Road to Infinity War – Thor: Ragnarok, or, The Bummer King

Holy crap I’m almost done! I did it fam. In preparation for my viewing of Avengers: Infinity War on April 26th at 7PM, I went back and rewatched the previous 18 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from Iron Man to Black Panther. Every day leading up to Infinity War I’ll be posting a short piece on each film and my most recent hot takes on nearly a decade of the MCU. I’ll also be linking back to whatever old nonsense I wrote about the movies at the time, if applicable. And if that isn’t enough, check out my ranked listed of the MCU to date on my Letterboxd account here.

ragnarokthor

You will believe a Jeff can Goldblum.

Don’t get me wrong, this movie is amazing, but boy oh boy did it not require any of the Jacuzzi vision quest from Age of Ultron. Like, not even a little bit.

Anyway, spoilers ahead for Thor: Ragnarok.

Despite being a few hundred years old and a god and all that, Thor is one of the more dynamic characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with a compelling arc that finally gets an equally compelling movie to match in Thor: Ragnarok.

When we met Thor in the original 2011 film he was ready to assume the throne of Asgard, eager to rule because damnit it was his birthright to rule, because it was simply what was supposed to happen. In his first cinematic outing, however, the God of Thunder falls prey to a Patented Marvel Humbling (PMH) and learns that even vaguely decent and worthy leadership requires more than lineage and demands more than a wink and a smile. He learns that the throne is more than a chair.

It is perhaps because of that daunting knowledge that when we return to Asgard in The Dark World Thor has no interest whatsoever in the throne he had once been so certain was his. In Dark World, as a far worthier prospect for kinghood than he was when we met him, Thor turns down the throne, maybe out of a newfound humility, maybe out of a newfound fear of ruling.

By the end of Ragnarok, however, Thor has come full circle, back to where we met him years ago, standing before the throne, surrounded by his people. But the golden palace is gone, as is the sparkling silver helm. There are no more feasts and cries of merriment, as all of that pomp and circumstance has been replaced by a sea of refugees and a leader who at last feels the true burden of what it is to rule.

As hilarious as Ragnarok is, it’s also a pretty cruel film. Though it concludes with Thor finally ascending the throne, it only does so after first utterly destroying Thor’s sense of home and then utterly destroying Thor’s actual home. Having finally attained a somber understanding of the responsibility of leadership, Thor is stripped of his understanding of the cultural entity he is tasked with shepherding.

Ragnarok’s uncertain ending echoes that of Captain America: Civil War, that unsure ground being one of many thematic through lines of Marvel’s third phase of films that run through the movie. The problematic and deceitful retelling of history by authority from in Doctor Strange, the protagonist faced with the harsh realities of their inherited privilege from Guardians Vol. 2, and the exploration of monarchy and colonialist antagonism that follow in Black Panther all play a part in Raganrok. One can’t help but wonder what sort of role these motifs might play in Infinity War.

Whatever fate may have in store for Thor, the character has finally truly gotten his due in Ragnarok and Chris Hemsworth has been able to take the God of Thunder on a philosophical and emotional journey few if any other MCU characters can match.

Anyway, I’m calling it: Hela lives!

#GoddessofDeath #Avengers4

Thor: Ragnarok = the God of Thunder’s first semester, freshman year of college? I think maybe:

November 17, 2017: Saved by the Bell: The Sakaar Years, or, Thor: Ragnarok

 

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Road to Infinity War – Avengers: Age of Ultron, or, The Selfless Marvel

Oh I did it fam. In preparation for my viewing of Avengers: Infinity War on April 26th at 7PM, I went back and rewatched the previous 18 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from Iron Man to Black Panther. Every day leading up to Infinity War I’ll be posting a short piece on each film and my most recent hot takes on nearly a decade of the MCU. I’ll also be linking back to whatever old nonsense I wrote about the movies at the time, if applicable. And if that isn’t enough, check out my ranked listed of the MCU to date on my Letterboxd account here.

ageofultron

Whoa! Look at all the stuff!

After the first Avengers film and the conclusion of phase one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe the concept of the shared movie universe seemed like a proven, cut-and-dry formula: small, enjoyable-enough “solo” movies with charming characters that slowly pave the way for a climactic collision of costumes rewarding audiences for biding their time through Avengers hanging out by themselves and not avenging. For better and worse that all kind of falls apart with Age of Ultron and Marvel’s second phase.

