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THOR: RAGNAROK: Taika Waititi adds wacky irreverence to Marvel frolic

For casual moviegoers, an ensemble of combative characteristics called Revengers is enough to glorify surface-level entertainment.

In Avengers: Age of Ultron, apocalyptic visions set Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Norse God of Thunder/sidelined Avenger, on a quest for the Infinity Stones, a.k.a MCU’s MacGuffins, before he bumps into fellow Avenger Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). Since the first trailer for Thor: Ragnarok, MCU fans have been holding their breath for a gladiator fight between the two mightiest Avengers. Nonetheless, how Thor gets there from Asgard should shake the MCU to its core.

In the opening, Ragnarok throws its audiences into a stage of threatening exposition when Thor is captured by Surtur (another memorable, booming voice performance from Clancy Brown). This magma colossus is the most crucial cog in the inevitable Ragnarok—the divine annihilation in Norse mythologies, which audiences witness in the final act. With his mighty Mjolnir, Thor zaps and clobbers his way through Surtur’s army (yes, Ragnarok has all kinds of faceless goons) and returns to Asgard in time via the Bifrost.

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On this side of the rainbow bridge isn’t Heimdall anymore. Instead, we have the substitute, Skurge (Karl Urban), wooing maidens when he doesn’t have to mop the floor. After forcing Loki out of his usual chicanery, Thor runs into Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), more sophisticated and authoritative with the Eye of Agamotto around his neck, in one of his sanctuaries. It’s fun to see Loki meets his superior in wizardry—as the Sorcerer Supreme fools with both brothers before pointing Thor to Odin the All-Father (Anthony Hopkins). This family reunion ends on a sad note, and the main threat follows at once.

Against the tradition of Thor movies, Ragnarok is a most enticing installment. While lacking any solid ground from Thor and Thor: The Dark World to further refine its central hero, the third movie has virtually no prior complication with character writing. Behind the script is a team of Marvel veterans: Eric Pearson (from Agent Carter and four Marvel one-shots) with the duo of X-23 and X-Force comic writers Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost. These scribes give Thor a worthy arc, and for the first time in MCU, the mighty god owns his ground as the lead character. With more material to romp around, Hemsworth plays a versatile warrior/king-to-be, whose other sides of trickery and charisma were never explored. Fans recognize Thor as handsome, ferocious, often less compelling than at least half a dozen fellow Avengers, but now he’s more whimsical, with slapsticks, and more resourceful in handling foes. Fortitude and anxiety manifest in his dialogue and mannerism, digging deeper into his intellectual capacity, sense of humor, and inspiring autonomy.

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His big bad this time is Hela (Cate Blanchett). With a Gothic look and a sword resembling The All-Black for Thor fans, the Norse Goddess of Death is taking Asgard back to its old days of antagonistic expansion over the Nine Realms. In her return, closet bones come pouring out of Asgard’s pages of lost history, and a not-that-shocking revelation transpires conveniently to tie itself into Thor’s solution. But before her final confrontation with him, Hela rules over Asgard as the new queen, strolling through Odin’s war trophies and fixes another plot hole for eagle-eyed MCU fans. As this unreasonably powerful, if one-note, supreme being, Blanchett fills her screen time with a mesmerizing, ominous presence. Her voice is commanding, her posture abrasive and alluring, no matter for intimidation or judgment. One can only complain Hela fondles her head too many times to switch her hair into spiky, battle-ready mode.

Meeting his match, Thor is brought to the lowest of the low—even by mortal standards—like his comics counterpart back in 2014. So low that Hela crushes Mjolnir and throws him to the other side of this galaxy to Sakaar, a trash-laden planet that holds fights for public entertainment. The downtrodden Lord of Sparks must be saved from cannibalistic scavengers by a drunken Valkyrie (Teresa Thompson, Creed) before getting his precious golden hairlocks trimmed by Stan Lee in his mandatory cameo. An advantage of Norse mythology, in comparison with the Greek pantheon, is that the gods of Asgard can be heroic. By stripping away Thor's lionized guise and exposing his core after traumas and failures, the movie opens a chance for this underlooked superhero to grow into an actual God of Thunder, with hints to his incredible Thor Force.

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In between his fights and Thor persuading everyone to save his home, Ragnarok keeps cutting back to a defeated Asgard where Thor’s folks (are they immortal gods or just citizens?) are running from Hela’s resurrected warriors. Director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, The Hunt for Wilderpeople) does his best to control the tonal shift although the multiplex audience couldn’t care less for Asgard and only root for more smashes and blasts in Sakaar. This discrepancy results in a mixed experience for scrupulous viewers because many scenes look more like skits and often fall short of their required dramatic weight.

Therefore, this is as much a Kevin Feige film as a Taika Waititi one. In a wider aspect, complaints about MCU’s formulaic storytelling have been around since Phase Two. I guess whatever works, works. But viewers have the right to ask for more when MCU movies are moving towards their directors in terms of creative freedom. In Ragnarok, quips and snarks lamentably jolt me out of many touching and inspirational moments. One of those happens during Thor’s realization of his purpose and course of action; another facilitates more dark humor, overstated and inappropriate, as the climax reveals how Marvel Studios predictably handles the Norse apocalypse.

