Thor: Ragnarok (2017, Taika Waititi)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Captured and imprisoned on an alien word, Thor is forced to fight an old friend in gladiatorial combat. But back home on Asgard, his evil sister has taken control…

Despite cynics claiming that all superhero films take themselves too seriously, there’s been comedy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series since day one. The Iron Man strand has given the world lots of droll sarcasm from Robert Downey Jr. Ant-Man and its star Paul Rudd often have tongues placed firmly in cheeks. Even the muscular thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier uses gallows humour alongside its high-octane plotting. But even so, there was still something very significant about 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

As much an out-and-out comedy as a sci-fi adventure film, Guardians was very funny indeed. There were actual gags as well as playfulness, satire and self-deprecation. It was a risk, but it earned a huge amount of money and reviews were great. Coupled with the similar success of the likewise light-hearted superhero film Deadpool, and Marvel Studios knew they were onto a winner. Guardians soon got a sequel, but its influence also extended to another floor of the MCU skyscraper.

There had been two previous Thor films. Neither was without merit, but both suffered from a lack of distinction. The character’s debut movie, 2011’s Thor, hardly rewrote the rule book. Its sequel, 2013’s Thor: The Dark World, was the closest the MCU’s got to being actively boring. But for the third movie, there were big changes. It’d be underselling it to say Thor: Ragnarok is influenced by Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s more a shameless copy. Jokes are never far away from any scene. The film constantly pokes fun at itself and the genre as a whole. The colour scheme has switched from The Dark World’s grim, earthy dirge to an explosion of bright, bold, pop-art colours. And old music is used as score.

Inside five minutes, for example, there’s a confrontation between Thor (Chris Hemsworth, who knows how to handle comedy) and a mystical, all-powerful entity. It’s a moment seen often in genre films, yet here it’s played entirely for laughs. Then, as the action kicks in, so does the heavy-metal chugging of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song (1970). As the film develops, we get pop-culture references, slapstick, insults, a cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange, another confident turn from Tom Hiddleston as Loki, and even guest appearances from Matt Damon, Chris Hemsworth’s brother Liam and Sam Neill as actors playing Loki, Thor and their father in a play loaded with in-jokes for attentive viewers.

It’s fun. Bags of fun. Enormous fun. A lot of the credit must go to director Taika Waititi, who also voices a very funny secondary character (‘I tried to start a revolution but didn’t print enough pamphlets so hardly anyone turned up.’). It would be very easy for a film like this – where the cast are clearly having a ball and where the writers are running free of the usual shackles – to descend into self-indulgent nonsense. Thor: Ragnarok teeters on the edge a few times, but Waititi always keeps it upright.

Having said that, long-term MCU fans do have to let a few things go. This film bears such little tonal relationship to Thor’s previous outings that it may as well be a spoof. Humour is no bad thing in a multi-million-dollar franchise blockbuster, but here it can sometimes feel flippant (a problem that the Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy movies have always sidestepped). When Jeff Goldblum shows up and gives the most Jeff Goldblummy performance in the history of Jeff Goldblummary, it’s certainly entertaining. But it doesn’t exactly help with the suspension of disbelief.

Because, buried under all the silliness, there is actually a plot going on. On a far-off planet, Thor is captured by a sometimes drunk bounty hunter with a secret heritage called Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson, very good). He’s sold into slavery, forced to have his Nordic locks cut off, and must fight as a gladiator in an intergalactic amphitheatre. His opponent? As revealed in the film’s gleeful trailers, it’s Hulk! Thor’s trepidation instantly dissolves as he sees his old pal (‘We know each other! He’s a friend from work!’) but the two superheroes are forced to brawl for the paying audience. Eventually Hulk calms down and, for the first time in two years, reverts into Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, always good value). Then Thor gets word that home planet Asgard is under threat, so he and Bruce – the latter wearing a Duran Duran T-shirt – escape with the help of Scrapper 142 and Loki. The quartet form a team, jokingly self-named the Revengers.

Meanwhile, Hela – the goddess of death and Thor’s never-before-mentioned sister – is taking over Asgard, killing millions and waging war on the universe. She’s played by Cate Blanchet, who gamely wears a skin-tight costume and black eyeliner as she rants and raves and pontificates. The actress also has a Lord of the Rings reunion with Karl Urban, who here plays a cockney wide-boy Asgardian who unwillingly becomes her sidekick. But, as talented and entertaining as the pair are, their section of the story never really takes flight. The relentless comedy works against the story here: with the script constantly undercutting her pomposity, it’s too difficult to take Hela seriously.

