The Dumb Avenger

 

And now, a dramatic reenactment of a meeting at Marvel Studios discussing what to do with the next Thor movie:

“Ok so people kinda haven’t liked any of the movies we’ve done with Thor but we gotta make a third one because everyone gets a third one.”

“Well, we haven’t given Black Widow a mo..”

“So how can we make people like a Thor movie?”

“What if we made him like Deadpool?”

“Or Star Lord?”

“Or Tony Stark?”

“So………make him sound like a tool?

“YES!”

“BRILLIANT!

“….we could still do a Black Wido..”

“THOR!”

 

Thor: Ragnarok opens with the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth) wrapped in chains cracking wise with a giant flaming demon monster, who warns him of the impending doom of his homeworld of Asgard known as “Ragnarok.” After swiftly defeating said monster (while still cracking wise), Thor returns to Asgard to see his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) running rampant in the absence of their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). But right as Thor seems to be reeling things in, he and Loki learn they have a long-lost older sister: the Goddess of Death known as Hela (Cate Blanchett), who looks to enslave Asgard and reclaim the kingdom’s throne. She starts by exiling Thor and Loki to an offbeat planet ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who uses a liquored-up ex-warrior (Tessa Thompson) to capture Thor and force him to compete a gladiator fight. Fortunately, Thor’s opponent is none other than the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who Thor needs to help him escape and save Asgard from certain death.

 

The first and most glaring thing to know about Thor: Ragnarok is that it is, without question, a comedy. Yes, it has action scenes that incorporate fist-fights, swords and spaceships on top of the typical mythic lore tied to Thor’s lineage. But make no mistake, director Taika Waititi (Flight of the Conchords, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) is entirely going for laughs. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn if they three screenwriters on Ragnarok just wrote the movie based on his offbeat style and sarcastic direction of actors. Ragnarok is also very much style over substance, not that it’s entirely a detriment to the movie. Waititi and his team of set and costume designers crafted a visual treat in the worlds and people of both Asgard and the junk planet bursting with color and personality. Waititi’s direction isn’t stifled either, as those familiar with his work will recognize his choice for the movie’s breakneck pacing and punchline-driven editing. Even the music, done by Devo mastermind Mark Mothersbaugh, is brighter and more fitting to an 80s sci-fi film than the typical bombastic Marvel music (the use of “Immigrant Song” doesn’t hurt either).

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Ragnarok gives Thor a much-needed touch of levity, but that doesn’t mean the movie is all the way in the clear. There a plenty of laughs in Ragnarok, but the movie’s total attention to comedy ends up undercutting any kind of stakes or drama the movie might had. For a plot that revolves around the Goddess of Death and the destruction of an entire civilization, there seems to be no sense of urgency or threat coming from the characters. The movie’s addiction to belly laughs also undercut any moment of drama or heft, which are seen and even needed in superhero movies. Even something as disposable and pointless as Spider-Man: Homecoming had proper dramatic moments that made me invested in what was happening outside of an episode of Degrassi guest starring Spider-Man. It also makes Ragnarok feel like it’s running in circles during its 130-minute runtime where most comedies, especially action-comedies, are pretty brisk and run under two hours. Perhaps because this is a Marvel movie featuring one its premiere characters that it passes the two-hour mark, but there are scenes that feel stretched out.

 

There are plenty of characters meant to fill those spaces with varying degrees of success. Like most comedies, a lot of the highlights come from the supporting players. Mark Ruffalo may never get the chance to have his own solo Hulk movie, so he makes the most of his human appearance in Ragnarok as Thor’s stingy neurotic sidekick. Even his CGI alter ego gets big laughs as the dopey lughead sidekick. Despite his role being a glorified cameo, Jeff Goldblum is a delight as he eloquently waves his arms around in his half-invested but charming Goldblum-ness. The real star is far and away Tessa Thompson, a proven ace in drama (Creed) and comedy (Dear White People) that finally gets her blockbuster breakout. Not only is her character given the strongest arc of the movie, but Thompson’s snarky delivery and brazen presence onscreen holds any and all attention.

