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I finally saw THOR: RAGNAROK (spoiler review)

Well, it took quite a while, but I finally reached the top of the library’s hold list for Thor: Ragnarok. So now I’ve finally seen it, out of sequence (after Black Panther) because it took so long. (I almost got it a week sooner from a friend who was going to loan me his Blu-Ray, but it turned out I couldn’t get my inherited Blu-Ray player to produce a picture without connectors that my other equipment can’t handle.) Fortunately, there’s nothing in either Ragnarok or Black Panther that requires them to be seen in order. As long as I saw them both before Avengers: Infinity War, I’m good.

So what did I think of Thor: Ragnarok? Not much, really. It’s a moderately amusing bit of fluff, but is that really enough for a movie about the Norse Armageddon? A lot of really big stuff happens in this movie, numerous major character deaths and permanent changes in the Asgardian status quo, and none of it has any emotional weight because the director is more interested in the comedy. None of the characters really seem to feel anything very deeply; they just look distractedly upset for a moment and then get back to being wry and quippy.

In the original Thor, the conflict between the brothers Thor and Loki was the emotional core of the film. That same family conflict, also including Odin and Frigga, was the most notable part of the second film as well. But here, we have Thor battling the sister he never knew he had — indeed, the original bearer of Mjolnir — and the fact of that relationship has effectively zero impact on the story, beyond the plot mechanics of explaining how she was able to hold and destroy Mjolnir. It just lies there and nothing is really done with it from a character standpoint. Hela is just one more of the MCU’s long list of one-dimensional villains who are more obstacles than characters. Meanwhile, the entire character arc of her henchman Skurge — based on what I gather was a really powerful and beloved storyline in Walt Simonson’s classic Thor run — is conveyed almost completely through Karl Urban repeatedly looking sullen and conflicted. The fact that most of the established Asgardian characters are killed off as an afterthought also weakens the impact of the conquest of Asgard, since there’s nobody there whose point of view we can identify with for much of Hela’s invasion. (I’m just glad that Jaimie Alexander’s commitment to Blindspot spared Lady Sif from the cavalier carnage. Maybe she can still show up on Agents of SHIELD again sometime.)

Then you’ve got the whole Planet Hulk adaptation crammed in and overshadowing the storyline that the movie’s actually named for. Again, as an insubstantial bit of amusement, it was fine. Certainly it deserves credit for going whole hog on the Jack Kirby design sense more than any prior MCU movie (with Stan Lee’s costume being the most Kirbyesque thing ever). But honestly, I’ve never been a fan of Kirby’s artwork, and I find his designs garish and silly. And again, there’s not much substance to the plotline. Thor’s arc with Loki is one that should be quite effective on paper, but it’s directed and played with so little weight and so much snark that the poignancy isn’t there. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie (who isn’t really called Valkyrie, but is just a Valkyrie whose given name is unrevealed) has a lot of inner angst, but it’s only passingly addressed, rushed through like most of the serious and important stuff in this movie. And Mark Ruffalo is surprisingly disappointing as both Hulk and Bruce Banner. It’s good to hear Hulk speaking more than two words per movie at last, but Ruffalo’s voice isn’t really cut out for it, even electronically deepened. And as Banner, he seemed to be distracted and phoning in his part, the charisma and subtle emotion he brought in his previous appearances not in evidence.

I’ve heard a lot of praise for this movie, and I just don’t get it. Sure, it has its funny bits, which is fine as far as it goes. But a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie should go farther. The MCU’s films and some of its TV shows have plenty of humor, even outright comedy, but they also have emotional depth and sincerity and a real sense of stakes and danger. This movie only seemed to care about laid-back snark and put little effort into the rest. None of the characters really seemed to be more than mildly annoyed or disappointed about any of the huge, intense, tragic, dramatic stuff that happened, so it was hard for me as a viewer to care much about it either. It was an amusing way to pass 2 hours and a bit, but it provided no substance that lasted beyond the moment. It’s really quite dissatisfying after the fact. This is the way Asgard ends: not with a bang, but with a shrug.