In fact, the whole Asgardian section of the story feels unnecessary. Thor, Bruce Banner and co having breezy, riotous adventures in a colourful, sci-fi setting – all scored by 1980s-ish electronica and 1970s rock music – would be even more enjoyable without it.

Eight hairdressers out of 10

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Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, Joss Whedon)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When an artificial-intelligence programme called Ultron is let loose, he wants to destroy the world – only the Avengers stand in his way…

This second Avengers film is big, flashy and at times a lot of fun. But because it tries to squeeze so much into a paper-thin plot, none of the elements gets enough attention and the film also feels too long. It’s 136 minutes and sags in the middle under the weight of too many characters and too many action sequences…

In the first scene, as the Avengers launch an attack on a scientific base, there’s a continuous, 59-second shot that reintroduces the six core members of the team. (Well, it’s not actually continuous – you can spot how various elements have been stitched together in post-production – but it’s still impressive.) We meet Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) and Bruce Banner aka the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). They’re a well-drilled team, complementing each other’s abilities and trading quips while they fight.

But some big things have changed since the first Avengers mash-up movie. The SHIELD agency that recruited the gang has been disbanded and our heroes are now a self-governed collective (who even have their own logo). Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Rhodey (Don Cheadle) and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), three secondrary characters from previous films, are still giving them occasional support – but there’s dialogue to explain why conspicuous absentees Pepper Potts and Jane Foster can’t be arsed to turn up to a party. This post-SHIELD set-up feels like a storytelling backwards step after the political machinations of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s more simplistic and less interesting. For example, the film doesn’t make much effort in placing its story in any context – we see lots of civilian extras looking scared, and a few local cops who defer to these vigilantes at a moment’s notice, but there’s little sense of the wider world the characters are trying to save. The Avengers exist in a bubble, so their storyline feels very inward-looking…

Having stumbled across some research into artificial intelligence, Tony Stark wants to use it to run a global defence system. But when the AI system, Ultron, is prematurely activated it goes rogue and – for some reason – decides to wipe out humanity. Tony has other problems too: most of the team didn’t know what he was up to and are angry with his arrogance. Then, after a big action sequence that includes an Iron Man/Hulk face-off and yet more MCU urban carnage, the group is struck by paranoia thanks to one of Ultron’s sidekicks. Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are twins who want revenge on Tony for building the weapons that killed their parents, so initially team up with Ultron. Pietro is super-fast, while Wanda is psychic and plants hallucinations in our heroes’ heads. Tony sees a grim future where his friends are dead; Thor thinks he’s home on Asgard; Natasha flashes back to her cruel childhood; and Steve fantasises he’s at a party with old flame Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell showing up for a one-line cameo).

So, riddled with doubt and fear, the team are in a bad way. The film is too. As the Avengers hide at a safe house, the pace seriously flags. There’s plenty going on – Thor buggers off on a nonsensical subplot; Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) crops up; Natasha angers internet fans by referring to herself as a ‘monster’ because she can’t have children; there’s a sweet romance between Natasha and Bruce – but the script short-changes the 573 subplots and character stories. A new one even gets added into the mix late on, when Tony creates a new being called Vision (Paul Bettany) by combing the personality of his computer Jarvis with an organic body. It’s all very scrappy.

At least the big, third-act sequence has a twist. This series of films has coined a new action-movie cliché: big things falling onto a city. Now, it’s the city itself that’s about to fall because Ultron has floated it up into the sky with the intention of crashing it back to earth. (It’s a big job and means our villain is busy off-screen for curiously long stretches.) The team fight an endless supply of robots, helpless people need rescuing, Avengers make gags. But it all feels very mechanical and verges on boring.

Six WW2 vets out of 10

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Thor: The Dark World (2013, Alan Taylor)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Thor must defeat a foe who wants to plunge the universe into eternal darkness. His quest leads him back to Earth and old flame Jane Foster, and also means an uneasy alliance with brother Loki…

Ask a fanboy to name some all-time great bad guys in superhero films and he wouldn’t need to stop playing with himself: one hand is enough to count off Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, Terence Stamp’s General Zod, Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Heath Ledger’s Joker and Ian McKellan’s Magneto. But ask him to list mediocre examples and he’d need dozens of tweets’ worth of space.

