Ever since they put Jon Favreau in the director’s seat for Iron Man back in 2008, Marvel Studios have enjoyed great success, through letting established comedy directors make their action movies. The same year they put established action director Louis Leterrier in charge of The Incredible Hulk and the results were notably less successful - both in terms of fan love and box office revenue.
The importance of striking that balance between drama and comedy resulted in the hiring of writer-directors like Joss Whedon, James Gunn and Shane Black, who are all skilled in both. I would, therefore, characterise the bulk of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films as Action Comedies. The action is the priority, the comedy is a bonus.
Thor Ragnarok is a bit different: It’s a Comedy with Action. The emphasis is very much on the yucks, with the fights and chases just, sort of, added in by contractual obligation. This is a very different emphasis from the last Thor film, Dark World (2013), which was criticised for being too po-faced. It is interesting, then, that the characters who did offer humour last time - namely Darcy, the sarky scientist and Selvig, the mad scientist - have been ejected from this film, in favour of a new gang of misfits.
The signal that there would be a significant change of tone with Ragnarok, came with the hiring of director Taika Waititi. Again, he’s a director with a comedic track-record and, while his movies, so-far, may have been light on stunts and CGI, they were heavy on character and eccentricity. There is a gentle feel-good to his work, and Thor Ragnarok, despite all the pomp and circumstance of a Marvel juggernaut, manages to retain that.
His comedy is (deliberately) a little bit hesitant and shambolic. Natural, you might say. He doesn’t seem to want either the performances or the delivery of the lines to be too polished. He likes his actors to improvise and, indeed, does much the same in his own performances. This being so, casting Jeff Goldblum as the baddie was a masterstroke. Goldblum’s eccentric delivery is never less than delightful, his characters never less than endearing. Yes, that’s a problem when he’s playing the baddie ... Because he doesn’t really believe he’s evil any more than we do ... But he’s just so much fun to watch, no-one minds.
Otherwise, there are a few pointless cameos which are mostly played for laughs (not just the inevitable Stan Lee one), Anthony Hopkins gets to join in the fun by outrageously ripping the piss out of himself, and Chris Hemsworth reminds us of the physical comedy skills he displayed in the first film. Waititi also gives a mo-cap and vocal performance as a talking pile of rocks called Korg, who is initially hilarious but, unfortunately, I found quite wearing quite quickly.
Did I mention Tom Hiddleston?
Okay I won’t.
Oh, alright, then. He’s back as Loki, of course. Still wearing his silly long wig, still wearing the hat with antlers whenever he gets the chance; still very aware of how silly it all is. He’s also wearing a bit too much pancake makeup now, for some reason. As usual, he’s sort of a baddie, but not really. At least Thor is wise to him now, which makes for lovely interplay between the two actors - who have both had plenty of chances to settle into these characters by now.
|Planet Hulk (2006-7) was a comic which I never found especially convincing, (the World War Hulk story which preceded it was far better, in my estimation) but it has adapted very well to the screen.|
As you’ll know from the first trailer, this half of the film features The Hulk (who crash-landed on this alien world after flying off in the Quinjet at the end of the last Avengers movie, in 2015) and a short-haired Thor. They are matched as gladiators for the entertainment of Goldblum and his planet of Scavengers. In between bouts, Hulk and Thor find themselves rooming together, as superherodom’s funniest odd couple. These scenes are a joy, providing some great opportunities for Hemsworth and Ruffalo to stretch their comic muscles.
Speaking of stretching, poor Chris Hemsworth seems to have had an allergic reaction to all that Australian food, as his arms are massively swollen. Poor lamb.
Unfortunately, the second story - the one from which the film actually takes its title - is less engaging and less ... Unique. Cate Blanchett is not nearly as well served as Goldblum. She plays the film’s other baddie, the Goddess of Death, Hela, who invades Asgard while Thor is off on his jollies. Obviously, with a name like ‘Goddess of Death’, she’s not going to get many gags. But, it turns out, she’s just your boiler-plate megalomaniac, who simply wants the world to bow down before her.
