“But … are you Thor, god of … hammers?” Thor: Ragnarok

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Marvel Studios’ latest – Thor: Ragnarok – is about as delightful a film to come from the Marvel/Disney machine as we’ve yet seen.

Marrying the free-wheeling whimsy of Ant-Man with the trippy nothing-is-too-zany visual style of Dr. Strange, layering in the heart and humanity of the Captain America films, and playing off the wackadoodle Shakespearean promise of Kenneth Branagh’s first Thor, director Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) nonetheless delivers a completely unique vision and a superhero flick for the ages.

There is nary a shred of evidence of the micromanaged focus-grouping that seems to have plagued other entries in Marvel’s now 17-movie strong cinematic universe: the unfunny, overbaked narrative mush of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2; the ponderous “how-many-action-figures-can-we-cram-into-this-for-merchandising” clutter of Avengers: Age of Ultron; the just plain dull-as-dishwater “end-is-nigh” pretense of, yes, Thor: The Dark World.

No, Thor: Ragnarok belies its title with a light-as-air zip and a screwball comic touch that plays beautifully to star Chris Hemsworth’s Cary-Grant-trapped-in-Tab-Hunter’s-body charms. Hemsworth’s gift is in simultaneously embracing the absurd and the self-serious, mining Thor’s lovable arrogance in uncertain circumstances for “fish-out-of-water” laughs. Akin to Shakespeare’s better “history” plays (say, Henry IV with its introduction of the iconic Falstaff), Ragnarok honors the operatic complexity of its source Norse mythology by juxtaposing the light and the dark, the goofy and the grand, to play out the prodigal son’s/hero’s quest to overcome both palace intrigue and the intoxicating lure of interstellar adventure to find his proper path to the throne.

The film shouldn’t work as well as it does. Waititi is obviously fueled by a love of the corny sci-fi box office bombs that littered HBO’s schedule in the early and mid 80s (post-Star Wars) like Krull, Beastmaster, Flash Gordon, Buckaroo Banzai, and so on – movies that I myself watched in a constant loop, attracted to the gonzo so-bad-it’s-great storytelling and campy visuals. In fact, Mark Mothersbaugh’s Moog-synth score sounds like it was written for an arcade game in 1983. And that’s a fabulous thing. (There is also an epic use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” in segments that bookend the film. It’s a touch that not only enlivens the two sequences in which the tune is used but adds a nice layer of meta commentary – “we come from the land of the ice and snow” – about finding one’s home and one’s place in this world.)

However, Waititi isn’t on a nostalgia trip; he isn’t interested in self-indulgence. Rather, with a Howard Hawks-esque (Bringing Up Baby) command of pacing, set-up, visual jokes, and patter, Waititi delivers a character-driven romp that celebrates a lost soul embracing his destiny and learning a touch of humility along the way. Of course, in this case, the lost soul happens to be the Norse God of Thunder and a superheroic Avenger who pals around with the Hulk, but that’s beside the point. Odin (a wry Anthony Hopkins) consoles his son at one point, when Thor is bemoaning the loss of his magic hammer Mjolnir, “But … are you Thor, god of … hammers?”

The plot is almost impossible to encapsulate, but I’ll try. Thor and brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston reclaiming the smarmy twinkle that made the character such fun initially) are on a search to find their father Odin who is hiding out in Norway. Early on, they encounter Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange in a witty cat-and-mouse sequence that telegraphs that Ragnarok won’t be your typical Marvel flick.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Eventually, Loki and Thor discover that their father has concealed both a dark history from them and the existence of a sister Hela (Cate Blanchett, all slither and swagger and having a devil of a good time) who has returned to Asgard to take over the universe and wear some really fierce eyeliner and multi-horned headgear. Thor and Loki get shunted by Hela to Sakaar, a planet of garbage and misfit toys, where Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster runs a Let’s Make a Deal-meets-Gladiator “Contest of Champions.” (This is the best use of Goldblum’s insidious, out-sized, googly-eyed demeanor in years.)

Lo and behold, Thor’s old buddy The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo fully embracing the sweet/sour rampaging baby characterization from the Avengers films) is somehow on Sakaar too. The boys fight; they make up; they fight again; and eventually, with the aid of new compatriot Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson bringing the boozy, bossy fun), return to Asgard and save the day (more or less) from Hela’s machinations. Whew.

Oh, and Karl Urban (Star Trek, Dredd, Pete’s Dragon) pops up as Hela’s right-hand thug Skurge the Executioner, and, as always, Urban brings a nuanced inner-conflict and a compelling screen presence to a character who in lesser hands would have been a screaming, raving slab of testosterone. One day, I’d like to see him in a movie that doesn’t require special effects, if they make those any more.

