Thor: Ragnarok – Giving Thor a movie he deserves

Okay, this movie is a little different. Unlike the previous Thor movies that were grim in their tone, Thor: Ragnarok is an out and out comedy and a full-blown entertainer. From the very outset, the film demands that the viewer buy into this premise to fully immerse himself/herself into the film. This took me a while to get used to. For instance, in my first two viewings of the film, I couldn’t quite get used to Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song in the background during the first and final battle scenes. Battles, after all, are supposed to be serious affairs with a few light moments peppered in to ease the audience. The MCU has established that. Ragnarok breaks this mould. And once you buy into its tone, you really appreciate the difference. You even enjoy Immigrant Song and play it on a loop for days after the fact. Ragnarok is supposed to be the end of worlds. But there is no time for doom and gloom here. The movie leaves you feeling satisfied. A large part of this has to do with the development of the two central characters in the movie – Thor and Loki.

Let us start by analysing Thor. Until this movie we have seen him transform from a brutish fighter who would punch his way into and out of dangerous situations to a man who understands the purpose of governance, understands that he isn’t interested in taking on that responsibility and continuing to work as a soldier for the nine realms. But so far, we don’t really understand who Thor is. In trying to write this review, I was struggling to write about his journey. I kept taking breaks, disappointed that I hadn’t completely understood my favourite superhero. In one of those breaks I happened to watch a YouTube video about the movie. It made me realise that Thor doesn’t really have an arc so far. Ragnarok tries to remedy that by stripping the character of his paraphernalia – the throne of Asgard, Jane, his hammer – and exploring the man underneath. In an interview, director Taika Waititi said that he saw the story of Ragnarok as that of a man trying to find his way home. That man just happens to be a demi-god trying to stop the Goddess of Death from taking over his country. In the process, he discovers who he is and what it is that he values.

The first thing we notice in Ragnarok is that Thor seems much more human this time around. He no longer speaks in an archaic manner like a king from the past. He is funny, a bit stupid at times and sees himself as part of a social group outside of the palace (Remember when he calls the Hulk a “friend from work”)? Thor’s interactions with the Avengers have humanised him over the years, and the changes in his personality aren’t out of place. As the film goes on, we understand this character more. Unlike when the character was first introduced, Thor doesn’t seek out conflict. But he is essentially a fighter. Even without Mjolnir to help him, Thor is determined to break out of Sakaar and return to Asgard to try and save his home. This is perhaps best exemplified in the battle between Thor and the Hulk in Sakaar. When he realises that Banner isn’t going to recognise him and his only way out is to fight the Hulk, Thor puts up an impressive fight for his life and for the chance to leave the planet. This is also the scene gives a new layer to Thor the superhero.  When he shoots lightning at the Hulk, we see a new version of Thor who is ready to kick ass. But the audience and the character don’t realise the significance of this moment until much later in the film. Only after receiving counsel from his father (and losing an eye) does he realise that he is the God of Thunder, and as the God of Thunder he can harness lightning. He doesn’t need Mjolnir or anything else to defend himself and Asgard. This is a pivotal moment in the character’s arc. From being a warrior prince who chose Mjolnir as his coronation present and didn’t seem to amount to much without the hammer to a fighter who realises who he truly is, Thor has finally come a long way.

Furthermore, the film explores the meaning of home and nation in a much more significant way than any of the MCU films before it have done. The movie begins with Thor trying to stop Ragnarok. According to Norse mythology, Ragnarok is the end of everything. It is when entire worlds are destroyed and the gods are killed. At the beginning of the movie, Thor believes he can stop Ragnarok, and the audience believes him. But when the Goddess of Death seems unstoppable even after Thor realises his might, Thor’s character takes yet another turn. First, he is confronted with his limits despite his significant powers. He realises that he cant defeat Hela. And the only way to do so would be to destroy his beloved Asgard along with Hela by causing Ragnarok. Second, he realises that the essence of Asgard was never the planet, but the people who live on it. If Asgardians live anywhere in the universe, he will have saved Asgard. At this point, Thor has learnt much about governance. He has stopped seeking out war (unlike Odin in his early years, whose actions ultimately cause Ragnarok.) He is powerful enough to protect the universe from threats. And he understands what his kingdom really is. When he takes his place as king – in the Grand Master’s spaceship with a rotating chair as his throne – we know he is worthy.

