Film Review: ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

Thor does Planet Hulk…

Spoiler-free review

 

Thor 3

For Asgard: Chris Hemsworth leads the quest to save his home in Marvel Studios release ‘Thor: Ragnarok’.

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Karl Urban, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Tessa Thompson

Directed by: Taikia Waititi / Written by: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle & Christopher L. Yost / 130 minutes

What’s it about?

As Asgard is attacked by Hela, the Goddess of Death, Thor finds himself stranded on a hostile alien planet where he is reunited with a familiar face and a hope to save his civilization from destruction…

In review

After sitting out last year’s team up in Captain America: Civil War, Marvel’s God of Thunder returns to the screen for a third solo outing where he is reunited with a “friend…from work” – the raging Incredible Hulk for an offbeat cosmic comic book adventure that’s a lot of fun, if overly daft and a little too self-indulgent.

Thor: Ragnarok largely eschews the more Shakespearean tone of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor and Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World, director Taikia Waititi taking things in a somewhat goofier and lighter direction.  This is both a blessing and a curse, because at times Ragnarok feels like a James Gunn cover version, rarely straying too far from zany frivolity – often at the expense of drama and character.  A good dose of levity isn’t unwelcome, and there are genuinely funny moments, but what works so well for Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t always hit the mark here and for a film that concerns the fall of Thor’s home – the mighty and magical realm of Asgard, the preference for those instances undermines some of the dramatic potential of Ragnarok.

Like those aforementioned directors, Waititi presents the viewer with a colourful, visually majestic film with grand scale and exciting blockbuster action.  If the film is occasionally let down by its slapstick tendencies and Guardians-esque imitations, there’s no faulting the craftsmanship and slick direction.

Chris Hemsworth makes an assured return as Thor and clearly relishes this particular take, confidently leading the rest of the cast.  What Ragnarok achieves more successfully than previous outings is giving us a Thor that truly feels like a God of Thunder and there are a few standout moments where director Waititi ensures that this strikes the viewer with awe.

Tom Hiddleston is once again on top form as he effortlessly hits the ground running as the devious Loki, further exploring his fractured brotherly dynamic with Hemsworth’s Thor.  There are also notable returns for Anthony Hopkins (Odin) and Idris Elba (Heimdall) as well as a guest role for the always excellent Karl Urban as Skurge (Asgard’s new keeper of the Rainbrow Bridge) and Westworld’s Tessa Thompson proves to be a highlight as former Asgardian warrior turned drunken bounty hunter, Valkyrie.

As for the bringer of Asgard’s doom, Cate Blanchett oozes and thrills as Hela (Marvel Studios’ first female villain) in a performance that deftly melds a dark, maniacal edge with sizzling sassiness.  Along with Hiddleston’s Loki she is one of the more memorable and better served antagonists of the MCU thus far.

Arguably though, the real star of the show is Mark Ruffalo – whether via performance capture as the Hulk (continuing advances in technology allowing every nuance to penetrate the computer generated exterior) or Bruce Banner, he infuses the role with a richness and charm that seizes the attention of the audience with a portrayal that’s equally heartfelt and funny.

Ragnarok is ostensibly a Thor film, however the ‘Ragnarok’ aspect of the narrative tends to take a back seat to its incorporation of fan-favourite Marvel Comics epic “Planet Hulk” – with much of the running time devoted to Thor’s exile on the planet Sakaar where he finds (and is at first pitted against in the gladiatorial arena by the Grandmaster, played wonderfully and exuberantly by the inimitable Jeff Goldblum) his ever angry green comrade.  Whilst this might devalue the central threat and the character arc possibilities for Hemsworth’s Thor, the inclusion of the Hulk is a welcome one – given the unlikelihood of a future solo outing of his own – and it’s pleasing to see some evolution for the character, this version more garrulous and playful than what has come before.

Whilst it would’ve been interesting to see a stronger and more focused exploration of Asgard’s fall and all that entails, there’s no arguing that Ragnarok is at its best whenever Thor and Hulk or Thor and Banner (and by extension, Valkyrie) are sharing the screen, all the more appealing given the sparky chemistry between Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo.