For what we get, Waititi’s idiosyncratic execution of humor is at its best through hilarious chemistry, character design, and unexpected quirks. Less high-brow during silly gags like "Hang on a minute… coming round again,” the Kiwiland director displays his masterful, offbeat stance and takes control of the script’s bizarre features and elevates most of the comical material to fantastic effects, more or less against MCU dogma. He is the sole reason that impatient fans can appreciate broad comedy more and hate bathos less than they can fathom.

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Under this direction, the superb cast elevates genuinely funny moments. Inside Sakaar’s HQ (look, Beta Ray Bill and Man-Thing Easter Eggs), Jeff Goldblum does all things Jeff Goldblum for wacky slave owner, the Celestial Grandmaster, who is introduced to Thor through a VR welcome video played with “Pure Imagination.” We are now at a time when this comedy mainstay is even more entertaining than his characters. His ad-lib and Goldblum-ish “uhm-ahh” fit into authoritative aloofness and occasional acts of absurdity. The Grandmaster’s favorite associate, Valkyrie, is a disgruntled, cynical Asgardian, who lurches (is she still drunk?)—like a supermodel on her catwalk—towards Hela’s army. While Thompson’s portrayal is better on the playful side of this heedless warrior, the actress lacks seriousness for Valkyrie in dealing with a painful past and a lost cause.

Slyly downplaying his comic ingenuity, Ruffalo appears later as Banner, perplexed to the whole jovial mess. Before that, his Hulk gathers more than enough fanfare as Sakaar’s two-year favorite champion while improving his vocabulary and fashion. The get-together with Thor acquires riffs from the Planet Hulk storyline, now with the gamma-green monster as the populace’s superstar (apparently Hulk is happy where people hold parades to honor him). This situation contrives the dual personalities inside Hulk—a hilariously confused Banner and a verbally communicative Hulk—and reminisces about his forced relationship with Black Widow.

Hopkins reprises his role as the All-Father, having his own version of Odin-but-actually-Loki and inserting his gravitas in Thor’s emotional pivots. And for the deceitful adopted son, Tom Hiddleston never disappoints. Though this Thor movie needn’t Loki to be watchable anymore, meeting this empathy-evoking trickster is always one of the most attractive parts; the fan-favorite Hiddleston embodies this villain/antihero too charmingly. Interactions bring out the best in Thor and Loki, highlighting personalities and character development as Hemsworth and Hiddleston bounce off the other during both tricks and compassionate dialogues.

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In a winning cameo, Waititi’s voice brings goofiness to the soft-talking revolutionist Korg, and fans of What We Do in the Shadows will giggle when hearing a vampire reference. Other appearances include Matt Damon, Hemsworth’s big brother Luke, Sam Neill, while the underused Rachel House (also from Wilderpeople with Neill) stands next to Grandmaster as his aide.

Mounting and soaring around characters is the spectacle, created by the production design with monochromatic blocks a la Jack Kirby and a synth score by Wes Anderson’s four-time collaborator Mark Mothersbaugh. (Led Zeppelin’s "Immigrant Song" has a contextual connection with the scene when it plays.) This candy-colored, razzle-dazzle backdrop, however, doesn’t always achieve the same satisfaction as James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy. The Sakaar colosseum is distracting due to poorly rendered CGI, but fortunately, Thor and Hulk’s epic, gung-ho confrontation in the arena is simple yet effective enough to show their raw strength and reinforce the impressive characterization Thor is gaining. A diverting ship chase follows Thor’s escape, accelerated by the 80s rock, then the denouement plays out in a lackluster, undriven battle on the Rainbow Bridge. Apart from Thor’s character growth, Hulk duking it out with the giant Fenrir or Valkyrie holding up against Hela’s zombies is as forgettable as the rushed ending. The underused Skurge waddles in his arc of a guilt-stricken traitor, who gains agency too late, but the emotional impact needs a lot more than brief shots over faces of desperate, helpless Asgardians.

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Ragnarok still favors bathos over emotional culmination, jest over zest, toilet humor over deadpan humor, broad strokes over character-driven subplots, saucy rewrites over respectful updates on Norse mythos. Allusions to Western imperialism and failed revolutions, as well as brutal killings, are hard to stomach when we are busy laughing to ludicrous missteps.

But for casual moviegoers, an ensemble of combative characteristics called Revengers is enough to glorify surface-level entertainment while fireworks deliberately distract them from the true idea of Ragnarok. I, for one, might enjoy this boisterous adventure a little more if its premiere were swapped with Spiderman: Homecoming’s slot back in July. Now we only have to wait for Thanos, taking the matter in his own glove and one step closer to eliminate Earth’s Mightiest Heroes—as the post-credits suggest.