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On the flipside of that is a handful of big names wasted, chief among them being Cate Blanchett who tragically suffers from Marvel villain syndrome. Hela merely shows up with little fanfare and gets very little screentime to establish her presence, which is a shame because Blanchett seems to be having the time of her life as the gothic death goddess. Even when she throws every sword she can conjure at the final fight, it’s only a reminder of how weak of a presence she was in the movie. Same goes for Karl Urban, who plays Hela’s right hand man that I don’t feel like naming since it would take longer than the time he was onscreen for. The great Tom Hiddleston, reprising his role as arguably Marvel’s greatest villain, is merely another comedic sidekick that yucks around with Thor and given nothing else to do. And then there’s Chris Hemsworth as our titular character. While admittedly more relaxed and totally willing to roll with the looney nature of the movie, Hemsworth’s presence feels lessened by the fact that he’s saying one liners. It worked better when he was the fish out of water still speaking the exaggerated Asgardian English in the Avengers movies. Here, his lines are so generically comic that it might as well be coming from Chris Pratt or Robert Downey Jr.

 
Bottom line, Thor: Ragnarok is a fun, funny action comedy that I most certainly will forget about by next week. It’s certainly the best of the Thor movies and it’s nice to see Marvel let a director have his full vision with a movie (poor Edgar Wright). It just seems like another pitstop in Marvel’s crafted business plan. Compare this to something like Marvel’s own Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 or even Logan, two of the flat out best movies of the year. Those movies thrived on having legitimate emotion and heart tied to them, giving gravity to important scenes even in scenes that would be considered over-the-top or comical (especially in the case of Guardians). Ragnarok is certainly funny, over-the-top and successful at being a comic book movie. But no matter how shiny and funny it is, it’s about as meaningful and legitimate as a funny-looking hand puppet.

3/4

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Blaze of Glory

Pop quiz: how do you end a superhero? I’m not talking about killing a superhero, I mean taking a character the world knows and loves and simply saying “alright, show’s over”? How do you send off a figure with so much baggage and so many travels behind him? Regardless of what you come up with, it’s never going to be clean. Whether it’s having him disappear into the sunrise or having him quietly admit his faults with a slow dance, there’s no easy way to drop the curtains on a comic book hero at the movies. And if anyone is the antithesis of easy in the superhero movie universe, it’s most definitely Wolverine. Marvel’s brooding blitzkrieg of rage and self-loathing has been as fused with pop culture in the last two decades as the adamantium that coats his skeleton, so you can imagine that he’s not going away quietly. But just because we’re sad to see Wolverine go, that doesn’t mean he’s leaving unscathed.

Logan’s title star (Hugh Jackman) is now in the year 2029 as a grey-haired lumbering shell of his former self stuck near the border of Mexico driving around drunk prom teens and bridal showers. His claws ache, his healing is practically gone, and he’s only getting by with copious amounts of liquor. He’s also caring for Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who deteriorating mental state causes his telepathy to go haywire unless he’s heavily medicated and monitored by an albino mutant tracker (Stephen Merchant). But then Logan has an unwelcomed passenger; a young girl named Laura (newcomer Dafne Keen) who doesn’t talk much but lets her claws speak for her. It turns out she has a lot in common with Logan, and he has to protect her from a secret organization looking to mass-produce mutant soldiers.

Props go to co-writer/director James Mangold (Walk the Line) for managing to successfully shift Logan from the samurai shuffle of Japan in 2013’s The Wolverine to the dirty, grim, sunsoaked American south of Logan. It would be easy to call Logan more of a Western than a traditional superhero movie, but that depends on your definition of a Western. Logan’s definition of a Western is much closer to the blood-dripping excess of Django Unchained than The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. From the opening scene onward, every action scene hits like a sledgehammer to the chest with limbs severed, blood splattering walls, and Logan’s claws visibly piercing the heads of multiple bad guys. It’s glorious overkill, even if it loses some of its fun by the film’s climax and when Mangold has trouble having the camera keep up with the rapid choreography. Not to mention the god awful scenes when Professor X has seizures that causes everyone to become paralyzed and the cameraman to have a stroke. But even amongst the shakey cam are some truly gorgeous shots by cinematographer John Mathieson (Gladiator, X-Men: First Class) and Mangold does capture the emotionally hefty moments throughout. Once the movie slows down and gets to catch its breath, Mangold finally lets the audience see the wheezing, limping man that Logan is and how dire the situation is. That’s when the audience is reminded why this movie is a big deal.