Despite some of its missteps, Thor: Ragnarok is a highly enjoyable romp – wearing it’s influences with glee, it’s kitsch infusion of 80’s metal, Flash Gordon, Masters of the Universe and cult sword and sorcery making it all the more pleasing on the whole.  It may not be the best Marvel Studios effort nor is it necessarily the strongest ‘Thor’ centric-story but it’s a good time non-the-less.

The bottom line:  A fun, if at times overly silly comic book adventure, Thor: Ragnarok is a reliably entertaining offering from Marvel Studios.

Thor: Ragnarok is in cinemas across the UK now and opens worldwide from 3rd November.

Film Review: ‘Kong: Skull Island’ (spoiler free)

The iconic King of an equally iconic lost world is reborn in a franchise expanding blockbuster…

Starring:  Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Toby Kebbell, John C. Reilly, Corey Hawkins, Terry Notary

Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts / Written by: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connoly (story by John Gatins) / 118 minutes

What’s it about?

A team composed of scientists and military officers mount an expedition to a mysterious lost island in the South Pacific…

In review

Far from being a masterpiece, Kong: Skull Island isn’t in the same league as the classic original 1933 King Kong or Peter Jackson’s superb 2005 remake but is certainly superior to the creaky 1976 version, which starred Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange.

Taking place as the Vietnam War is coming to an end, the narrative of Skull Island is served by a fairly simple, derivative, yet functional and entertaining script (from screenwriters Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connoly) that’s hindered by weak characterisation and occasionally cheesy dialogue that underserves and underutilises a stellar cast.  Tom Hiddleston (Thor’s Loki) and Brie Larson (awarded an Oscar for her role in Room) are capable leads as former S.A.S. tracker James Conrad and ‘anti-war’ photographer Mason Weaver, respectively, with support from Samuel L. Jackson as tough-as-nails military man Lt. Colonel Packard, John Goodman as the expedition’s scientific leader Bill Randa, Corey Hawkins as fellow scientist Houston Brooks, Toby Kebbell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) as Major Jack Chapman and John C. Reilly, on hand to provide doses of comic relief as Marlow, a marooned World War II pilot.  The cast is further filled out by a set of largely forgettable ancillary characters.

The pace of Skull Island is fairly tight which for the most part is fine, but the journey to the mythical Skull Island and the expedition’s first encounter with its ‘King’ all happens a little too quickly.  Some viewers might favour this, but it’s arguable that some extra time spent establishing the characters and a more steady build up to Kong’s reveal could have been of benefit.  That being said, the titular ape’s introduction is pretty spectacular and does not disappoint.

Where Skull Island ultimately succeeds then, is in its visuals and creature conflicts.  Whilst Skull Island itself lacks much of the mystery and creepiness of Peter Jackson’s version, it’s a suitably primal eco-system and Kong himself proves to be a magnificently realised creation, a towering behemoth (at 100ft tall this is the largest version of the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ ever to grace the screen) rendered in CGI with incredibly intricate detail, aided by the performance capture work of Terry Notary.  Kong aside, there’s a decent range of creatures of varied design from giant stick insects and arachnids to the ominously named ‘Skull Crawlers’ that become the main threat to the central characters and provide Kong with a formidable foe to grapple with, leading to a final act that’s quite exhilarating.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (currently tapped to helm the long gestating Metal Gear Solid feature film) handles the effects-driven action with relative ease and delivers some pleasing monster smack downs that will wow and thrill.  The Vietnam era setting is also in the film’s overall favour and affords Vogt-Roberts the opportunity to evoke vibes of Apocalypse Now, made all the more indelible by some wonderful photography from Batman v Superman cinematographer Larry Fong.  It also allows the otherwise disappointing script to inject a dash of well-placed satire.

Given Warner Bros.’/Legendary Pictures’ plans to develop a shared cinematic universe that will incorporate that other iconic screen monster – Godzilla – there are naturally some franchise connections within Skull Island, facilitated by the inclusion of the Monarch organisation that featured in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla and fans are advised to stick around for a tantalising post-credits scene.

More of a blockbuster budgeted B-movie than a modern classic, Skull Island is undemanding fun that’s a little dumb yet occasionally rises to something greater via its visual effects and creature bashing action.

The bottom line:  Entertaining and often exciting, Kong: Skull Island is let down by thinly drawn characters and some weak scripting yet succeeds with its visual thrills.

Kong: Skull Island is in cinemas now.