Like Iron Man 2 before it, Age of Ultron serves as a sort of sign post for a point of no return, an alarm for when certain storytelling strategies have been worn out. In this case, Age of Ultron represents the last time Marvel could get by on quips and costumes alone. There’s certainly joy to be had from Joss Whedon’s sassy one-liners and the reunion of our heroes is undoubtedly action-packed, but this isn’t a direct sequel to The Avengers, this is a film that has to contend with the more organic humor of Guardians of the Galaxy and the more physical action of The Winter Soldier and ultimately comes up short on both accounts.

As it turned out, those enjoyable-enough solo movies could be astonishing, and those climactic collisions of costumes could be utterly unrewarding.

Age of Ultron feels like a response to Avengers and not much else. Where the first Avengers film built directly off of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America, nothing about Age of Ultron feels like a natural progression from Marvel’s second phase of films, be it narratively or stylistically. There are the compelling seeds of a story here, James Spader’s Ultron is quirky and menacing in his own strange way and the events of this film present compelling and integral moments in the grand story arc of Tony Stark, but whatever Whedon’s initial vision for his follow-up to Avengers was, it gets muddied in translation by what feel like corporate mandates.

This is the least self-contained film in the Marvel Universe due in large part to its seeming lack of concern with itself. Age of Ultron introduces a slew of new characters, goes legitimately all over the world and sets up threads for three or four future MCU installments, but it doesn’t allot much of its running time to just be itself. It’s a very selfless movie that way, and it suffers for it, coming off like a film without an identity of its own.

Because so much of this movie is so expository, most of the characters wind up being short changed, leading to an Avengers outing that feels like less than the sum of its parts. At times Age of Ultron feels like a party that’s being thrown in order to disguise doing chores. The party being an Avengers movie. The chores being tedious and, in retrospect, entirely unnecessary setup for the MCU’s future. There are some great sequences in this movie and some genuinely funny moments, but it certainly hit the brakes on the exciting momentum the MCU had been building since The Winter Soldier.

And now for a look back at the morning after I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron, a point in which I am both not yet prepared to admit my disappointment with this movie and compelled by a sense of duty to write something about this movie:

May 1, 2015: Avengers: Age of Ultron, or, Marvel’s Big Comic Book Movie

Road to Infinity War – Thor: The Dark World, or, Malekith in the Middle

Oh I did it fam. In preparation for my viewing of Avengers: Infinity War on April 26th at 7PM, I went back and rewatched the previous 18 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from Iron Man to Black Panther. Every day leading up to Infinity War I’ll be posting a short piece on each film and my most recent hot takes on nearly a decade of the MCU. I’ll also be linking back to whatever old nonsense I wrote about the movies at the time, if applicable. And if that isn’t enough, check out my ranked listed of the MCU to date on my Letterboxd account here.

thedarkworld

Trust me, it says “The Dark World.”

Did you see that title? Come on, I am killing it with that title. Don’t even feel compelled to write anything else. But I will. Because I’m killing it.

Thor: The Dark World is something of a tease for what audiences would eventually get in Guardians of the Galaxy – unbridled, unapologetic space shenanigans. But much to its detriment, The Dark World is a movie firmly chained to Earth. It gets off of the ground in the middle act and just as it begins to truly soar it’s yanked back down by a cruel leash.

There’s a sense of trepidation to Dark World, as if it’s testing the waters on behalf of the entire MCU for the cosmic insanity to come, and doing so with a disproportionate amount of caution. I don’t know if it was a fear that audiences in 2013 were only willing to get so weird, or so sci-fi, or so fantastical, or if it was some misconception that they could only relate to stakes on Earth, but you can feel this movie holding itself back, reigning itself in, getting in its own way. I mean, in the immediate aftermath of The Avengers what better excuse for Thor not summoning his new friends than “because he is literally in outer space” could you possibly ask for?

And yet!

Dark World doesn’t take a lot of chances, which is particularly obvious after watching its immediately successors, The Winter Soldier and Guardians. So we’re left with a climax set in a drab London besieged by a nonsense MacGuffin (one which I am genuinely excited to see explained in Infinity War).

That said, I really, really dig this movie. And not just because it was the very first movie I went to alone and anything short of being laughed out of the theater and ridiculed by a pack of teen bullies would have constituted a good time at the cinema.