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Unfortunately, the audience has to wait an hour to feel that purpose. Before then, they sit through a surprisingly rushed first half hour where the film’s setting is lazily set-up and characters are awkwardly introduced. The film also enjoys its R-rating with curse words abound and not just from Logan (a cussing Patrick Stewart is a wonderful Patrick Stewart, FYI), but doesn’t leave for any clever dialogue and instead some rushed exposition. The first hour of Logan has its moments and builds the interesting elements of a story, but it’s so rushed and forced that you just want the movie to take its time. It’s almost aimless, but the rest of the 137-minute movie finally starts to tell why Logan is in this predicament. This isn’t just another adventure Logan is reluctant to take on, this is Logan on the verge of death trying to find the tiniest reason to get up in the morning, let alone flex his claws. It’s such an emotional ramp up that you almost think the first half was for a completely different movie. In fact, it’s the comic book elements from the X-23 and Old Man Logan storyline that distract from the emotional core of the movie. You just wish that Logan would stay as far away from the comic books as possible and feel more like its own special salute to this character that Jackman put so much of his time and effort into.

 

Speaking of Jackman, some actors do superhero movies for a multitude of reasons (money, career revitalization, desperate ploys to relevancy). But Jackman has always cared about Wolverine, taking so much time out of his life to make Wolverine a true character more than a toy. And in Logan he takes a bow the way a true actor does, by leaving it all on the screen. Jackman aches and breaks in the role, showing more raw emotion in Wolverine than ever before. Equal parts pain and macho power, Jackman truly understands the development of Wolverine throughout these movies (timelines be damned) as someone who has no more guard left to put up. He truly sends his version of Logan off with proud salute to the character and the fans who’ve stuck by him.

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He also leaves some room for his supporting players. Patrick Stewart is great as always, with a fouler mouth and somehow a kinder soul to Logan. Stewart also says that he’s done with the Xavier character, so it’s nice that he gets to bring a little more aged agitation to the role before he exits stage left. And then there’s Dafne Keen, mostly mute throughout the movie but uses her cold but curious stares (and some expressive eyebrows, by the way) to speak volumes. She’s a good mirror for Logan’s character and gives him the reason for his explosive catharsis, along with being very capable of handling animalistic rage (when her claws come out, she becomes the star). It’s a shame that Stephen Merchant gets wasted here, as someone who could’ve brought some great dark comedy to the movie.

Despite the presence of a cocky Boyd Holbrook (Gone Girl, Narcos) with a gold tooth and robot hand and a slithering Richard E. Grant (Dracula, Corpse Bride) as a sinister experimental doctor, there doesn’t seem to be an intimidating antagonist in the movie. Both characters are more plot motivators to get to Logan’s last stand. There’s no threat in Logan and very little sense of heightened tension. The movie’s action goes 150 mph from the get-go that you wish it was spaced out a little bit more to add more heft and awe to the impressive but, by the end of the movie, routine climax. As much as I enjoy someone’s head getting blown off, it really hits home if its sudden or cleverly built-up. To bring up Django Unchained again, that movie’s shootouts work so well because Tarantino spaces them out so far between each other to build anticipation for it. It’s great that Logan goes all out with its action and when you first see it, it’s absolutely sublime, but there’s a reason you save your special attack on Super Smash Bros. for the last life.

Maybe this is my fault, maybe I succumbed to internet hype machine and expected Logan to be a perfect movie. Or maybe I misread the reviews and the fan hype: Logan is a perfect WOLVERINE movie, but that does not mean it’s a perfect movie, period. Logan is an absolute trainwreck, a speeding, flaming, bloody bullet that’s crash landing is as worthwhile as all the bodies it went through to get there. It goes too fast sometimes, its punches get numbing after a while, and its manic energy is sometimes too much to properly capture. But it’s impossible not to salute Logan for diving head-first into absolute carnage and going all-out with the violence and the gloom. No matter the scars or damage there is to the final product, you take Logan as it is: one last hurrah from one of the most iconic movie characters of the last two decades and the man so utterly committed to that character. Mr. Jackman, we salute you and you blood-soaked knuckles.

3/4 stars