Kong

The gigantic King of Skull Island roars onto the screen in Warner Bros.’/Legendary Pictures’ blockbuster ‘Kong: Skull Island’.

Film Review: ‘Thor: The Dark World’ (spoiler-free)

Starring:  Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Jaimie Alexander, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard

Directed by:  Alan Taylor / Written by:  Christopher L. Yost, Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (story by Don Payne and Robert Rodat) / 120 minutes

What’s it about?

Thor must risk all to prevent Asgard’s deadliest enemy from unleashing a powerful force that will destroy life across the realms…

In review

With Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011), Marvel Studios once again served up a surprise hit that in a similar vein to Iron Man established a firm and popular screen presence for another of the lesser known characters from the Marvel pantheon.  Admittedly I’m not a fan of fantasy or ‘sword and sandal’ epics, I’ve never fully understood why but perhaps much like Tony Stark I prefer hardware and flawed human characters that I find more relatable.  I’d never read a Thor comic until I decided to give J. Michael Straczynski’s acclaimed run a go (around 2007/8 if I recall correctly) and found that I thoroughly enjoyed it thanks to decent characterisation and the blending of rich mythology with ‘real world’ elements.

I generally still can’t take to the fantasy/sword and sandal genre but with The Mighty Thor and his ties to the wider Marvel Universe, I gladly make an exception.  With the stage set by Mr. Branagh, director Alan Taylor (Game of Thrones) takes over the throne to helm Thor: The Dark World, the God of Thunder’s first post-Avengers Assemble outing.  It’s certainly a much grander production than the previous Thor (which was quite a grand venture itself), clearly benefitting from an increased budget in the wake of Avengers success – much as was the case with Iron Man Three.  This is a visually epic film with the rich detail and sweeping vistas of Asgard balanced against the more recognisable but no less breathtaking landscapes of the London set Earth-bound scenes.

The film’s narrative enriches the visual aspects, providing high stakes and action-packed thrills with a smattering of romance, charm and humour that complement the dramatic elements without undermining them.

Chris Hemsworth makes a confident return as the iconic Marvel hero and presents a wiser, slightly more seasoned Thor fighting to bring order to the Nine Realms, supported by companions Lady Sif (Alexander) and the ‘Warriors Three’ Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) and replacing Josh Dallas is a post-Chuck Zacahry Levi as Fandral – who sadly is given little to do here.

Natalie Portman again deftly balances the sensitive and intellectual attributes of Jane Foster (who’s not afraid to slap a god in the face) and figures significantly in the grand scheme of things.

Kat Dennings enjoys (and certainly makes the most of) an enlarged role as the zany Darcy, facilitating a number of the film’s fun comical moments some of which also involve a rambling (and nude) Stellan Skarsgard as the previously brainwashed (see Avengers Assemble) Dr. Erik Selvig.

I initially had trepidations about Christopher Eccleston as the vengeful Dark Elf, Malekith (a role that was originally set to be played by Mads Mikkelsen) but I was pleased to find that he executed the part rather well and his performance is bolstered by some good make-up/prosthetic work.

But, once again, the true star of the show is Tom Hiddleston who gives another wicked yet complex turn as Loki, chastised and imprisoned by Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins).  Hiddleston carries with him a Shakespearean air and could easily carry a film of his own – ‘nuff said.

So, ultimately, is The Dark World better than the first Thor?  Quite possibly is all I can say for now, as I’ve said it’s certainly bigger in scope and the threat is a sizeable and substantial one but I do have a weakness for heroic origin stories and feel that there is perhaps more emotional resonance within Branagh’s film.  All in all though it’s another reliable hit from Marvel Studios and whilst I may favour other Marvel characters, I’ll always be open to the odd trip to Asgard.

The bottom line:  Thor: The Dark World is an epic, exciting and fun piece of comic book entertainment and serves up healthy doses of all you would expect from a Marvel film.  Ensure you stay for both the mid-credits and post-credits scenes!

Thor: The Dark World is in cinemas across the UK now and is released in the States on 8th November.

What did you think of Thor: The Dark World?  Share your spoiler-free thoughts below!

Marvel's mighty thunder god returns confidently in Marvel Studios' 'Thor: The Dark World'.

Marvel’s mighty thunder god returns confidently in Marvel Studios’ ‘Thor: The Dark World’.