Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi; 2017)

Thor: Ragnarok is the seventeenth movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Fifteen movies in nine years.  James Bond, of course, has more at twenty-five, but it took fifty-six years to get there.  Batman has had seventeen movies over twenty-eight years, but that’s not a franchise so much as a popular character getting rebooted.  Star Trek got thirteen movies over thirty-seven years.  Those numbers alone should show how remarkable the Marvel film franchise is, but all of those other long-lasting franchises have also had some terrible entries and box office flops, Marvel has yet to make a film that has disappointed on either an entertainment or a box-office level, though the Thor films have come the closest to doing both.  Thor: Ragnarok not only continues Marvel’s pedigree of excellence, but it is also far and away the best of the Thor films and in the upper echelon of Marvel movies period.

Marvel is advertising Thor: Ragnarok as the studio’s first comedy, though I would argue that the Guardians of the Galaxy movies and particularly Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 were, but if you know what the term Ragnarok means you know that it’s dealing with pretty dark subject matter for a Marvel movie let alone a comedy.  (If you don’t know, I won’t spoil it for you here.)  This contradiction is a balancing act walked throughout the entire film by its cast and crew as they try to keep things light-hearted and fun while at the same time showing that the story has serious stakes and consequences for those taking part in it.  While they do have to cheat here and there to pull off this feat, pull it off they do and spectacularly enough that the cheating can be mostly overlooked.

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Chris Hemsworth (Thor) was initially cast as Thor largely because of his appearance and because he’d worked with Joss Whedon earlier on Cabin in the Woods so he’d proven he could take on a large film anchoring role.  Take on the role he absolutely did, and with gusto, but the character of Thor is one the more bland Marvel heroes as he has to be both so immensely powerful as to rarely be in honest danger, but also has to embody humility and virtue so doesn’t really have major character flaws, either.  He’s Marvel’s Superman, but without a great rogue’s gallery and level of fame, and this made for a character that even when played as well as possible by Hemsworth is still the least interesting of the Avengers.  Over the last few years, though, Hemsworth has proven he has some real comic chops between his shorts as “roommate Thor” and being the funniest character in the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot.  Marvel very intelligently ran with that and allowed Thor to also be the funniest Avenger, which is the defining character trait he’s needed all along and allowed Thor: Ragnarok to finally be a truly special Thor movie.

The rest of the cast is also fantastic with Mark Ruffalo returning as The Hulk/Bruce Banner and showing that he also has comic talent, Tom Hiddleston giving us a Loki who we already knew could be both hilarious and nefarious, and Jeff Goldblum appears for the first time in a Marvel movie as the Grandmaster and manages to steal every scene he appears in with his own eccentric brand of comedic performance.  While these four give the film its heart and soul, Cate Blanchett as the god of death Hela is incredibly menacing and captivating, and Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie and Karl Urban as Skurge hold their own in this amazing cast as two Asgardians with more personality than we get from the majority of the gods.  The only real disappointments here are Idris Elba returning as Heimdall and Anthony Hopkins as Odin who both seem like they were more or less phoning in their roles, and Hopkins not even caring if anyone noticed.

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The movie does play fast and loose with the lore of both Marvel comics’ version of Thor and actual Norse mythology.  For the most part, the changes work and add a fun unpredictability to the film for those who know either story of Ragnarok well but could annoy the geekier purists out there.  The patchwork light and dark tones also make for a story able to surprise, particularly in the film’s climactic battle which is the most daring ending to a Marvel film yet, but it can also make for inconsistent motivations from the characters as they act in ways which are more concerned with what is funny or exciting than what is consistent or realistic.

Thor: Ragnarok has one of the most unusual soundtracks for a Marvel movie to date.  Most of the Marvel films use a classic orchestral score while the Guardians of the Galaxy films are famous for their use of classic rock.  Thor: Ragnarok has a largely orchestral score, but it also mixes in techno music reminiscent of 80’s New Age music and somehow has the rights to Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song” despite the band’s legendary stinginess with giving out the rights to their music.  This mix works for the most part and allows for some incredibly epic action, but every now and then it can be distracting enough to break the movie’s spell.

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Final verdict:  Thor: Ragnarok continues the Marvel tradition of giving us an excellent thrill ride with just enough of the familiar to make us comfortable and just enough spin to make a superhero movie not quite like any we’ve seen before.  Its mix of comedy and bold plot complications makes for a bit of a patchwork, but a pretty remarkable patchwork that manages to work far more often than it distracts, though it certainly isn’t perfect.  If you’re already a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe then heading out to see Thor: Ragnarok as soon as possible on the largest screen possible is an absolute no-brainer.  If you are either not a fan or have somehow avoided seeing any of the other fourteen films for this long, it’s not quite as easy of a recommendation, but while you will miss some of the nuance longtime fans of the series will enjoy, Thor: Ragnarok is so much pure fun that I find it hard to believe that any but the most interminable stick in the muds will find a good amount of enjoyment in it.

