And Starring Jeff Goldblum as Jeff Goldblum (Thor: Ragnarok, 2017)

Thor_Ragnarok_PosterThor has been a fun character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He is cheerful, boisterous and powerful.  He is also boastful and over confident. This drove his first film, while the second film seemed a bit aimless.

In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thor had a vision of the end of Asgard.  He left to get answers and was missing for Civil War.  After Thor and Loki locate Odin, they are warned of the coming of Hela…their sister and the goddess of death Almost immediately Hela arrives and destroys Thor’s hammer. In their fight, Thor and Loki are separated and tossed into space.  While Hela conquers Asgard, Thor finds himself on the planet Sakaar. Captured by the Grandmaster Thor must fight in the Contest of Champions..and the champion he must defeat? His pal Hulk.

Marvel has done pretty well in tapping directors with limited experience in big budget films and having it work out in their favor.  Here they brought on New Zealander Taika Waititi, who is known for his unique comedies.  Check out the films Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in Shadows and while laughing, you will likely not think “a Super Hero movie is next!”. But it pays off.

Thor is full of great action and humor.  Unlike the previous two films, which were very earth centric, Earth has a brief cameo in the beginning.  Otherwise the film is heavily focused on Asgard.  To be frank, the previous films really failed to let Jane Foster shine and the relationship never had the strength of either Tony and Pepper or Steve and Peggy.  So, the film quickly addresses that “they broke up”.

The film works to give most of the leads “something to come back from”. Thor must figure out who he is without his hammer, Hulk must get back to Banner, Valkyrie must reclaim her glorious standing as an Asgardian Warrior.  There is not a lot to these arcs, of course, but the performances and interplay of the characters make it almost easy to miss.

The cast really makes the film.  Hemsworth and Hiddleston have a solid chemistry together, where you buy right into their weird sibling relationship in which Loki will betray Thor over and over and Thor is still going to give him a chance.  Tessa Thompson gives a real spark to Valkyrie, who could have been a pretty one note character.  Cate Blanchett’s Hela is actually not any deeper than previous Marvel Cinematic villains, but Blanchett seems to have had a lot of fun in the role and the result is that I enjoyed her as a villain. It was great to see Mark Ruffalo back as Bruce Banner.  The character is a bit shell shocked, which makes sense, as he has been “hulked out” for about two years, ever since the rampage in Age of Ultron.

And of course, there is Jeff Goldblum.  The actor you hire when you want a Jeff Goldblum-esque performance. But seriously, Goldblum always delivers, and his Grandmaster is the Jeff Goldblumiest thing you will see all year.  Unless Jeff Goldblum is Jeff Goldblum in another film before December 31st, 2017.

Thor: Ragnarok is a real blast of a film.  It is light hearted, exciting and quite funny.

The Bigger They Come (Kong: Skull Island, 2017)

Kong-Skull-Island-PosterKing Kong and variations on the Giant Ape concept are older than even Godzilla.  Kong: Skull Island has opted to not re-tell the story of King Kong.  Instead, this is a new story.  Not new in the sense of it completely new territory.  You have the mismatched band of explorers arriving on Skull Island, encountering monsters and natives.

The film opens in 1944 where an American and Japanese pilot crash land on Skull Island.  They fight until they stumble on a frightening sight that changes everything for them.  The film jumps to 1973, with soldiers about to leave Vietnam.  They are brought in by the mysterious Monarch company as a military escort on a top secret mission to visit and explore a newly discovered island.  The company has also brought along an award winning anti-war photojournalist and a tracker to help then go through the wilderness.

Of course, the mission goes very wrong.  Hope that does not spoil anything.

Really, the film sets everything up at a fast pace.  They give you what you need to know without giving the film a chance to get boring.  And unlike previous Kong film outings, the filmmakers introduce us to Kong very quickly.  No hiding him, just Kong smashing helicopters.

The characters are engaging to various degrees, though John C. Reilly is the strongest and most memorable.  Samuel L. Jackson is…well, Samuel L. Jackson.  I found myself liking Hiddleston’s James Conrad and Brie Larson’s Mason Weaver…but I must admit, most of what separates the characters is who is performing them.  You also know which soldiers are “important” because they get a lot of set up, while most of the soldiers are just “people to die”.  Of course, they also give Jackson his motive for wanting to destroy King Kong.

But the truth is, I found Kong Skull Island a lot of fun.  Yes, the post credit scene confirms that Legendary has plans of a “Giant Monster-verse”…and Kong Skull Island serves the purpose, in part, to set it all up (It is supposedly connected to 2014’s Godzilla film as well, with the tie being the Monarch organization).  But I did a far better job of still telling it’s own story than some other attempts to create a shared universe franchise.

Really, Kong Skull Island is no game changer, but it is a lot of fun.  Visually, it is good, and the digital monsters look great.  The cast is great and make for an overall very entertaining film.

I Will Avenge Thee (the Avengers, 2012)

Avengers-Movie_PosterThe Avengers was the culmination of four years of effort on the part of Marvel Studios.  They worked to establish their interconnected Universe building up to this.  People were excited and the Marvel Machine had primarily seen success with their films leading up to this.  The first hiccup was losing Edward Norton.  Ed and Marvel could not come to an agreement for the Avengers.  So Marvel brought in the likable Mark Ruffalo.  The other big announcement was that Joss Whedon would direct.  He did not have that many movies under his belt, but he did have a few beloved television series, so as an overseer for the Cinematic Universe, he seemed well suited.

Loki is the central villain of the film, working with an alien race called the Chitari.  The film moves quickly to introduce the core members to each other, with a brief but exciting “Heroes meet, misunderstand the situation and fight” sequence.  This is an old comic book trope, and Whedon makes it work, and does not drag it out.