Let us now look at Loki. Unlike Thor, Loki has had a pretty well-defined character arc. In the first Thor movie, he realises that he has been raised by his father not as the prince of Asgard but as a pawn for political gains. His resentment for his father and brother comes to the forefront in The Avengers when he tries to take over the Earth by force. In Thor: The Dark World we that he became the trickster after his mother took him under her wing to teach him tricks so that he can stand up to Thor and his peers, who are physically stronger than him. We see him consumed by revenge after he breaks down when his mother dies (he unintentionally aids the murder of his mother.) He is easily one of the most interesting Marvel villains (really, one of two great Marvel movie villains – the other one being Thanos). He has certainly been one of my absolute favourite characters in the MCU. And it is not hard to see why. He is such a well-written, layered character. We feel his pain and want desperately for him to abandon his villainous pursuits, and every time he does just enough to keep us rooting for him, but also just enough to squarely place him in the villain category. I think the discrepancy between writing Thor and Loki comes from the original source of this material – Norse mythology. After watching the movie, I ended up reading Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. It is a collection of fables in Norse mythology and it tells us the stories of the Aesirs (gods and goddesses), frost giants, elves, dwarves and Asgard. It focuses primarily on the stories in the court of Asgard – stories of Odin, Thor and Loki. It is certainly an interesting read. Even in those stories, Loki is featured far more prominently than possibly any other character. His actions are described in great detail, as is his impact on Asgard. Loki is even painted in a somewhat sympathetic light where Thor is portrayed as boorish and thick. Even in the Thor movies, where he is the supporting character, Loki has a far superior arc to Thor. His story in Thor: The Dark World and the chemistry between Thor and Loki is perhaps the only reason I like that movie.

In Ragnarok we see yet another layer to this character which helps us understand him further. Unlike Thor, when Loki lands on Sakaar, he doesn’t try to fight his situation. Instead, he wins over the Grand Master and starts building a life there. Even when he goes to see Thor when the latter is captured, he describes to him a plan where the two brothers could take over the position of the Grand Master in time. We see that while Thor is a fighter, Loki is a survivor. Loki’s fraught relationship with his father coupled with the sense that he didn’t quite belong in the land he previously called home (the previous films show Loki as standing apart from Thor’s peer group) left him with little attachment for Asgard. Since his emotional needs were left unfulfilled, Loki uses his charm and cunning to keep afloat (albeit comfortably) rather than fight to get back what he lost. It is only when Thor tells him that he thought the world of him and that he imagined them fighting side by side does he feel the need to go back and fight for Asgard, and ultimately to join Thor on the spaceship to create a new Asgard.

Thor films have always been about excess. This film is no exception. But this is excess done right. Ragnarok develops what is integral to the Thor movies – a family saga – by helping the two central characters in the movie shine. Thor helps us understand the political responsibilities of the family, while Loki (over three films) showcases the family’s dysfunctional dynamic. But the film doesn’t stop there. It adds excellent supporting characters in the Hulk, Valkyrie and the Grand Master who take away from the grimness of a Shakespearean-style drama. Granted, Hela’s character could have been better developed. She was also a victim of Odin’s awful parenting, and could have been developed into a good villain like Loki. But honestly, I am satisfied enough with Thor, Loki and the absolute madness of the film to let this bit go.

I am so happy that Ragnarok turned out the way it did. Thor is my favourite superhero, and so far, he was left stagnating in the MCU. This film brings him into the forefront as a cool superhero, something the Russo brothers take forward in Infinity War. But more on that later. Right now, I am just going to sign off, satisfied knowing that my two favourite characters got a movie they always deserved.