 

 

 

Kong: Skull Island (Vogt-Roberts; 2017)

Kong: Skull Island you would think is somehow attached to the King Kong remake from 2005 helmed by Peter Jackson, but this installment focusing on America’s favorite gigantic ape is actually apparently connected to the Godzilla reboot from 2014.  It seems every studio feels the need to copy Marvel’s success with their film universe and start with one of their own – this is the Legendary Entertainment subsidiary of Warner Brother’s attempt at a movie universe featuring giant monsters.  While I am getting a bit weary of so many obvious and lame attempts by so many Hollywood companies to start printing their own money like Disney and Marvel are doing together, I have to admit that the idea of a series of films with the likes of Godzilla, Mothra, King Kong, and Gamera all duking it out very much appeals to the little child that still lurks inside of Shaun.

Kong: Skull Island takes place in 1973 with John Goodman playing Bill Randa a World War II veteran and current conspiracy theorist who is trying to get a government grant to visit Skull Island, an island permanently surrounded by a nasty chain of storms such that no one can get near it, nor even see inside.  He finally gets his funding when he convinces a senator that it’s important Americans get to the island before the Russians do, because who knows what secrets could be there?   What no one else knows, including the group of soldiers and scientists Randa gets to come along on the survey with him, is that Randa knows full well that this is an island filled with giant monsters, monsters that killed his platoon in World War II and now he is here to get Captain Ahab style revenge.

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What we are given in Kong: Skull Island is essentially an incredibly high budget B-movie.  The plot is paper-thin and really just an excuse to watch big monsters attack each other.  Cliche after cliche is the order of the day in both story and dialogue.  It seems like screenwriters Dan Gilroy and Max Boorstein found a list of overused lines from war and action films then ordered that list so that they ended making for some sort of patchwork story.  There are a handful, barely a handful, of original ideas to be found in the story, enough that you have to wonder if the writers were able to recognize the banality of their work and either didn’t care or crafted it that way on purpose, but for the most part you will be able to predict every line spoken and every action taken by every one-dimensional character on screen.

This lack of a nuanced script does no favor to the actors, who are for the most part portraying an archetype with a quirk or two rather than an actual character.  Tom Hiddleston is charming, but little else, the supporting soldiers are pretty much just walking tropes, and Brie Larson as photojournalist Mason Weaver is reduced to pure eye candy.  The exceptions to this are the three grizzled vets of the cast: Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, and particularly John C. Reilly who all chew the scenery like few others can and bring life to their crazy old men characters through sheer force of charisma.   All three are a joy to watch when they are given center stage, but John C. Reilly goes above and beyond even the other two and gives us a portrayal that at times feels too good to be in this movie.

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Who goes to see Kong: Skull Island for nuanced writing and Oscar worthy performances, though?  If you’re at all living in this reality, you’re seeing Kong: Skull Island to see a gigantic ape kick butt and terrify some puny mortals, and on this level Kong delivers and keeps on delivering.  The creativity lost in the script was apparently saved for the action.  As we see Kong himself and the various giant denizens of Skull Island battle for supremacy of their corner of the world we are awed over and over again at the sheer bombasity of scale and ferocity.  Without entering spoiler territory, let’s just say that a lot of soldiers and scientists begin the film alive, and not too many make it to the end, and nearly every one of their deaths will make you gasp and giggle and occasionally cringe in true over the top B-movie fashion.

The visuals match the action with really well made CGI effects giving the monsters and the environments a real wow factor, and provide us with a nearly non-stop spectacle so packed with things to look and wonder at that it seems impossible they can all be caught in a single viewing.  The only two serious issues I found with the visual element of the film is first that Kong himself seemed to be constantly changing size, in one scene flicking a helicopter the size of one of his fingernails then later a person standing in front of his face is the size of his nose, and second I personally found the villainous lizard monsters of the film to be rather uninspired and never really worthy of any fear or hate other than that I knew I was supposed to because that is what the movie told me to do.

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Final recommendation:  Kong: Skull Island is big, loud, and dumb, and never pretends to be anything else.  If just my saying the words King Kong doesn’t get you at least a little excited then this probably isn’t the movie for you.  If, however, as a child you spent a lot of time growling and knocking over you block and LEGO buildings while pretending to eat the little people hiding inside then this is absolutely a film for you.  Kong: Skull Island will not make you think, it will not challenge any of your preconceptions, it will not make you want to be a better person, but it will absolutely make the somewhat destructive child inside you utterly and completely gleeful.  I’d recommend seeing it at a matinee to avoid too large of a price tag for unleashing your inner giant gorilla, but I definitely recommend seeing it.