Thursday, 26 October 2017

Film Review: Taika Waititi livens up the Marvel canon with the colourful, hilarious Thor: Ragnarok

Taika Waititi's last film prior to Thor: Ragnarok was a quirky indie comedy about an adopted boy running away into the wilderness. Before that he made a fantastically silly mockumentary about a group of vampires. Waititi's films are bizarre, they tend to take common tropes - lost child discovering himself, comedy about a group of outcasts - but infuse them with something brilliantly unique. Ragnarok, now the seventeenth entry in Marvel's Cinematic Universe, was in desperate need of his unique ability to turn the old into the new, and that's exactly what he does.

While Ragnarok is penned by Marvel's own writers rather than Waititi himself, it isn't hard to see the impact his name has on the film. The third Thor feature is wacky, colourful, and deliriously fun. While it maybe lacks the beating heart of other Waititi offerings, Ragnarok finds its core elsewhere. We've had funny superhero films before - Spider-man: Homecoming was only a few months ago, after all - but this one is almost a whole new breed entirely. It's funny without ever sacrificing character, it's cool without ever feeling forced, and it ties all of this to a new kind of story for the superhero genre.

Granted, Ragnarok's story is hardly groundbreaking in its originality, but at this point I'll take anything new over the same old save the world narrative. It focuses on Thor (Chris Hemsworth, hilariously committed to the role) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston, as reliable as ever) trying to find their way back to Asgard to prevent the evil Hela (Cate Blanchett, ridiculously awesome) from taking control of the city. There's obviously more to the story than this, but Ragnarok is the kind of superhero film that surprises you as it progresses. It's never content to sit still and tell an easy story with some cheap jokes and flashy action scenes, it's a much more personal story with more at stake than you might immediately realise.

That doesn't mean Ragnarok isn't flashy with its action though. Waititi is very clearly not an action director - that breathtaking Valkyrie sky attack seen in the trailers is disappointingly reduced to a quick flashback - and his early fight scenes do lack personality, but he soon finds his footing. A race through the skies finds Thor and his new found friend Valkyrie leaping between various spacecrafts, and despite so much going on throughout the scene Waititi deftly balances humour and thrills. It takes a while for his style to emerge here, but when it does the result is worth waiting for.

In fact, most of Ragnarok's first act seems unsure of itself. It's almost as if the film's more conventional Marvel screenwriters aren't quite operating on the same wavelength as Waititi's direction, forcing the cast into an awkward place. Waititi feels restrained while the writers come across a bit lost, and the film chokes and splutters its way through a fitfully engaging but ultimately uneven opening act. It isn't enough to deter you from the film - the visuals are too gorgeous and the premise too intriguing for that - but it does sow a few doubtful seeds into the mind as to whether Ragnarok really can pull all of this off.

Once the film reaches the half hour mark though, things take off and you'll find a smile on your face that even a Monday morning couldn't shake. Waititi imbues supporting characters with personality - he himself provides the voice for Korg, without doubt the film's funniest creation - and he finally finds his comedic voice amid the Marvel tone. A brilliantly random conversation about a young Thor and a snake will have you laughing out loud, while Jeff Goldblum steals every scene he's in with a performance as overly smug as it is undeniably hilarious. Even a talking Hulk doesn't outstay its welcome, which is a minor miracle in itself.

It all culminates in a huge bridge-set battle on Asgard, and while yet another somewhat airborne final act should send your eyes rolling out the back of your head, Waititi frames it all with a stunning visual splendour. His frame bursts with colour, and he succeeds in twisting a cluttered finale into a work of real brilliance - no element here feels rushed, everything is given room to breathe without the pace slowing. The film's ending is unpredictable but entirely satisfying, and watching the story's various strands come together to the tune of Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song is so unabashedly cool that you can't not fall in love with everything you're experiencing.

Marvel took a risk hiring Waititi for this job, and it may just be the best risk they've ever pulled. The Thor series rarely had anyone's eyes lighting up, so he's drenched the film in explosively vivid colour and spectacular cinematography. Thor as a character was becoming easy to loathe, so the writers have flooded him with energy and charisma. Ragnarok achieves the tough task of feeling like it fits within the MCU without sacrificing Waititi's directorial integrity, and while it may take a short while for the pair to get along, the end result is enough to make you dive head first into a re-watch as soon as you can. I still smile just thinking about it.

In A Sentence

With a first rate cast relishing in Taika Waititi's kinetically exuberant direction, Thor: Ragnarok is an enjoyable, funny and refreshingly unique entry in Marvel's ever growing filmography.

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