameo-packed Asgardian play is hilarious gag that’s really allowed to breath. There’s surreal gags about circular rooms, Loki’s illusions, and weapon selection at the coliseum. This is sealed by Waititi giving himself the role of Korg, a giant rock monster that leads a slave’s rebellion... Who speaks in a soft New Zealand accent and delivers some of the film’s oddest, funniest dialogue.

While “Ragnarok” is, surprisingly, a really funny movie, it certainly doesn’t skimp on big action scenes. That opening fight with the first giants is pretty damn cool, especially the concluding chase with the dragon. Thor and Hulk’s gladiator match really exploits the ridiculous strength of both characters, while including lots of comedy derived from their interaction. The finishing blow of Hulk leaping high up into the air is especially good. The entire last third is a series of escalating action sequences. We have an awesome space ship chase, with Thor and Valkyrie leaping in-between vehicles. That’s a climax-worthy action beat shoved into the middle of the movie, because Waititi isn’t done having fun yet. The actual climax is even bigger, featuring a lightning-charged Thor sweeping down onto a bridge full of zombies, Hulk fighting the Fenris Wolf, heroic sacrifices, and just as much action that can be squeezed in as possible.

Another element Marvel movies have frequently been criticized for are their lack of memorable villains. The previous “Thor” movie was a serious offender in that regard, with the utterly blank Malekith. As an attempt to counteract that, they made sure “Ragnarok” had a memorable adversary. It’s not like Hela is an especially deep villain. Her motivations are only slightly less vague than Malekith’s, as she’s driven by a little-expanded-on desire to conquer Asgard. Yet a lot can be done just by sticking a fantastic actor in a part. Cate Blanchett has never been more striking. While Loki sabotaged his dad in hopes of gaining his approval, Hela rejects Odin’s peaceful ways with vicious glee. Blanchett uses this as a foundation to build a hugely entertaining performance. Maintaining an incredible sense of style throughout, Blanchett plays Hela as someone who deeply enjoys being evil. All of her scenes are a joy.

While I’m mostly pleased with how “Ragnarok” refocuses and reinvents the “Thor” series, I do think it went a little overboard with tearing down what came before. Upon entering Asgard, Hela proceeds to kill Volstagg and Fendral with ease. Two of Thor’s major supporting characters are killed off quickly, never mentioned afterwards, presumably to make a new villain look more serious. At least Hogun gets a decent fight scene before Hela tosses a necrosword through his chest. Even then, Thor never acknowledges that three of his closest friends just died. I get that he’s busy with stuff but a nod in that direction would’ve been nice. (At least Sif is spared, thanks to Jamie Alexander having a scheduling conflict with “Blindspot.” Hopefully, she’ll be able to return at some point.) I understand most people weren’t that invested in the world of the first two “Thor” movies. Yet I wish so much hadn’t been tossed out so quickly.

Waititi is obviously playing inside of someone else’s sandbox here. As much as he makes this story his own, it’s still a Marvel movie. Yet the humor wasn’t his only attempt to put his stamp on the material. Most unexpectedly, the Hulk becomes the latest man-child in a Taika Waititi film. Like “Eagle Vs. Shark’s” Jarrod or Ricky Baker, the big green brute has a bit of an ego. He brags about his superior strength and fighting abilities. But it’s all a cover for his insecurities, as Hulk suspects everyone on Earth actually hates him. His childish tendencies – playtimes, a casual attitude towards nudity, temper-tantrums that can only be soothed by a motherly voice – also leads to a degree of social awkwardness. Such as the violent way he blocks Valkyrie from leaving a room, which he follows with a meek “please.” It’s also evident that Mark Ruffalo really enjoys a chance to play Hulk when he isn’t just smashing things.

