Thor: Ragnarok Review

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On August of 1962, Journey Into Mystery #83 released on the newsstands. That issue is legendary because, according to the cover, it stars “the most exciting super-hero of all time!” That hero is the mighty Thor. From that issue, Thor would become one of Marvel’s biggest characters, appearing in his own ongoing series and as a founding member of the Avengers. Thor was well known to comic fans, but not very well known with the general public, as with other Marvel characters that weren’t Spider-Man or Hulk. That changed when the Marvel Cinematic Universe began, making Iron Man a household name and eventually Thor as well in 2011.

The God of Thunder now joins Iron Man and Captain America with a third film. The Thor films are fun, but not examples of quality storytelling. (I’m still wondering what the thought process was with Erik Selvig in The Dark World.) So it wouldn’t be hard for Ragnarok to pass its predecessors. It goes far beyond that however: Ragnarok is an immensely entertaining film. Director Taika Waititi delivers one of the best Marvel movies to date.

The film opens up with narration from the God of Thunder himself as he’s tied up. It turns out he let himself be captured so he can get to the fire demon known as Surtur. This opening sequence defines the MCU in a nutshell: good fun. That can be a negative thing when taken to the extreme. (That was the case in this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.) But Ragnarok rarely takes its lighthearted nature too far. The opening scene felt like something straight out of a comic book. It’s a treat to see Thor do battle with Surtur, the demon’s minions, and eventually a dragon. The story continues when Thor finds out Loki has been impersonating Odin. It turns out Odin is on Earth, and with a little help from Dr. Strange (the entire sequence with Strange was short, but very memorable) the brothers find their father. Sadly, Hela, the Goddess of Death, emerges soon after.

Hela’s arrival was exciting, and that’s mainly thanks to the atmosphere, costume design, and of course Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of the character. Hela’s much marketed scene of her breaking Mjolnir was a game changer and cemented her as a menace like no other. Loki calls for a bridge escape and Hela follows, causing things to go out of whack. Thor lands on a planet named Sakaar while Hela looks to take over Asgard.

Let’s talk about Thor’s time at Sakaar, which comprises the middle act of the film. The gladiator setting was unique and had quite a few memorable characters. Valkyrie’s plotline was one of the most engaging. It’s an interesting development when Thor realizes she’s Asgardian, and later when Loki forces her to remember her past of Hela killing her comrades. Jeff Goldblum’s portrayal of the Grandmaster has charismatic flare, such as in the scene when he vaporized his own cousin. (As gross as it was, Thor’s reaction was a little hard to believe however.) Finally, Korg was fun, and he thankfully got to appear in the climax.

Chris Hemsworth’s Thor has come a long way since 2011. In this film he talks about being a hero quite often. I wasn’t sold on Hemsworth in previous films, but here he’s excellent. What’s interesting is that a major part of his development is how he fights without his hammer in the climax. It’s always an interesting concept when a character’s primary weapon is destroyed/taken away. Next, as seen heavily in the marketing, the Hulk is featured as a major character. Mark Ruffalo took on the role starting in The Avengers, where he was excellent. Since then, Marvel has pushed a character arc on Bruce Banner/the Hulk, starting in Avengers: Age of Ultron, which hasn’t worked.

Bruce Banner was a man sure of himself and in control of the Hulk in The Avengers. Then for some unexplained reason in the sequel, that development went away and Hulk was back to being uncontrollable. In Ragnarok, Banner isn’t in control when Hulk appears. Hulk’s mind is small compared to Banner’s, and as a result, Hulk comes off as childlike. This leads to some funny scenes, but Hulk isn’t too engaging as a character. (It would have been more interesting to see a Hulk more like from the show Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.) This is not to say the Hulk wasn’t fun to have around. The gladiator battle sequence against Thor was one of the film’s highlights. Bruce Banner also appears, and has a few humorous scenes. But like in Age of Ultron, he isn’t as engaging as his appearance in the first Avengers.

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The Marvel films are typically good, but the antagonists can sometimes be mediocre. Examples include Darren Cross from Ant-Man, Malekith from The Dark World, among others. Hela is one of the Marvel villains that can thankfully be called “great.” As already stated earlier, her emergence is genuinely menacing. Cate Blanchett brings grandeur to her portrayal as she tells Thor and Loki to kneel before their queen. Hela continues to be a highlight, as she arrives in Asgard and begins to take over. Her backstory is fascinating. In fact, it’s so fascinating, that it was a missed opportunity to not show some of it in flashback. This could have been useful in the late middle act. There’s this long stretch with Thor on Sakaar with no scenes of Hela that could have benefited with a flashback showing her time with Odin.

As for other characters, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is once again a lot of fun. One never 100% knows which side he’s on. He and Thor work really well together, such as when they team up late in the middle act. Odin doesn’t appear too much, but when he does, one can expect a scene of authority. Viewers learn intriguing backstory about Odin’s past with Hela, giving more dimension to his character. (It’s truly a shame there wasn’t a big flashback sequence.) Skurge goes through a character arc as he becomes the reluctant Executioner for Hela. It’s easy to see what the film was going for, but Scurge never came off as sympathetic or engaging.

One of the best aspects of this film is its pacing. The film never hits a boring moment, which is thanks to the excellent action and fun characters. From the opening sequence to the showdown with Hela, the film has quite a few exciting action pieces. I’ve already mentioned Hulk versus Thor in the ring, but it deserves a second shout out for being a particularly fun sequence. The soundtrack is Marvel’s strongest since the first Guardians of the Galaxy. Ragnarok’s music is stylistic and makes excellent use of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song.’

