Friday 27 October 2017

Gods of comedy: "Thor: Ragnarok"

Where DC's worker bees have had to spend the best part of this year digging in, first ensuring Wonder Woman became the brand-salvaging hit it did, then knuckling down - ahead of Justice League - to plotting the kind of synergy Avengers Assemble achieved half a decade ago, their rivals at Marvel Studios have spent 2017 with their foot off the gas. Granted, there were early summer successes in Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, but these were products from the larkier end of the superhero range, so confident of their fanbases they could afford to go a little slack in the edit suite. Thor: Ragnarok, ambling in this weekend, is pure goof-off, tossed casually into the marketplace by a studio that knows it has money and audience goodwill in the bank, and a franchise that, at this point, has nothing to lose. It features superheroes who stagger into scenes late or drunk, and mistime their would-be snappy lines; it distresses its hunky lead's chiselled appearance no end; and its skittish rhythms peak with the apparition of Jeff Goldblum wearing a gold-lamé dressing gown and electric-blue nail polish. It is thoroughly non-canonical, and easily the best film in the Thor series, not least because it acknowledges how intrinsically silly these stories are, and how "Asgard" can sound a little rude if you say it right.

One really funny thing about Ragnarok is that it does all this while describing events other comic-book movies would approach with frowning seriousness: the dissipation of Anthony Hopkins' Odin, for one, his ashes scattered over a cliff somewhere in Norway, and - back up in the heavens - the wholesale destruction of our hero's celestial hometown. Most noisily of all, there is the reemergence of Thor and Loki's vengeful sister Hela, played by Cate Blanchett in Gothy styling that makes Eva Green look like Shirley Temple. The Kiwi director Taika Waititi is, however, more inclined to use his sacrosanct source material as something to doodle and scribble over, proving more interested in what's going on at the margins, and in the shadows, than his narrative throughline. Almost half of Ragnarok's (commendably brisk) two-hour running time is the result of Waititi inviting Antipodean film industry buds to come in and mess around for a day or so, an open-door policy that yields such fun new characterisations as Korg, a market own-brand variant of the Fantastic Four's own Thing lent incongruously timid voice by Waititi himself, and Skurge, played by Karl Urban as a low-ranking Asgard flunky almost damned by nominative determinism.

A measure of corporate thinking passed close to these sets. You could view Ragnarok as merely a reaction to the near-complete anonymity of 2013's The Dark World, attributed to one Alan Taylor yet indistinguishable from the average Alan Smithee, and some question remains over how much of a risk the move towards light entertainment really is: the gags are still packed around a core of that moderate fantasy violence that has always landed these films a PG-13 rating and a $100m opening weekend. (More if you open on the Tuesday of a half-term holiday, as Ragnarok has in the UK.) The larky self-reflexivity is welcome: early on, while the film is still up in the heavens, we get a puckish theatrical reworking of the first movie's events, with Sam Neill walking the planks as Odin, a lesser Hemsworth playing Thor and a blink-and-you'll-miss-him Matt Damon cast as Loki. Yet the wider MCU self-referentiality still grates: this offshoot is at its least interesting with its obligation cameos from Scarlett Johansson and Idris Elba, at which points the franchise reverts to company men and women doing what their contracts demand for what their paycheques stipulate. Get back to Goldblum, we cry - and, to his credit, Waititi has the sense to hear that cry out.

This is the first Thor to suggest how franchise and protagonist alike might have a personality tucked away under their considerable muscle. Hemsworth #1 eases into nice, offhanded rhythms with Mark Ruffalo as a bemused Bruce Banner and Tessa Thompson as the Valkyrie who comes to their aid; for much of its duration, Ragnarok is Hot People Being Funny, which would be reason enough to return to the multiplex on a Saturday night. (One image of Thompson wiggling in a flowing blue cape while manoeuvring a massive gun into position is exactly the reason Thor Light comprises such an improvement upon its predecessors.) Better still, the general air of relaxation allows the occasional thunderclap of drama to register more forcefully: working enthusiastically with cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (The Others), Waititi stages Hela's slaying of Thompson's fellow Valkyries as a grand canvas, properly spectacular in 2D or three. Mainly, though, everybody's enjoying themselves. The effects in the much-trailered midfilm smackdown between Thor and the Hulk ("I know this guy from work!") suggest a more elasticated WWE, and even the last-reel setpiece, set to Led Zep's "Immigrant Song", is less rote green-screen smash-up than
 end-of-term disco, taking enormous delight scanning bodies in motion. Waititi's throwing a Thor party here, and - while, yes, it tessellates with what's gone before and what's upcoming - it's infinitely preferable to hearing the dull details of our hero's day job. 

Thor: Ragnarok is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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