Movie review: Marvel’s THOR (SPOILERS)

Spoilers ahead for the movie Thor:

I saw Thor on Monday, and it was really good. It’s easily the best installment yet in the pre-Avengers movie continuity, and one of the best Marvel movies overall. It had a strong character-driven story at the core, the dialogue was excellent, and the action and visuals were impressively done. My main problem may have been the fault of the movie theater’s projector — it was very dark at times, hard to see what was happening onscreen. (And this was in 2D.)

I was particularly interested in this film because it’s co-written by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz, whom I’ve been interacting with online ever since they were on the staff of Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, and who have subsequently worked on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and the second season of Fringe.  The credits put Don Payne’s name after theirs, which I think means that Payne wrote the final draft; but the dialogue and characterization felt like Zack/Ash writing to me, with the cleverness and zing of their words.

Thor’s journey from arrogance to humility and wisdom was a little unconvincing to me; I didn’t quite see how his experiences taught him the lessons he learned, and it happened rather quickly. I can understand how being unable to lift Mjolnir and believing that Odin had died because of him would shake his faith in himself, but I’m not sure how that leads to the compassion and self-sacrifice he displayed thereafter. Maybe it’s just that the lessons Odin had taught him were part of him after all, and just weren’t able to express themselves until his arrogance was broken, but that didn’t come across well. Also, you’d think that discovering that Loki had lied about Odin’s death would kind of undo any humility he learned from it. Still, I liked the hero Thor became, however unconvincing the transformation was. I have a lot of respect for characters who are able to admit their mistakes and limitations — and even more respect for protagonists who put protecting the innocent above getting into fights. Chris Hemsworth was effective as Thor, convincing at showing both the arrogant boy and the compassionate hero. And he and his trainer deserve a lot of credit, since he was really built like a comic-book hero, no latex muscles required.  (By the way, if I hadn’t known this was the same guy who played George Kirk in Star Trek, I’d never have guessed.  I found him totally unrecognizable.)

But the real standout here was Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. This is one of the richest antagonists in comic-book movie history, so nuanced and sympathetic that I’m inclined to think of him as the second protagonist rather than the villain. He does devious and deceitful things like staging Frost Giant attacks and arranging for Thor to be exiled, but he keeps turning out to be less malevolent than you’d think. He had Thor exiled because he knew that Thor would be a bad king, and at the time, he was absolutely right, even if his methods were deceitful. And then he goes through all this manipulation that we think is about seizing power and arranging for Odin’s assassination, but then it turns out he set up the assassination attempt so he could save Odin and win his favor. Of course, he always had Odin’s love, but on such misunderstandings are Shakespearean tragedies founded. This was very Shakespearean, especially in the hands of Branagh and his cast, but Hiddleston was particularly compelling.

And was I the only one who felt, at the climax, that the reason Loki let himself fall was to save Thor? That even after all his villainy, he still loved his brother enough to die for him? That’s what I choose to believe.

The other characters were largely pretty good. Natalie Portman was kinda cool as Jane, certainly a lot more interesting than she was in George Lucas’s hands. Jaimie Alexander was really cool as Sif, very effective at the warrior woman role. The Warriors Three didn’t really stand out as individuals beyond their surface characteristics, but I guess that’s why they’re billed as a trio. And they were effective as far as they went.

Agent Coulson was his usual charming self. I think he deserves his own movie.

Heimdall was several kinds of awesome. Great character.

What I really loved about the movie was how compassionate it was. Far too many movies celebrate the death of the villains, or treat the taking of life as a trivial thing. But in this movie, that was the wrong attitude that Thor needed to unlearn, and once he became a hero, he was fighting to save lives, even his enemies’ lives, rather than take them. At the climax, he tried to save the villain — and when the villain (apparently) died, he actually mourned the loss. I love that. I wish more movies were like that.

I also don’t agree with the film critics who complained that this was too much of an “installment” movie whose only purpose was to set up The Avengers. I felt it worked very well as a self-contained movie. There were elements that were ties to the larger continuity, but they mostly served purposes that were relevant to this particular story as well (aside from a couple of throwaway moments like Agent Barton grabbing a bow rather than a gun and one of the SHIELD agents asking if the Destroyer was one of Tony Stark’s designs). Certainly the Avengers-setup material felt more integral and less intrusive here than it did in Iron Man 2.

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