In the end, though, the film is a showcase for Hemsworth’s effervescent wit and steroidal comedy and for Waititi’s sure-handed cinematic voice and eye-popping visuals. Hemsworth is at a difficult career crossroads: a household name actor in international box office blockbusters who doesn’t yet seem like a star. Perhaps this turn will change that. If not, he and Waititi need to team up again posthaste and, maybe this time, sans capes. Hemsworth is that rare performer – a beautiful human specimen with the comic genius of an ugly duckling. Waititi is that rare director – one who loves all films and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the best and the worst but deftly avoids self-indulgence and derivativeness. As Goldblum’s Grandmaster says in response to Thor’s use of his lightning powers, “Out of your fingers … was that, like, sparkles?” Indeed, Hemsworth plus Waititi generate nothing but cinematic sparkles. Here’s hoping for more.

________________

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Let this be a lesson to comic book nerds everywhere: Marvel Universe Live! at the Palace of Auburn Hills

The Hulk, looking like a big Muppet.

The Hulk, looking like a big Muppet

The Palace

The Palace

Let this be a lesson to comic book nerds everywhere: don’t buy tickets to some superhero extravaganza 18 months in advance on the promise of a state-of-the-art immersive experience in the four-color world of funny book lore.

The stage

The stage

‘Cause a year and a half later, that magical cape-and-spandex fever dream to be? It’s basically Spider-Man Ice Capades … without the ice.

That about sums up the arena-touring Marvel Universe Live! which we had the misfortune of taking in this afternoon at The Palace of Auburn Hills, alongside a lot of gobsmacked kids and their grimacing mothers and fathers.

Captain American arguing with Iron Man about who has the worst lines

Captain American arguing with Iron Man about who has the worst lines

Seriously, if we escape this experience unscathed from the stomach flu or an ear infection, it will be a minor miracle.

The show runs under two hours, including an interminable 25 minute intermission, designed chiefly for parents to empty their wallets at the carny-esque merchandise carts clogging nearly every aisle. It is a Disney enterprise after all.

Oh, what have we done ...

Oh, what have we done …

The plot, or what passes for one, is a hodgepodge of elements cribbed from a decade’s worth of Marvel movies (Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor) and a bit or two from the comics (those characters like X-Men or Spider-Man for whom Disney doesn’t necessarily hold the movie rights in Mickey’s four-fingered paw).

The Avengers, or a loose confederation of badly costumed heroes bearing a passing resemblance to said superhero team, are chasing down bits of that damned Tesseract (“Cosmic Cube”) – the boring MacGuffin that has dominated Disney/Marvel’s film output: a glowing device that gets chopped up in a million bits which, if brought back together, will let any number of bad-deed-doers take over the world, monologue an lot, and shake their scaly fists at the sky.

Motorcycles. Lots of motorcycles.

Motorcycles. Lots of motorcycles.

Woo boy.

The show is an enterprise intended for kids, so I should just stop being a jackass and note that, for any child under 10, it will be the. best. freaking. thing. they. have. ever. seen. (I was heartened to see as many girls as boys in the audience, possibly indicating a break in the Disney Princess stranglehold on post-millennial prepubescent gender identity? We can only hope.)

There are motorcycle and aerial stunts aplenty with enough pyrotechnics to make a vintage Van Halen fan weep. The dialogue (the program actually lists a team of writers on this thing, and surprisingly not 18 monkeys in a room of keyboards) is phoned in from somewhere left of the moon, as the poor souls playing these comic book icons are required to lip sync every line. And I thought Britney Spears had it bad … and that ain’t good.

Loki and his vacuum/fish bowls of death

Loki and his vacuum/fish bowls of death

The costumes are pretty hit or miss. Some folks, like big bad Asgardian Loki, are almost note-perfect, while others, like Wolverine, look like they were garbed in leftovers fished from the remainder bin at Halloween City.

Believe it or not, the show has its standout performers (though for all intents and purposes, the actors remain nameless/faceless entities).

Spider-Man is a hoot, assigned the zippiest quips (not saying much) and imbued with an acrobatic whimsy that comes as a welcome relief from all the paper-doll posturing on-stage. Captain America is a delight as well, with some great stunt work and a bit of the light comedy his eponymous films wring from Cap’s anachronistic circumstances.

Spider-Man hitching a ride from his buddy Green Goblin

Spider-Man hitching a ride from his buddy Green Goblin

The backdrop

The backdrop

For the true comic nerds in audience? For middle-aged people, like yours truly, who have no business going to a show like this, at least without the cover-story of dragging a niece or nephew or random neighbor kid grudgingly along?

Finale ... thank heavens

Finale … thank heavens

Well, for geeks like us, the joys are limited. You get to see some random fan-favorite characters like Captain Marvel, Black Cat, assorted AIM Agents (with those silly beekeeper outfits), and Madame Hydra in the flesh, and there are some nifty items in the merchandise booth (the program with commemorative comic book and a few of the shirts are keepers). Otherwise, just stay home, save your moolah, and revisit your old super-favorites the way we always have … by reading.

____________________________

Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Drawing of yours truly as a superhero by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“How can humanity be saved if it doesn’t evolve?” Avengers: Age of Ultron

"Avengers Age of Ultron" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Avengers_Age_of_Ultron.jpg#/media/File:Avengers_Age_of_Ultron.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Avengers: Age of Ultron is all you might hope it should be. And that’s part of its problem.