Once the heroes are brought together, they capture Loki who has a devious plan.  His escape leaves the team in shambles and a supporting character dead (but don’t worry, he got better for the S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series).  This, of course, encourages the heroes to band together and defeat Loki and stop the alien invasion.

Whedon proves himself to be quite skilled with both small moments and spectacle.  The final battle is exciting and full of grand heroics as Captain America takes charge.  We see him as a wise strategist.  When a police officer questions why they should listen to his instruction, he takes out an alien assault, no questions as the officer starts telling his men to implement Cap’s plan.

The introduction of Black Widow is pretty classic.  It is one of those “damsel in Distress” sequences where you realize the bad guys never had a chance.  The cast has an amazing amount of chemistry.  Even their bickering is engaging.  The film has the rapid quippy dialog Whedon is known for in shows like Buffy and Firefly.  Ruffalo fits in to the crew seamlessly.  As much as I like Norton and his Bruce Banner, Ruffalo manages to make the character all his own.  It is all quite engaging.

I feel the biggest lapse in judgement is having Hawkeye spend the first half of the film as a possessed lackey of Loki.  It just feels like the character deserves better than that.

While there is weight of imminent destruction, the film never gets too dark.  You have lighter moments to even it all out.  The Avengers was overall a great success that is a lot of fun to watch.

Elves! But DARK Elves (Thor: The Dark World, 2013)

thor_the_dark_world_posterThor’s post Avengers story stays outside of the world of S.H.I.E.L.D., Iron Man and Captain America.  It focuses squarely on Thor, Jane Foster and Asgard.

The story opens with Odin telling the tale of how the universe had once been in darkness, and after a time, the dark elves sought to plunge the universe back into the darkness.  They were stopped by Odin’s father who had their weapon (the Aether) hidden deep below the ground of…somewhere.  Jane Foster is doing the whole “Chasing Anomalies” thing and stumbles on the Aether which she absorbs.  Thor shows up because suddenly the Bifrost Bridge has been restored.  He brings her to Asgard, the Dark Elves show up, things go very badly and Thor is forbidden from heading out of Asgard.  So Thor frees the imprisoned Loki for help in slipping out “unnoticed”.  This is one of the film’s big set pieces.  Eventually Thor tries to destroy the Aether and is unsuccessful, and the dark elf Malekith gets hold of it.

There is a battle on earth which nearly succeeds in destroying everything.  But Thor saves the day (with help from none of the Avengers) and the universe does not blink out of existence.

Thor: the Dark World is not terrible.  It has some real fun moments, mostly provided by Loki.  And the action scenes are very well done.  Taylor is a pretty accomplished television director, including Game of Thrones.  He is able to frame exciting battle sequences.  Hemsworth is likeable as Thor, Hiddleston’s Loki is entertaining as usual.

The film attempts to really show Jane Foster is a scientist.  There is a cute moment where Jane asks if a magical piece of Asgardian equipment is a quantum field generator.  The person working it states it is a “Soul Forge”.  Jane asks if the Soul Forge transfers molecular energy from one place to another.  The person responds, “yes”…and Jane  quietly tells Thor proudly that it is a Quantum Field Generator.

Loki gets most of the best character moments, both in humor and drama.  But the story has holes.  Why do the Elves want to erase the universe?  Why not bring in the Hulk to fight the nearly indestructible Berserkers?  If it is not Odin on the Throne towards the end…just where is Odin. It is pretty average, especially in comparison to Captain America: the Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy.  It also does nothing to advance the characters beyond where they already were.  It is primarily to introduce the Aether, which will be part of the third Avengers film.

Hammer Time (Thor, 2011)

thor-posterAs Marvel worked their way to the Avengers, they had a bit of an issue.  Thor is supposedly a god, as are all his friends and family.  How does this fit into the Marvel world?  Their resolution was that they are mistaken for gods, but really their magic is just science we do not understand yet.

Thor is introduced as a brash young man, a drunkard who cares more for fun than responsibility. This frustrates his father Odin to no end.  On the other hand, his brother Loki is a schemer who wants to rule.  All of this leads to Thor being cast from Asgaad and his powerful hammer being taken from him.  Thor discovers he cannot wield the hammer until he proves himself worthy.  After being found by scientist Jane Foster and her team Darcy and Erik Selvig, they find themselves being watched by S.H.I.E.L.D., specifically, Agent Colson.  They have found the hammer, which nobody can move.

The film is a fish out of water story.  And Hemsworth, who was not a name brand actor at the time, had a certain charm he brought to the role.  Of course, eventually Thor must get his hammer and put an end to Loki’s plan.

The human characters suffer in this film.  Clark Gregg knows his role backwards and forwards.  And Kat Dennings has a lot of fun as Darcy.  Stellan Skarsgård is entertaining as father/scientist figure.  kay, it seems like it is mostly Jane Foster.  The film tried to set her up as the smart scientist, but she really spends hr time mooning over Thor.

The Asgardians are a fun lot of both character actors and name talent.  Anthony Hopkins brings a regal presence to Odin, while Renee Russo brings wisdom and motherly compassion to both her sons.  The Warriors Three and Sif are strong warriors, but also know celebration.  Tom Hiddleston plays a Loki who is both very likeable and duplicitous.

The film makes some choices that seem rather counter intuitive.  Supposedly the destruction of the Bi-Frost severs the connection from Asgard to earth, but that does not last long.  Nor is it really ever explained.  In addition, a big plot whole is…if Thor has never been to Earth before this…how are there legends of his exploits??  Unlike Captain America: the First Avenger, Thor feels more like it is busy setting things up for the Avengers than being it’s own story.  It is an enjoyable film overall, but it feels like it could have been stronger, especially considering the talent at the directorial helm of Kenneth Branagh.

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