 

 

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Spider-Man: Homecoming – A Good Balancing Act

This is the first standalone Spider-Man film in the MCU. Spider-Man was previously introduced in Captain America: Civil War where he fought alongside the other Avengers. Before that he was simply a local crimefighter whose superpowers were spider-like abilities to crawl walls, superhuman agility and enhanced mobilities and the ability to shoot high-tensile strength spiderwebs at his enemies. In Civil War, his abilities are further enhanced with the help of a brand-new high-tech suit by Tony Stark. This Spidey film explores the character following his adventures with the Avengers. The film must now contend with two challenges. First, it must prevent Spider-Man from becoming a gimmick. With many of his advanced capabilities coming from Stark’s technology, it is easy for the character to over-rely on technological features and lose his essence. Second, previous movies have seen set the precedent for conflicts that involved saving the universe. A movie that is setting up the “friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man” cannot possibly have stakes that high. At the same time, this film needs to be interesting enough to hold up after a number of awesome films.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is able to overcome both these challenges. Even though Parker has the new and improved Spider-Man suit he got from Tony Stark, the film isn’t about the suit. Despite having every advantage, for instance, Spider-Man’s able to survive and defeat his enemies because of who he is as a fighter on the inside, and not what the suit provides him. He almost drowns in his high-tech gear, but successfully beats Chitauri technology in an old pair of red tights.  Furthermore, it manages to keep the film interesting by using the technologies that have come from the Chitauri in the aftermath of the first Avengers’ movie. The challenges are still formidable – after all, it had taken a team of six Avengers, much older and much more established than Spider-Man to defeat them the last time. But the context is much more local. The film basically uses what is exciting about villains from outer space without having to involve them at all. So, Parker can be the “friendly, neighbourhood Spider-Man” and still be a total bad-ass about it.

There were two other note-worthy things about the form of the film. First, since our protagonist is only 15 years-old, the film needs to feel young. Tom Holland certainly does his part by playing the role to perfection. But beyond that, the film conveys levity and freshness through the use of music. Particularly in the first half of the film, when Spider-Man is established as a superhero, the accompanying music shows that this development is light and fun, rather than serious or epic. But the music doesn’t try to occupy centre-stage like it did in Guardians of the Galaxy (that film did it perfectly, but we don’t want that to become a hack, do we?) It is much subtler, and complements the developments on screen rather than highjacks them.

Second, the film made me think about how movies use flashback. In the scene when Spider-Man has almost been defeated by Vulture, and he must find the strength to get back up and fight, Parker stares at his reflection in a puddle of water that showed his mask as being only a part of his face. As a viewer, I can see that Parker’s dilemma in that moment is about whether he can do what is right when he doesn’t have his suit. This visual is also accompanied by Parker remembering Stark’s words, “If you are nothing without the suit, then you don’t deserve the suit.” In my opinion, this made an otherwise powerful scene too loud. I don’t understand why directors and editors choose to insert scenes or lines we may have previously heard/seen in the film as flashbacks in later scenes. If the film is engaging enough, the audience is already clued in to its tone. Adding extra dialogue is simply unnecessary and leads me to believe that the director considers his/her audience stupid.

In conclusion, Spider-Man: Homecoming can retain all of the charms of being a teenage superhero film while still holding up against the weight of the movies that have preceded this one.

 

 

Doctor Average

Doctor Strange has got a lot working for it. It’s the first sorcerer story in the MCU. The special effects are mostly visually stunning. The titular character is played by the beautiful Benedict Cumberbatch. It features another infinity stone. Music is used very well. And the plot is actually quite decent. But the promise of this film is left unfulfilled by poor writing. The writers have paid much attention to developing the character of Doctor Stephen Strange. Unfortunately, other parts of the story do not get a similar treatment. The movie is not as dumb as Ant-Man, but it gets close in parts.

Doctor Strange has a strange villain problem (#pungamestrong #Sorrynotsorry). It has two villains, and neither of them do justice to the film. From the very beginning of the film, we know Kaecilius is formidable. He also has a reasonably well-defined agenda. The problem is that he just lacks any personality or charisma. I couldn’t seem to care about him at all. The other antagonist is the Dark Lord Dormamu who wants to take over the Earth. I actively hated Dormammu. He is a piece of bad CGI and has no explicit motivation in his desire for the Earth. The conflict in this case relies exclusively on action in order to shine. To be fair, the special effects used are somewhat palliative in this case. It is a lot of fun to see different tricks being employed during action sequences. But I kept thinking how much better it would have been with a villain who made his presence felt or at least gave a damn. I also found Tilda Swinton’s character underwritten. I love Swinton’s presence in the movie, but her character also left me with more questions than answers. For instance, why did she have to draw power from the Dark Dimension? What did she do with those powers? Since the Dark Dimension is such a crucial part of the film, these questions definitely needed answering.