I feel in writing this review that I may as well be discussing a plate of really fabulous spaghetti: so much tasty sameness, so many empty carbs, no discernible beginning/middle/end, satisfying a craving that I didn’t know I had, leaving me a bit bloated … and yet I will happily eat it again after my sense-memory has recovered.

Joss Whedon, beloved Buffy the Vampire Slayer architect and director of the first Avengers, returns to helm this sequel. This will be blasphemy to some of my geek brethren, but Whedon is no auteur. (I hold out hope that Captain America: The Winter Soldier directors The Russo Brothers will be the ones who finally deliver The Godfather of superhero genre flicks. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was close but a bit too pompously high-falutin’ for my tastes.) Whedon carries an episodic TV sensibility to his film projects. And that’s ok, but, once you’re aware that he seems to work in 28-minute long “beats,” you start to feel the clock ticking.

And, wowzers, does the clock tick with Ultron. With trailers (and the need to get there so early that you aren’t sitting on the front row gazing up Chris Hemsworth’s flaring Asgardian nostrils), your rear is in a theatre seat nearly three hours. The film is straining at the seams with just so much Marvel muchness that you wonder if a cleaner, clearer narrative had been focus-grouped into this orgiastic merchandising hydra by the good folks at Disney.

Regardless, the film offers much to delight both comic book loons like myself and the average Marvel moviegoer who doesn’t know Ant-Man from an ant, man. (Sorry.)

Whedon wisely knows that the audience for these cinematic beasts adores brightly-lit four-color action peppered with jazzy comic asides and a healthy dose of soap-opera-lite character beats. He also (with the help of super-producer Kevin Feige, who really should be in the movie marketing hall-of-fame at this point) realizes that the perfect ensemble, gifted with acting chops that exceed the material but with a keen sense of wit and gratitude to enjoy the ride anyway, turns a workmanlike summer blockbuster transcendent.

Mark Ruffalo continues to steal the show as beautiful loser Bruce Banner (Hulk), with just the right hint of Bill Bixby’s gloom married to his own shaggy twinkle. Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow) gives as good as she gets in her cat-and-mouse flirtation with Ruffalo, and, while I’m sure most of the audience was squirming/snoozing as they awaited the next CGI-encrusted battle sequence, I really enjoyed those quieter moments.

Similarly, Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton/Hawkeye), who came off as a glowering dullard in previous installments, really gets a chance to exercise his comedic action chops and soulful humanity. I won’t spoil the cinematically invented back-story they layer on Hawkeye, but this fanboy for one was a fan of the fairly significant change the filmmakers made from long-standing comic canon. Hawkeye suddenly becomes the heart and soul of a franchise that hitherto kept him far on the periphery.

The rest of the cast is solid and fun as expected. Chris Evans (Steve Rogers/Captain America), Hemsworth (Thor), and Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark/Iron Man) are frothy delights, offering as much banter this time as they do alpha-male action. Downey is blessedly restrained, offering a hint of unintentionally gleeful malice – an ominous note of what may yet come to the franchise. He is counter-balanced nicely by Evans who telegraphs the audience’s own mounting anxiety over a planet that is quickly becoming overstuffed with people/creatures/beings with too many abilities/too few ethics.

Newcomers include twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who weirdly enough played spouses in last year’s Godzilla reboot) and The Vision (Paul Bettany). They are all fine in rather under-written, slightly confusing roles. While it’s fun to see these Marvel legends in the flesh, they really weren’t necessary and detracted from the other characters we’ve come to know and love. This is the danger with all of these comic book movies – how do you keep the nerds (myself included) happy and sell lots of toys without devolving into carnival kitsch? The film skates a fine line and nearly goes over the edge.

Finally, though, this Marvel entry gets its villain so very right (not unlike the oily charisma of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki). Ultron, as voiced by slippery eel James Spader (I’m starting to wonder if Marvel films are where all smart aleck ex-Brat Packers go to die?), is frightening, ominous, charming, and essential. He intones early in the film, “How can humanity be saved if it doesn’t eeeeevooooolve.” (Darn right, brother – I need that needle-pointed on a pillow, stat).

Of course, robotic overlord that he is, Ultron – created by Stark himself as a means of creating “lasting peace” – asserts that the only logical way to create lasting peace is to render all of humanity extinct. Now there is an allegory for our fractious times. I won’t spoil the adventure on how he gets there (I’m not even totally sure I followed all the muddled machinations myself), but I got quite a perverse kick from Spader’s Ultron and his well-intentioned sociopathy.

(I should have never admitted that last bit, I suppose? Maybe Marvel will need someone to play the villain in their next summer opus? Sign me up!)

Go to Avengers: Age of Ultron for the Marvel-fied comfort food … but stay for the dark bon-bon (Spader) at the film’s anarchic core.

____________________________

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital) In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.