Would Taika Waititi Kiwi-fy, or Maori-fy, Marvel? That was the big question leading into the release of this latest in Marvel’s string of big budget superhero movies. We were told that Marvel executives liked the look of Waititi’s previous work, like Boy, What We Do In The Shadows, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and decided his offbeat take on the world was just what the lumbering God of Thunder needed.
And they were right. What’s more, Thor Ragnarok feels like a New Zealand movie, at least to a New Zealand reviewer. It’s a hoot, no doubt about it. Visual gags abound. As does plenty of playful and self deprecating banter. And with Waititi himself playing a rather large sidebar role as a cgi rock creature called Korg, complete with as Kiwi an accent (shades of Billy T James) as you could wish for, the aura of Aotearoa is ever present. It’s certainly funny, at times laugh-out-loud so, and perhaps strays into the frivolous and downright silly as well. What that means is that Thor:Ragnarok is absolutely entertaining, although perhaps a little too long. More on that shortly.
The Marvel movies have been around long enough now that certain things are a given: they’ll look good, they’ll assemble an A grade cast of actors, they’ll combine action with humour, and the soundtrack will be pretty darn good. It’s how the various creative teams have judged that mix which makes for a winner.
Waititi gets a lot spot on here. He has an eye for a shot, and a lot of the visuals – especially involving the fight scenes – are quite striking. The gladiatorial battle between Thor and Hulk is epic in scale, making great use both of the size of the arena and bone crunching close ups. In other fight scenes Waititi uses Led Zeppelin to pump up the adrenalin, memorably so.
Waititi gives full rein to his actors to display their comic talents. Hemsworth displays a muscular physical humour, with a scene near the end when he tries to exit through a large window raising a huge laugh at the screening I attended. Hemsworth’s riffing with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr Strange is also a highlight. Waititi’s Korg just has to open his mouth to draw a smile from the audience. Jeff Goldblum has merely to look at the camera to do the same. Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie also mixes fighting prowess with comedy. Her entrance, an inebriated stumble from a spaceship down a ramp, is a treat. Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk and Cate Blanchett as Hela, Goddess of Death, clearly relish their roles. And Ruffalo has more do, as the story allows Hulk to have actual conversations with other characters, rather than simply roar, which is what he’s mostly done so far. Early in the film, a Game of Thrones-like stage show allows Sam Neill, Anthony Hopkins and a surprise big name actor an opportunity for more fun.
And on it goes through most of the large cast. An exception is New Zealand actor Karl Urban’s Skurge, who is the one serious character throughout. Urban is given little to say but his performance is extremely effective and counterbalances all the fun being had elsewhere.
Not all the characters work. Idris Elba’s Heimdall is largely lost in the story. And Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is becoming a bit of a worry. It feels like the writers can’t decide whether he’s a hero or a villain, and it feels like the same goes for the actor himself. The uncertainty over Loki worked well in his initial onscreen outings, but after this, his fourth Marvel movie, it’s starting to get a little tedious.
I won’t go over the plot here other than to say this is another chapter in Marvel’s big story of the danger posed to the universe by the Infinity Stones. It all leads to next year’s Avengers:Infinity War film, which will feature the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange and who knows who else in a big showdown with cosmic supervillain Thanos.
For all the boxes it ticks, is Thor:Ragnarok too long? Mostly, no, but into its second half some trimming might have been a good idea. The marketplace/street carnival scenes on The Grandmaster’s homeworld, with our heroes trying to dash about unnoticed, seemed unnecessary. Same goes for the airborne escape aboard rocket ships from said homeworld. We’ve seen a lot of similar action sequences in other Marvel movies and they’re becoming a little overdone. This scene did bring Thor and Valkyrie closer together but perhaps this could have been achieved in other ways.
These are minor quibbles though. Taika Waititi said he wanted to ensure that all who worked on his set enjoyed themselves, and it certainly shows in what we are presented with on screen. Waititi deserves huge credit for continuing the sense of fun that infused the first Guardians of the Galaxy film, and extending it further. It’s a blast.