Since “Ragnarok” kills off or removes Thor from most of his supporting cast, the sequel has to give him another group of friends to bounce off of. Luckily, Marvel provides a deep collection of characters to pull from. Removed from the end-of-the-world stakes of the “Avengers” flicks, Mark Ruffalo really gets a chance to shine. His comedic abilities truly gets displayed here, in his frustrating relationship with his alter-ego and Tony Stark’s pants. Though very different from her Marvel comics counterpart, Tessa Thompson is nevertheless delightful as Valkyrie. Her story arc – a warrior that’s been disenfranchised for millennia regaining the will to fight – is a bit rushed. Thompson’s acerbic delivery and unspoken sexual tension with Hemsworth patches over a lot though. With a reluctant Loki, Tom Hiddleson’s mischievous grin and charmingly weaselly demeanor being well established by this point, the hastily named Revengers make a fantastic team.

The setting of Sakaar is so fabulously weird that it allows Waititi a chance to include some truly eccentric characters. The most prominent of which is Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster. Goldblum is allowed to turn one of Marvel’s Elders of the Universe into a Jeff Goldblum character. The hedonistic character has Goldblum’s patently hilarious style of stuttered, eccentric, improvised dialogue. He’s a frequently hilarious addition to the film, centering its oddball soul. Even better is when Goldblum gets to play off Thor at his most serious or a very grim Rachel House as Topaz. One must also mention Miek – Korg’s insectoid sidekick in a knife-handed robot body, who manages to be hilarious without saying a thing - and Skurge the Executioner – a long-running baddie in the comics that is turned into an amusingly braggadocio hanger-on by Karl Urban – even if neither get much in the way of satisfying character arcs.

In fact, “Thor: Ragnarok” is having so much fun with its weird humor, its expanded cast, and its cosmic setting, that Thor himself sometimes feels a little underserved. The growth he makes with Loki is satisfying, the two brothers coming to an understanding by learning neither will ever fully trust the other. (Even if they will always have that special connection of being siblings.) Yet Thor struggling with his own lack of power, loosing his hammer and getting tossed across the universe, could have been a little better. The last minute power-up he receives to best Hela seems like something out of a fighting anime, the hero searching his soul to discover the secret technique needed to win the day. It feels a little cheap and keeps Thor’s victory from feeling truly earned.

After seeing “Ragnarok” the first time, I absolutely enjoyed it but was left with one question. For most of the narrative, the film is split between two settings. Thor and the Revengers attempt their escape from Sakaar while Hela takes over Asgard. Both settings have their subplots, concerning Korg’s rebellion and Heimdall protecting the Asgardian citizens. Both come to a head at the end. Yet there is a slightly perturbing disconnect between the two, the sequel sometimes feeling like two largely separate stories slotted together in a not-totally-equal way. I realize this is a criticism bordering on knit-picking but it keeps me from fully loving the film.

Yet you can’t complain too much when the overall film is as funny, exciting, and highly entertaining as this one. Taika Waititi delivers the expected big action and comic book thrills of a Marvel movie while being allowed to indulge his oddball humor and pet themes. Adding to that success is a huge pack of wonderful performers having a ball, fantastic production design, and a score that brilliantly balances the movie’s epic fantasy and New Wave vibes. It definitely ranks among the most entertaining of Marvel’s films. It would turn the public around on the “Thor” franchise. Hemsworth is one of the few Marvel stars that seems interested in returning after Thanos is defeated, so hopefully we haven’t seen the last of this group. If Waititi could return with him, I’d be totally down for that. [Grade: B+]

Another benefit a little indie director has to being scooped up by the Hollywood franchise machine is that a big commercial hit can allow him to continue to make weird shit. Taika Waititi's next project is a comedy in which the Jewish actor plays the idealized version of Hitler that exists in the mind of a young German boy. The project sounds daring and hilarious and probably wouldn't have gotten funded if the director's last movie hadn't made 854 million dollars. Obviously, I'm pretty excited for "Jojo Rabbit," or any future project this fantastic oddball filmmaker brings us, and look forward to its release this fall.

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