The chunk of this film in the middle that leaves the Earth behind and unleashes sheer imagination across Asgard is more than enough to endear The Dark World to me time and time again. The Star Trek meets Lord of the Ring aesthetic still boasts some of the most inspired design work the MCU has yet to offer, and there’s a marriage of practical and digital effects here that Dark World still doesn’t get enough credit for. The Dark Elves and their weaponry are a visual feast, and for as long as he is a force of antagonism in the film, Kurse is a sight to behold. The blending of sci-fi and fantasy pallets lend the best parts of Dark World a sense of otherworldly, swashbuckling adventure that I still find infectious.

Like I said, I really, really dig this movie. But it’s not Marvel’s best. I get that. Hemsworth, Hiddleston and Hopkins once again bring out the best in each other but the rest of the cast is given far less to chew on. It’s no surprise the MCU and Natalie Portman haven’t crossed paths again after her supreme talents were squandered yet again, and Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith is a bland, wasted use of actor and character alike. I mean, look, dude ain’t even mentioned on the back of the Blu-ray!

But when those creepy Dark Elves pour out of their knife spaceship and throw their reverse grenades and those golden space gladiators in a lavish thrown room?

C’mon.

This take isn’t all that much hotter than my first hot take, but, if you have any interest in me saying the exact same thing only as someone who doesn’t give a shit about Marvel movies:

November 13, 2013: More Like “The DORK World,” or, Just Kidding I Really Liked Thor 2

God I really just have been murdering it with titles for, like, years.

Road to Infinity War – The Avengers, or, Keep it Simple Stupid

Oh I did it fam. In preparation for my viewing of Avengers: Infinity War on April 26th at 7PM, I went back and rewatched the previous 18 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from Iron Man to Black Panther. Every day leading up to Infinity War I’ll be posting a short piece on each film and my most recent hot takes on nearly a decade of the MCU. I’ll also be linking back to whatever old nonsense I wrote about the movies at the time, if applicable. And if that isn’t enough, check out my ranked listed of the MCU to date on my Letterboxd account here.

theavengers

Oh boy, what a neat poster that they didn’t use for the cover of the Blu-Ray + DVD combo pack. It’s fine. Whatever.

“You’ve become part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.”

Such was the promise lobbed at audiences in 2008 at the end of the end of Iron Man (remember when we used to be able to leave the theater when the movie ended?). Nick Fury’s words proved all the wiser in retrospect. So much of Marvel’s formative first phase was concerned with individuals stepping into circumstances far beyond anything they previously could have imagined. There’s an ignorance to those first steps, be they arrogant or altruistic, which is shared amongst the likes of Tony Stark, Bruce Banner and Steve Rogers. Their reach exceeds their grasp and there are consequences that come with that disparity. In Thor, we learned the same was true of SHIELD and the shadowy government and military institutions prominent throughout these first five films. They entered into an arena they were woefully unequipped for. Shoot, by the time The Avengers wraps up, we learn the same was true even of Loki, who strikes a bargain with severe cost and consequence that, even if only momentarily, he has to second guess.

In The Avengers, what separates the heroes from the villains from the bureaucrats is how each individual dealt with the consequences of that excessive reach. Loki doubled down on his actions. The World Security Council wished them away with a nuke. The Avengers, though? The Avengers took responsibility. The team only finally came into their own when they shirked authority altogether and took matters into their own hands. And without a soul to tell them “with great power must also come great responsibility” even!

Thematically, The Avengers is a fantastic climax to the first phase of the MCU. Cinematically, six years on it’s still a landmark in blockbuster history. I really don’t feel like I can gush enough about how far Joss Whedon’s script knocks it out of the park. He took what could have been a stunt, a gimmick, a train wreck, and made a film of extreme competence and proficiency.

Perhaps the smartest move Whedon made was keeping things simple. The force of antagonism is clear, unburdened by philosophical or emotional justifications, and the rationale for every Avenger’s presence in the film is sound and straightforward. This is a script that requires no narrative gymnastics on the part of the viewer. It’s all there in the script. Rather than weave a convoluted, interconnected web of motivations to bring the team together, or plumb the depths of villainy in the search of the next Joker, Whedon dealt out hands quick and efficiently, giving him ample time instead to bounce these characters off one another to compelling effect.

Save the comic books from whence these characters came, there was no precedent for what Whedon pulled off with The Avengers. I’ve got my issues here and there with the film, but nothing that can take away from how deftly Whedon executed a cinematic first. He needed to bring these characters together and to make their fellowship worth the wait and he went about doing it elegantly, emphasizing quality over intricacy.

Four years later, Joss Whedon who delivered on Nick Fury’s ominous promise in spectacular fashion.