For example, the antagonist in Thor: The Dark World is the spectacularly forgettable Malekith, a Dark Elf who wants revenge for a long-ago defeat and plans to take his anger out on the whole universe. He’s played by Christopher Eccleston, though from under so much prosthetic make-up and with such non-descript alien dialogue that they could have cast anyone. And he’s such a drab, lifeless villain that you wonder why Thor bothers leaving the gym to give him the time of day.

As the story gets underway, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is preparing to take over as king of the magical realm of Asgard, but is still pining after Jane Foster, the human woman he met in his first solo film. The current king is still Thor’s dad, Odin (Anthony Hopkins); the queen is still Frigga (Rene Russo, given much more to do this time round); and the all-seeing Helmdall (Idris Elba) is still standing guard at that fancy teleport-booth place. Meanwhile, Jane (Natalie Portman, bright and likeable) is in London. She’s on an awkward date with Roy from The IT Crowd – but when her colleague Darcy (Kat Dennings, the comic relief) interrupts, Jane has to leave to investigate a weird time/space portal in a warehouse. Before you know it, she’s been transported to an alien world and infected with a strange space gas called the Aether (ie, yet another meaningless Marvel plot device). It’s bad news for her health, but it does attract Thor’s attention.

So he journeys to Earth to see how she is. She responds by slapping him and saying, “Where were you? I was right here where you left me. I was waiting and then I was crying and then I went out looking for you. You said you were coming back.” He replies that the Bifrost bridge was destroyed, the Nine Realms erupted into chaos, wars were raging, marauders were pillaging, and he had to put an end to the slaughter. “As excuses go,” she concedes, “it’s not terrible.” They then travel to Asgard, leaving Darcy and her intern Ian (Jonathan Howard) to break old friend Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) out of a psychiatric facility. Traumatised by the events of Avengers Assemble, you see, he was committed after running around Stonehenge in his birthday suit…

As with the first Thor film, there’s a clash of tones going on here: ever-so-earnest scenes on an Asgard full of ceremony and glean and people in capes… versus comedic scenes in the London of the Shard and the Jubilee Line and high-viz-jacketed Metropolitan Police officers. The contradiction is heightened by Thor himself, who switches his attitude depending on which world he’s in. He’s clearly aware of irony on Earth, yet at home talks like he’s in an am-dram Shakespeare.

The film’s not a disaster, by any means, and is very watchable at times. But sadly the cross-cutting between worlds doesn’t flow at all, the pace sags in the middle, and because the plot needs so much explaining – it’s something to do with the convergence of planets, which only happens once every five thousand years – everything feels very stodgy. Some action scenes have little meaning because we’re not experiencing them through a character’s point of view, while drama scenes are shot like television, with flat coverage and some epileptic editing. (Darcy’s first appearance, for example, lasts for 66 seconds and contains *35* separate shots. It’s just a scene of three people talking and not moving.)

Thank the Nordic gods for Loki, the bad guy from both Thor’s first movie and Avengers Assemble. We see him briefly at the beginning of the story, then the film comes alive at the hour mark when he takes centre stage. Tom Hiddleston’s performance fizzes and pops as trickster Loki has to team up with his brother. In fact, thinking about it, we’re going to need that extra hand – let’s call Loki the sixth great bad guy in a superhero film. It’s just a shame that he’s not *this film’s* bad guy. It could do with him being more than just a subplot.

Six men who’d like their shoes back out of 10

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A self-indulgent appendix: The big action climax of Thor: The Dark World is both set and filmed in Greenwich, south-east London, which is about three miles from where I live. For the Dark Elves’ battle with Thor and his pals, the production team used the beautiful site of the Old Royal Naval College. It was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built between 1696 and 1712; originally a hospital for seaman, from 1873 it became a Royal Navy training college. The Navy left in 1998, since when the buildings have been both a tourist attraction and a university campus. Over the years, many films and TV shows have shot there: once you clock its architecture and layout, you never stop spotting it. For example, I first visited the site in 2010 specifically to see a filming location from the Harrison Ford movie Patriot Games (1992). The scene of Jack Ryan foiling an IRA assassination attempt was filmed at the ORNC, which was standing in for central London. Having been there in person, I then noticed the buildings being used in dozens of other films: Octopussy (1983), Four Weddings and Funeral (1994), The Madness of King George (1994), The Avengers (1998), Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), Starter for 10 (2006), The Queen (2006), The Golden Compass (2007), The Duchess (2008), Sherlock Holmes (2009), The Wolf Man (2010), Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011), Skyfall (2012), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Les Miserables (2012), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), even a spoof Doctor Who episode in 1993. I mention all of this because over the last seven years I’ve been back to the ORNC hundreds of times. I go most weeks for one reason or another: to attend a free music concert in its Chapel, to see a new art exhibition in the visitors’ centre, to show it off to friends, to see the Painted Hall (perhaps the most beautiful room in Britain), for a walk round its grounds, for a pint in its pub. It’s become a very special place to me, as has Greenwich in general. So, when it came to blogging about Thor: The Dark World, I took my laptop there to write the review.