Overall, Thor: Ragnarok is one of the most entertaining Marvel movies to date. It never slows down and the storyline is engaging. This is thanks in large part to Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Hela. The Goddess of Death commands the scene every time she’s on screen. Thor is also great. His mission is to get back to Asgard, but he’s stranded on an unknown planet. This makes for an interesting middle act. Hulk is a fun inclusion that never steals the show away from the title character. As a whole, most of the characters bring something to the table. Ragnarok is an exciting film.

9/10

KONG: SKULL ISLAND Review

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It’s been 12 years since the last King Kong film. Peter Jackson’s 2005 film is a remake of the classic 1933 story of a giant ape who falls for a woman and ends up meeting an unfortunate demise. Skull Island takes a break from this plot to tell a unique tale using elements from the original story. This isn’t the first time Kong has deviated from the usual story of course, with one example being TOHO’s King Kong Escapes where he battles a mechanized version of himself. Skull Island brings an ensemble cast to the titular setting for an adventure that feels both familiar and new. It lacks enough quality writing to call it a “great” film, but it’s still an enjoyable, fun trek.

The primary reason why people would come to watch this film is to see the title character in action. Kong himself doesn’t disappoint. The sequence with him taking out the helicopters was excellent and rivals Godzilla’s grand airport entrance in the 2014 film. The music going silent when the tree struck the first helicopter changed the mood drastically, and as one by one each helicopter was destroyed the viewer got a sense of how ferocious Kong was. This is his most violent portrayal yet, and in this early scene the viewer actually begins to think that Kong might actually be bad in this one. The story smartly destroys that thought later on. The writing perfectly balances Kong’s gentleness with monstrous ferocity.

Again, his big scene with taking down the helicopters was incredible. It featured some of the best cinematography and editing ever in a monster movie. It’s actually a shame that the very first scene in the film featured a full face shot of Kong, because the helicopter sequence later on would have been a much better way to first show the character. Kong commands a presence every time he’s on screen, and the film features him a lot, which is a nice change of pace from monster films hiding the beast for extended periods of time.

Like in the previous King Kong films, Skull Island is home to many dangerous creatures. Unlike the previous films, the creatures in this film aren’t ones we’d find in a book. Instead, they’re either abnormally giant (the spider) or completely brand new, such as the Skullcrawlers. The creatures are used to great effect. The spider sequence was very well done (it features one of the creepiest deaths in a monster movie) and how the characters managed to overcome it was pretty smart. There’s even a giant octopus which Kong battles. (It reminds the viewer of his encounter with another giant octopus in the original King Kong vs. Godzilla.) The Skullcrawlers are the film’s primary antagonists, and they are really well utilized. They’re genuinely creepy and also command a presence. (The quick death scene of a character turning around only to be chomped by a Skullcrawler was something straight out of a horror film.)

Of course, the climax couldn’t feature Kong simply taking on a bunch of little creatures. The final battle featured a giant Skullcrawler. It got some quality buildup beforehand, and it doesn’t disappoint. It takes what made the little ones creepy and amplifies it. The fight was very well done. The battle is brutal, the setting is used to great effect, and above all else – it’s satisfying. There are no extended cutaways, there are some surprises, and it’s just fun to watch as a moviegoer and as a longtime kaiju fan.

The main thing the story suffers from is an unnecessarily light tone. There is some seriousness to the atmosphere, namely when the music stops when that tree struck the helicopter. Despite scenes like that the story appears more on the light-hearted side at times. John C. Reilly’s character for example kinda takes the viewer out of the realism at times with his dialogue. With horrific deaths taking place on an unknown setting, it seems like the overall atmosphere should be consistently more serious than what it is. Perhaps the idea was to differentiate itself from Godzilla, since that film was completely series from beginning to end. This is not to say Skull Island is a comedy, because it isn’t. A more serious tone throughout just could have been better.

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A rather big drawback is that the Island natives don’t really do anything in this film. It felt like they were just there for tradition’s sake. (They barely do anything other than stare and nod.) An additional 10 minutes could have been added to explain more about their relationship to Kong and the fascinating backstory only briefly mentioned. Moving on to the characters, the film features a cast with quite a few familiar names. Just about all of them are fun to watch. (It could be a fun game counting how many zoom-ins they give Samuel L. Jackson.) Ultimately though, there’s no standout performance. Maybe it’s assumed that simply having these big name actors on screen is good enough. (We have Tom Hiddleston grabbing a sword and slashing like a samurai.) The characters needed to be fleshed out just a little bit more.

The pacing is solid. Some of the early scenes on the boat were a little on the boring side, but it doesn’t take too long for the characters to arrive on the Island. There’s just the right amount of Kong scenes and humans, whether the latter be talking or running away from another creature. The soundtrack has some great moments. There’s also some classic music thrown in the mix, being set in the 70’s. This is used to great effect in the helicopter sequence.

Overall, Kong: Skull Island is a worthy addition to the large catalog of monster movies. Director Jordan Charles Vogt-Roberts’ vision of Kong is truly special. The ape steals the show, having the perfect balance of being the kind creature viewers have come to know and displaying monstrous ferocity. If Kong had a reputation of being on the weaker side before, this film changes that. The other creatures are really cool to watch, especially the Skullcrawlers. The big one made for an excellent final boss, with the actual battle being a satisfying finale to the story. The characters aren’t bad. They’re fun to watch, and are given enough personality to keep them from being dry. Still, they could have used just a bit more development. Some of the lighter elements and humor didn’t work, but they don’t ruin what is Kong’s most explosive film yet.

7.5/10