Road to Infinity War – Thor, or, You’re Not My Dad!

Oh I did it fam. In preparation for my viewing of Avengers: Infinity War on April 26th at 7PM, I went back and rewatched the previous 18 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from Iron Man to Black Panther. Every day leading up to Infinity War I’ll be posting a short piece on each film and my most recent hot takes on nearly a decade of the MCU. I’ll also be linking back to whatever old nonsense I wrote about the movies at the time, if applicable. And if that isn’t enough, check out my ranked listed of the MCU to date on my Letterboxd account here.

thor

You will believe an angle can be Dutch!

Director Kenneth Branagh’s Thor is one of the smaller films in the MCU despite the vast scope of time and space it introduced to the franchise. Before Thor, the MCU was basically just scientists pushing the limits of technology, but with Marvel’s fourth film we got millennia-old gods living in a gold pipe organ in space, traveling around the cosmos via rainbow laser beam.

And yet, if you had to stage a community theater production of a Marvel film, Thor would be the one to go for.

The action here is nothing to thumb your nose at, and it is particularly big in the first act, but where Thor really excels is in its depiction of interfamilial conflict. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is a star from “go” and any time any combination of him, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor or Anthony Hopkins’ Odin share the screen there’s an undeniable sense of craft and gravitas.

Unfortunately we don’t get much of that during Thor’s humbling sojourn to New Mexico, but we do get a dope mud fight. Which you could totally do on a stage.

Natalie Portman isn’t exactly fully utilized as Jane Foster here, but her character feels like more than just checking a box next to “love interest.” Foster is the Stark or Banner of this film. She is the scientist pushing the limits of what is possible and Thor embodies just how much further there is to push.

Over the course of the first three Marvel films Stark and Banner are dogged by ever-present, antagonistic, militaristic authorities. By the time Iron Man 2 wraps up it’s pretty clear that even the shadiest government agency isn’t going to undo the likes of Iron Man or Hulk, but this film displays just how woefully inept and unequipped those antagonists, and by extension our protagonists, really are in the cosmic scheme of things. It sets up a new threshold of conflict that requires more than a robot suit and a green monster to quash.

Thor is the start of a true ramp-up to Avengers, expanding the possibilities of the franchise. It treads carefully. Perhaps too carefully. But when it takes us to Asgard and shows us the petty squabbles of gods in their giant space castle the intimate and the sprawling collide in compelling fashion.

Saved by the Bell: The Sakaar Years, or, Thor: Ragnarok

ragnarok

Someone’s rocking their spiffiest duds for freshman orientation.

By the end of Thor: Ragnarok the God of Thunder’s third solo adventure reveals itself to be something of the finale to a first semester of college, a young mind’s valiant return home from winter break after having been blown and expanded over the fall months. Thor: Ragnarok is a process of revealing and undercutting the status quo both for the titular character and the audience.

For the Thor franchise that status quo has been the giant golden pipe organ castle of Asgard, a Mario Kart level that debuted in 2011 as a spectacular departure from the earthbound adventures of Iron Man and Incredible Hulk but has since become increasingly less interesting compared to the exploits of Thor’s other coworkers. In Ragnarok, that tired, shallow, golden city becomes the world of half-truths and easy answers built up around a child, a straw house destined to be blown down when confronted with even the slightest shift in perspective.
Enter Hela.

Played by Cate Blanchett, the Goddess of Death is that change in perspective, that freshman seminar with a charismatic professor who antagonizes the way you think the world works so that returning home becomes more than a matter of geographic distance. Hela is Asgard’s past, the receipt for that lavish golden pipe organ than Thor never thought to look at.

Thor vs. Hela is not so much a beat ‘em up as it is a young suburban white kid’s first encounter with the film Twelve Years a Slave.

After his initial confrontation with Hela, Thor is removed from his own status quo and tossed into a different patriarchy, one in which he is not the favored son but the disregarded other. His perspective is challenged intellectually and then literally as he finds himself thrown below the heel of someone else’s lavish kingdom. Like that suburban freshman tasked for the first time with checking their privilege, Thor lashes out fists first, confused, agitated and uncertain, but before long he finds himself hanging out in a dorm room with a roommate, intellectually and emotionally grappling with Hela and all she represents.