Avengers Assemble (2012, Joss Whedon)

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Note: In most of the world, the film is called The Avengers (or, to be pedantic, Marvel’s The Avengers). In the UK and Ireland, however, it was renamed Avengers Assemble to avoid confusion with John Steed, Emma Peel and the rest.

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Asgardian god Loki comes to Earth and prepares for an alien invasion, a group of superheroes is assembled to fight him…

There’d been character-crossover events like this before, but they tended to be monster mash-ups: 1943’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, 2003’s Freddy vs Jason, 2004’s Alien vs Predator and so on. Here, however, it’s multiple superheroes in the same story. It feels huge and it’s very often a lot of fun.

We’re firstly reintroduced to the agents from covert organisation SHIELD – series regulars Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) plus newbie Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) – who are dealing with an incident at their headquarters. Living god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has arrived on earth to steal the Tesseract, a cube of almost unlimited energy. He also hypnotises Barton into being his lackey, which is a shame. The character has barely had any screen time in the series yet so it’s difficult to care about his plight.

Then we cut to Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), who’s recalled from a mission so she can go and recruit Bruce Banner to SHIELD’s cause. Since we last checked in with Banner (in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk) he’s learnt how to control his urge to turn into a giant, green monster… and he’s also changed his face. Edward Norton’s contract negotiations hit a rut so he’s been replaced in the role by Mark Ruffalo, who’s a very interesting and soulful presence in the film. Then Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and eventually Thor aka Thor (Chris Hemsworth) sign up to the squad. There are also a few other subsidiary characters in the mix: Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Jarvis (Paul Bettany) from the Iron Man films, and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) from Thor’s solo movie (2011).

So that’s our cast. The size of it doesn’t seem that large now, given the enormous roster of characters in later Avengers films, but it’s still a lot of people to keep busy and alive. The script does an impressive job of spinning all the plates, though at times it can feel like you’re watching an extended trailer rather than a fully dramatised story. Whedon uses a lot of short scenes and terse, comic-book-style dialogue. This can often be witty and clever – check out how the last line of one scene often foreshadows the next – but it can also feel very ‘written’. The pithy replies (Rogers: “We need a plan of attack.”/Stark: “I have a plan: attack.”) are fun and always tell us about character, but can mean everything feels a little superficial. When scenes of intimate drama do play out – such as Natasha conning Loki into blabbing some information, or the subplots concerning tensions within the team – it’s engaging stuff. There just aren’t that many examples.

This film is more interested in scope and scale and size and spectacle. It’s 136 minutes for a start, the longest MCU film yet. It begins in deep space with a Skeletor-type alien pontificating about invading the earth. There are huge sets, vast locations, massive action scenes, and many special-effects shots. Avengers Assemble is also clearly set in an even-more-comic-book-y world than its predecessors. Previous films in this series had impressively found real-world justifications for the superhero whimsy. For example, Captain America’s outlandish outfit was explained away as a theatrical costume.

However, here we have an enormous aircraft carrier that (somehow) hovers in the sky, a shadowy cabal who run a global security agency (seemingly with no recourse to any governments), and a secret agent who uses a bow and arrow…. just because. If the film weren’t so pacey and fun, this silliness might be more of a problem. But it *is* funny, as you’d expect from the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. Among the standout gags are Coulson phoning Natasha while she’s tied up by some bad guys; Coulson having a man-crush on Captain America; Tony Stark calling Thor ‘Point Break’; and the Hulk thrashing Loki around like a doll. (Note the mentions of Agent Phil Coulson. He was such a success in this series that he was spun-off into a TV show. The up-and-down Agents of SHIELD is, at time of writing, on its fourth season.)