Now that I’ve finished hating on the movie, let me tell you what I absolutely loved – Benedict Cumberbatch shines in the movie. His character is extremely well written, and he essays the role perfectly. From the arrogant, almost insufferable doctor at the beginning of the movie, to a dedicated student of magic, to understanding that his gifts are not for his sake, but they are his to give to the world, Strange has a strong character arc. His evolution is what makes this film feel delightful when it does. It I also nice, I must say, to see an infinity stone being used strategically rather than being feared or weaponised. It shows that the infinity stones can be used in specific ways. Their power does not lie only in blowing things up (as shown in other movies).

Beyond this, I don’t have a lot to say for this movie. It’s a mid-range film through and through.

 

Ant-Man: Dumb and Dumber

In 2016, when Captain America: Civil War had hit the theatres I had gone to see it with a friend of mine. At the time, I wasn’t a fan of superhero movies. I remember finding the movie outlandish and silly (NOT my sentiments today, I can assure you). The only parts of the film I had enjoyed were the action sequences featuring Ant-Man. He was funny and didn’t take himself too seriously (unlike the rest of the cast). I remember telling my friend that I wanted to watch the Ant-Man film, because that was probably the only superhero movie I would enjoy. You can imagine my excitement, then, when it was my turn to watch Ant-Man in the MCU movie list. After a relatively heavy film like Avengers: Age of Ultron, I thought this movie would provide the perfect respite. Oh, how wrong I was!

Ant-Man starts with great promise. Unlike other superhero movies, where the principal character is either a genius and/or the toughest fighter and/or a billionaire, the protagonist here is a thief. He is broke and can’t even hold a job at Baskin Robbins. He becomes a superhero only because a scientist needs an expendable foot soldier. Beyond this, however, the movie is just dumb. There is no compelling reason for any of the characters’ actions. For instance, why does Lang think that a suit that powerful can be stolen from a house safe? Why does Hank Pym say that Scott Lang is his only hope? Lang may be a good thief, but how difficult would it be for Pym to find another thief? Why does Darren Cross/Yellowjacket have to steal Pym’s suit if he has a functional suit of his own? One could argue that he thought it was not fully developed, but the fear of his experiments failing didn’t stop Cross from experimenting indiscriminately on animals. When the fate of the world was at stake why did Pym, Hope and Ant-Man decide to break into a lab with a bunch of silly, small-time crooks? Why was a world-class science facility so easy to break into in the first place? Hope hung out with her dad for most of the movie. How did she believe that Cross wouldn’t find that out? Why did Cross play along with Hope even though he knew? Had these questions been thought through, we would have probably gotten a smarter movie. Instead, we get a parody-esque portrayal of this great character. It is meant to be funny, but the movie didn’t so much as make me smile. I was just appalled at the stupidity of everything to find the gags funny.

In addition to a scattered plot, the movie also suffers from the lack of a formidable villain. I have written about this before, but a superhero movie needs a good villain. Every hero needs a challenge to prove himself/herself, and the greater the challenge, the more impressive the hero. In much of this movie, Ant-Man is unchallenged, at least when it comes to his powers. He gets a moment to shine when he defeats the Avengers’ Falcon. But I wish the movie had set up the antagonist so that we knew the challenge Ant-Man was dealing with. Furthermore, the viewer has no understanding of the antagonist’s motivations or powers. This reduces the action to mindless fighting. The film never poses a larger right versus wrong question, much less try to answer that question through action. And finally, if I may add, I just couldn’t get on board with trained ants as Ant-Man’s minions. It was more disgusting than anything else, unfortunately.

The trope of saving the world from advanced weaponry falling into the wrong hands has been done countless times in the past. Even though Ant-Man fails, we know Marvel can do it again, much better. You know how I know that? Its basically Marvel’s MO.