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‘Thor: Ragnarok’ relies on strong cast, breezy direction

November 4, 2017

Two years ago, cinematic “universes” were all the rage. Marvel has been able to weave together its various superheroes into an ongoing narrative which allows for various crossovers, connections, and hours of wasted time for geeks like me to chart the chronology and continuity of the films.

But after this summer’s “The Mummy” tanked, Universal is backing away from its “Dark Universe” which was to mash-up its monster catalogue. Director Bill Condon of the upcoming “Bride of Frankenstein” remake has recently stated, “It has nothing to do with anything else. Nothing. Zero.” Just two weeks prior to that, Marvel’s chief cinematic competitor, DC, announced it was easing off its “Extended Universe” concept, realizing its hit with the stand-alone “Wonder Woman.”

And while Marvel has seemingly perfected its strategy for universe-building, it still allows such films as “Thor: Ragnarok” to exist. This film seems to float on its own candy-colored cloud, far above The Avengers world, taking one of the less-favored characters in the group and turning him into an MVH (Most Valuable Hero).

The “Thor” films of the franchise have always hovered around the bottom of the Marvel film universe. “Ragnarok” marks the third Thor entry, and the 17th Marvel U film overall, for those keeping score. That said, even the lowest-scoring films are undeniable hits both critically and commercially. Still, the brooding “Dark World’s” attempts at comedy seemed ill-fitting, and left the last film in a bit of a tattered mess.

Enter Taika Waititi, the New Zealand-born director whose string of thoroughly enjoyable, original films (“Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” “What We Do in the Shadows,” and “Boy”) exudes a playful idiosyncrasy that is grounded in humanity, regardless of characters or setting.

He delivers exactly that to “Ragnarok,” by giving the audience boundless left-of-center humor, but he manages to strengthen the sibling storyline involving Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth) and his brother Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston) as they vie for their father Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) attention.
 
It’s set a few years after the latest “Avengers” film, in which a down-on-his-luck Thor is sans hammer, and exiled from his home planet just when a mysterious Hela (played by a deliciously campy Cate Blanchett) is threatening to take over with her dark, deadly powers.

Thor winds up on a gladiatorial planet, overseen by the Grandmaster (played by Jeff Goldblum, going full Goldblum here), who unknowingly pits Thor in a fight against a popular fighter on the planet, Hulk (leading to one of the best moments of the trailer, when an excited Thor exclaims, “Yes! We know each other! He’s a friend from work!”).  While on the planet, Thor amasses a ragtag team to make it back to his home planet to stop Hela, and the storyline is filled with the same “all in this together” narrative that typifies the genre. But there is a sharp focus on humor that emerges rather organically, whether it is casual banter between Thor and Loki or the newer characters and their memorable entrances, both flashy (Goldblum) and faltering (Tessa Thompson, as the frequently imbibing bounty hunter Valkyrie).  And the fact that 95 percent of the action takes place in worlds not of this Earth allows Waititi to let his imagination run wild with potential. Borrowing heavily from “Flash Gordon,” early “Star Wars” films and “Big Trouble in Little China,” Waititi seems to have colored his film in the same tones and shades as the very comics of its origins, without ever sacrificing its heart. The sibling rivalry between Thor and Loki has never seemed stronger, and both actors display their natural-born talent for handling comedy in all its forms.

“Thor: Ragnarok” is  every bit as funny as the much-lauded “Deadpool,” but it's stripped of its cynicism and fourth-wall-breaking in-jokes. Instead, it relies on a strong cast, breezy direction, and more levity and fun than you can shake a hammer at. 

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