Then, instead of leading her army to conquer the nine realms, Hela spends her time fretting about why the Asgardians aren’t going along with her plans. She worries that no-one remembers her and, therefore, she has no authority. Issues over middle-management and discipline are not, sadly, the stuff legends are made on.
|Hela, struggling with the powerpoint projector at another Asgardian staff meeting.|
I fear that this half of the film has suffered from some late tampering. In the trailer, the moment where she grabs Thor’s hammer takes place in a New York alleyway. In the finished film, it has been moved to a bleak and indifferently-realised grassy cliff-top, where Odin gets to do some pointless pontificating. Not sure why he couldn’t do that in New York. Anyway, this suggests that Hela’s story has undergone some last-minute surgery. Whether this has made the story better or worse is something which, I suspect, we’ll never know.
What’s certain, is that the Ragnarok story hangs together less convincingly than Planet Hulk, and not just because of the lack of Thor. We never really believe that Asgard is in danger, nor that the fate of the nine realms is really at stake. This is, all too often, the problem with Marvel movies ... Like Bond films before them ... their villains just aren’t scary enough.
Ragnarok does afford Idris Elba’s Heimdall the chance to do some action man stuff, saving the Asgardian ‘civilians’ and leading them - Moses like - into the wilderness which, apparently, surrounds Asgard. But there remains the sense (held over from the previous two films) that he is a character they could have done much more with, yet have let him slip through their fingers.
Similarly, Karl Urban is an actor who seems, for some peculiar reason, to have not (yet) fulfilled his potential. He hasn’t found his niche. There’s no denying Urban’s commitment to this film, as he shaved his head and bulked-up for the role, even though he wears armour throughout, so you can’t really tell.
|An almost unrecogniseable Karl Urban is just one of a host of Aussie and Kiwi actors director Waititi surrounded himself with. Here, he meets all the gods, aliens, celestials and magic powers with some good old-fashioned hot lead.|
Those intense eyes of his shine out in every role he takes (with the exception of 2012’s Dredd, naturally), and he’s able to give us chilling villainy (in The Bourne Supremacy in 2004), lovable comedy (as Bones in the Star Trek films) and be a reliable leading man (in the criminally undervalued Dredd), so quite why he finds himself still playing (albeit very interesting) supporting roles, is a mystery to me. Maybe he likes it that way.
Anyway - here he gives a great turn as Skurge, long-term Thor antagonist from the comics. He witnesses the Warriors Three being despatched off-handedly by Hela, so decides to bend the knee; but his heart isn’t really in this whole lackey-for-hire business. Like Heimdall, he’s a diverting character who deserves more than he gets.
Back on Planet Hulk, Tessa Thompson turns up as another Thor comic favourite: Valkyrie. I confess, when she first turned up, her sulky demeanour and bad-assery made me think she was played by Michelle Rodriguez. That’s the kind of sass she brings to Valkyrie - who forms an important bridge between the two stories. The flashback to the last time the Valkyries met Hela is a startling sequence and proves that Waititi can do full-on action, with no sense of irony. It’s a shame he didn’t do a little bit more of that, at key moments.
|The second best ride of the Valkyries ever put on screen.|
They have come up with an audacious and well-deserved way of tying up all the loose-ends of this story and, indeed, this three-film story-arc. Yet, the crescendo of both stories - the Hammer of the Gods moment, if you will - should have been hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck filmmaking but, because of the tonal shifts throughout, and because Blanchett really hasn’t been given material the equal of her skills; this dénouement, whilst entertaining, lacks the tension it should have.
I feel that cutting back and forth between two seemingly unconnected stories cuts into the enjoyment of both. Planet Hulk isn’t as exciting as it could be, Ragnarok isn’t as serious as it could be. Also, the light-hearted tone of the one, defuses the end-of-the-world threat of the other.
Thor Ragnarok is - in parts - a delight. Mark Mothersbaugh’s plinky-plonky retro music, for example, is suitably eccentric and energetic. But, as a whole, is not a great film. It’s not even a great Marvel film. It’s tone is very inconsistent and its script is very cluttered. However, the whole messy confection is mixed together in the mighty Marvel manner, which hasn’t failed us yet.
|Thor and Hulk as roomies. So, whose turn is it to clean the toilet?|
Dir: Taika Waititi
Script: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost
Dur: 130 mins