The humour’s important, because the climax of the film is the most tiresome of modern superhero-movie clichés: the mass destruction of a city. Watch as thousands of people are killed and billions of dollars’ worth of damage is dished out! But try to avoid noticing how our heroes don’t seem that bothered! It’s by no means the only recent superhero film to suffer from this problem. Modern visual-effects designers have shot their loads over collapsing skyscrapers and urban carnage in numerous X-Men, Dark Knight, DC and Marvel films. Of course, an action climax needs *action*. But Avengers Assemble’s final half-hour is MacGuffin-driven nonsense and the big threat is a sensationally dull CG-army plot device. It’s a shame.

Seven men playing chess out of 10

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Thor (2011, Kenneth Branagh)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Banished from the heavenly realm of Asgard, god prince Thor ends up on Earth. But back home his brother has usurped the king…

This film has muscles, in more ways than one. Most noticeable are the beefed-up biceps of its lead actor but there’s also plenty of strength in the talent involved. A comic-book movie directed by Kenneth Branagh and co-starring Anthony Hopkins will have some heft behind it, not matter what else is going on. Sadly, though, the way Thor’s storyline bounces around between some very different worlds means we get a jarring clash of tones: the fish-out-of-water comedy and Dune-style space opera never quite seem to marry up.

We start with a group of scientists in modern-day New Mexico, presumably to reassure casual viewers that the film won’t be too far-out, then we cut to Tønsberg, Norway, in 965 AD. Monsters called Frost Giants are doing battle with humanoid gods on a barren, cold landscape. After three films featuring American scientists dabbling in gamma-ray experiments and ergonomic, biomechanical suits, it’s clear the Marvel Cinematic Universe is doing something different this time. It’s a risk, and it shakes the series up. But as the main storyline gets underway on the heavenly world of Asgard – all golden halls, Shakespearean pomp and CGI set extensions – it’s difficult to take things seriously.

Hopkins is king, an underused Rene Russo is his queen, and their two sons are engaged in a bit of sibling rivalry. Chris Hemsworth plays Thor, who is the heir apparent but recklessly goes to war with his father’s enemies. Meanwhile, Tom Hiddleston plays Loki, who aptly does start quite low-key. He slowly sneaks up on the film as its main villain, thanks to a controlled, effective performance. In this section we also meet Thor’s four friends: Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), Fandral (Josh Dallas) and Sif (Jaimie Alexander), though considering how lightweight they are they may as well be called Asterix, Obelix, Dogmatix and The Token Fit Girl. Idris Elba also pops up as Helmdall, a humourless man who seemingly spends his entire life standing guard at a teleport booth. (Casting a black actor as a Nordic god led to calls for a boycott from a right-wing American pressure group. The things some people choose to care about…) There’s talk of Mjolnir, a mighty hammer that was forged in a star blah blah blah, and a cube-shaped MacGuffin that contains some kind of nebulous power. It’s all rather po-faced and staid.

Things aren’t helped by the way the scenes are staged. Although shot conventionally, the film was always going to be converted to 3D for its cinema release – so we get some strange and distracting camera moves and lots of off-kilter angles. It comes as something of a relief, therefore, after half an hour when Thor is banished from his world and we finally return to the scientists from the first scene. The whole timbre of the movie switches now, and the light comedy begins. For example, having arrived on Earth, Thor is tasered while giving a self-important speech, then the same gag is repeated a few minutes later (he’s injected with a sedative this time). The lead scientist – and Thor’s love interest – is Jane Foster, played by a likeable Natalie Portman. She has two sidekicks: the worrisome Erik Selvig (played by the ever-dependable Stellan Skarsgård) and the sarcastic Darcy Lewis (played by the ever-adorable Kat Dennings).

Various SHIELD agents turn up too – this is an MCU film, after all. One of them, an archer called Barton, is basically a glorified extra with a few lines: you’d never guess from this perfunctory cameo that one of the franchise’s major characters has just being introduced. But by now the film is generally very entertaining. Hemsworth and Portman are good fun, and there’s a great sequence of Thor and Erik getting drunk together.

The big problem is that as we cut between New Mexico and Asgard, the momentum is stunted and the tone disrupted. If this were a 1980s film with a lower budget and no recourse to CGI, we’d be with Jane and co throughout. Thor would be a visiting outsider like the aliens in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Starman (1984), Howard the Duck (1986) and My Stepmother is an Alien (1988). We’d learn about his culture and background through the human characters’ eyes. But in its eagerness to show us everything the film loses something. Less would be so much more.

Seven pick-up trucks out of 10

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