Along for the grappling is Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, the ideal companion for Thor’s journey through the first semester of freshman year. Where the events of Ragnarok change and rewrite everything Thor has ever known about himself and his history, they only reinforce Valkyrie’s understanding of the world. Thor is trying to wrap his head around Memento and Valkyrie shows up deftly dissecting Orson Welles’ F For Fake. Valkyrie doesn’t have to come to terms with Hela the way Thor does because for Valkyrie the Goddess of Death isn’t an idea or a concept but memory and experience.

Nothing is safe from being upended. Just as Hela disrupts Thor’s perception of the status quo, Ragnarok’s relentless, virtuoso pratfalls undermine the film itself and often Marvel Studios’ past films as well. Even Mark Mothersbaugh’s score, for my money the best of any of Marvel’s 17 films, presented at first with the noble orchestral flair one would expend from a grand superhero odyssey, morphs into what can only be described as aggressive synthesizer.

Every facet of Thor: Ragnarok is concerned with highlighting and then undermining the status quo, be it by speaking truth to authority through humor and smartassery or by subverting the cool of its own protagonists.

Director Taika Waititi has unlocked Thor in a way no previous director has, be it in the characters solo outings or with the rest of the Avengers. He ties Thor’s powers, arguably his most alienating characteristic, to an institution, Asgard, than rips that institution away. Presented with uncertainty, challenged with the revelation of his own privilege and that privilege’s cost, Thor has never been more compelling.

Did I mention this is also a straight-up comedy? And that Jeff Goldblum gives the performance by which all performances will be judged for the rest of time?
Ragnarok is one of Marvel’s best movies and easily the best Thor movie. It’s got action, humor, heart and an intelligence that doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. It’s all the fun of watching a college freshman get woke without having to sit through a pretentious holiday dinner with an actual college freshman.

Avengers: Age of Ultron, or, Marvel’s Big Comic Book Movie

Superhero movies are nothing new. Long before everyone and their mother decided they needed a “shared-universe” Superman and Howard the Duck were running around on the big screen to the delight and chagrin of moviegoers. But in a lot of ways Avengers: Age of Ultron feels like the first full-on comic book movie.

BIG ATTACK

BIG ATTACK

It’s all there. From the exciting feeling that any one of dozens of characters could pop up just around the corner to the dead weight of ever-imposing continuity, viewing the second Avengers movie is like reading one of DC or Marvel’s massive semi-annual, line-wide , status-quo altering crossover spectaculars. And it comes with all of the same highlights and hindrances of a big comic book event.

Characters from across the Marvel Universe are brought together to interact with one another, be it with clever quips or exciting fisticuffs. There’s all kinds of fun pairings to be had, all in the face of massive, eye-popping set pieces and world-threatening antagonism.

But that epic comic book event scope comes at a cost on film just as it does on the page. The places Age of Ultron goes are huge, explosive and over-the-top. By the monstrous climax of the movie even Hawkeye points out the ridiculousness of it all. It’s spectacular and ludicrous and getting their in two hours requires a few lapses in logic. The same type of lapses found in massive event comics that have to condense a fight for the entire known universe into six issues. Age of Ultron is a fun, exciting ride from A to Z, but it makes that journey in way fewer than 25 steps and it isn’t graceful enough to cover up the letters it missed along the way.

A lot of that is because, much like a major comic book event, Age of Ultron is up to its neck in mythology. I feel confident asserting that Age of Ultron has to contend with more mythology than any other film ever made. It’s the eleventh film in a series that simultaneously has to react to not only its own direct predecessor but also a half dozen other sub-franchises while simultaneously setting up not only its own direct sequel but half a dozen others.

Just a couple of dreamy teens.

Just a couple of dreamy teens.

It’s a lot to grapple with and Age of Ultron doesn’t always do it flawlessly. A lot of the bigger moments wind up feeling a little out of left field and I find myself left with questions I don’t suspect there are particularly compelling answers to.

But Age of Ultron isn’t just like a big, brash comic book event. It’s like a really good, big, brash comic book event. The new characters introduced here are exciting. James Spader’s Ultron is fascinating and entertaining and menacing. The movie is consistently hilarious, the cast always charming and the dialogue sharp. The little, intimate moments in Age of Ultron are fantastic.

I recently posted a piece on Daredevil in which I put forth my opinion that the show is very much Marvel’s take on a DC movie, much as Winter Soldier was a Marvel political thriller and The Incredible Hulk was a Marvel fugitive movie. I suspect the most obvious argument to put forward for Age of Ultron is that it’s Marvel’s artificial intelligence movie, but more than anything before it Avengers: Age of Ultron is very much Marvel’s quintessential comic book movie.