Thor: Ragnarok Is Three Times The Fun

For the third film in a trilogy, Thor: Ragnarok is the liveliest one of the bunch. Frankly, after the dire and listless second film Thor: The Dark World, this third Thor film is a spectacular shot in the arm for the God of Thunder’s films set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

Loki and Thor

Thor: Ragnarok quickly picks up where the second film left us, with Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) commanding the throne of otherworldly Asgard under the guise of their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Thor (Chris Hemsworth) quickly deduces what Loki is up to and the two find out the consequences of Loki’s actions. In Odin’s absence, the Nine Realms that he ruled over have slipped into anarchy. This also means that Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, who was imprisoned by Odin to escape and wreck havoc on Asgard. Before Thor could stop her, he is accidentally transported to the planet Sakaar, taken captive and forced to fight in gladiator-type games held by the planet’s ruler, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). As we all saw in the trailers, Thor’s opponent is the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who was last seen going into self exile in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Thor must find a way to stay alive, escape his enslavement and convince the Hulk to join him in saving Asgard from Hela.

thor vs hulk

Now reading the above makes you think this will be another serious-minded Thor film with high stakes and Shakespearean undertones. But that isn’t the case with Thor: Ragnarok. The somber approach worked in the first Thor film thanks to the skillful hands of Kenneth Branagh, who is familiar with Shakespearean drama and brought that to Thor. But this time, Thor: Ragnarok’s director Taika Waititi relied on his comedic tastes and background for the film. In doing so, he brought a welcome change of pace and mood this time around as this film is more of a comedy. This approach mostly works though I have to admit there are times there are just a tad too many jokes and there are moments that should’ve had more weight but come off as too light. It’s clear that Marvel Studios wanted to repeat the look and formula that worked for Guardians of the Galaxy and this is very evident in the scenes taking place on Sakaar. The Guardians of the Galaxy films perfectly balanced its comedic tone with serious drama but Thor: Ragnarok comes up a bit short in keeping that balance.

Hela (1)

Nevertheless, the third Thor film is a fun blast with stunning set pieces and special effects that buttress its lighter tone. Credit for that does not just go to Waititi, but the film’s stars starting with Chris Hemsworth. In other films, Hemsworth has shown that he has quite a comedic gift and he gets to display that in this film. Thor seems less pompous and more laid back in his third outing. It’s almost as if he has thrust off his original regal persona and taken on an ability to crack a joke. This does not mean he takes things lightly. Hemsworth and the director knew which moments to hold back the jokes  and appropriately react to more serious moments. Continue reading

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The First Dozen Marvel (MCU) Films Ranked

With the release of Ant-Man, Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films has concluded. Before Phase Three begins with Captain America: Civil War, now would be a good time to rank the twelve MCU films released so far.

1. The Avengers (2012) – As the culmination of years of careful seeding by previous MCU films The Avengers was a bold, energetic triumph. Director Joss Whedon accomplished the impossible by bringing together completely different characters and molding them into a superhero team just like in the comic books.

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As the most successful superhero film of all time, The Avengers excited numerous viewers and changed the landscape of superhero films. Before this film, the usual superhero films operated in their own realities without any indication of a rich universe as seen in comic books. But The Avengers embraced the richness of its comic book lore and it paid off. Now, shared cinematic universes are the rage. However, The Avengers is the best of the MCU films because it was so energetic, witty, and snappy, and had the novelty of our favorite heroes meeting for the first time. It all led to one of the most exciting finales presented on film that still reverberates with viewers.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – Marvel Studios showed they were willing to take a chance with this quirky and exciting space adventure yarn. Who would’ve imagined that a sci-fi movie about a bumbling space pirate, violent green aliens, a foul-mouthed raccoon and a walking tree would strike a chord with audiences?

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Technically, Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t a superhero film, but this demonstrates how this MCU entry is quite different from its standard superhero repertoire. What made it special wasn’t just the premise, beautiful visuals or production design, but a toe-tapping soundtrack that ingeniously used ’70s pop songs. It was a unique signature for this space opera tale about a group of space losers who banded together to save the galaxy. Chris Pratt became a star thanks to his silly, but good-hearted role as Star-Lord, the self-proclaimed legendary outlaw.

3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – The best MCU solo superhero film and one of the greatest superhero films ever made. More importantly, this was arguably the most volatile entry in the MCU because by the time the film ended, the cinematic universe was forever changed by the film’s events.

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Chris Evans as Captain America/Steve Rogers has demonstrated how he has grown in stature in these films. As a man out of time, Steve Rogers faced his greatest threats from a former friend (one of the deadliest and most frightening supervillains on film) and a shocking global conspiracy that rocked the MCU to its roots. Adding to the film’s specialness were a tightly written script, well-executed and riveting fight scenes and terrific performances from the cast.

4. Ant-Man (2015) – The final Phase Two film is known for its numerous behind-the-scenes hurdles where the original director quit after having developed the film for years. Yet, in spite of that and the titular character’s obscurity, Ant-Man was an unexpectedly great superhero film that’s full of panache.

antman in your face

As one of the more humorous MCU films, Ant-Man quickly won over viewers with its outlandish premise: a man who can shrink and communicate with ants. Wrapped around that was a swift-paced heist story that deftly integrated itself into the larger MCU in a natural way that eluded other films that attempted this. Adding to the film’s enjoyment were many winning performances, fantastic special effects and unlike other MCU films, Ant-Man was able to deliver an astonishing final act that helped pave the future for the MCU.

5. Thor (2011) – What sets Marvel Studios apart with their MCU films is its willingness to remain faithful to the comic book source material. At the same time, Marvel Studios has the ability to make organic changes and updates to its characters and situations. Thor is a perfect example. The film wisely eschewed its magic-based comic book roots that Thor and his ilk were actual gods and cleverly used science fiction tropes instead.

THOR

Thor followed the winning formula of MCU films by having an egotistical, flawed character learn some humility and become a hero. Thanks to director Kenneth Branagh, Thor also had a sense of grandeur that evoked a Shakespearean family drama. In this case, that involved otherworldly aliens mistaken for gods. It was also noted for its humorous fish-out-of-water scenario and Tom Hiddleston’s star-making performance as Loki, the MCU’s best villain.

6. Iron Man (2008) – The one that started the MCU phenomenon still holds up as a well-made origin story. Robert Downey, Jr. shined as he made a personal and professional comeback in the role of a lifetime. His trend-setting Tony Stark/Iron Man was a self-centered narcissist who learned to become something more.

iron man flying

The first part of Iron Man was engrossing, particularly during the moments when Tony Stark first faced his mortality and was forced to construct a crude armored suit. However, the film faltered a bit in the second half. The pace dragged as we waited for him to construct a proper Iron Man suit. Things weren’t helped by the final battle that looked like something out of the Transformers and was just as cartoony. But Iron Man’s successful formula set the tone for the rest of the MCU. Continue reading

Thor Returns To “The Dark World” Of Cinema

thor 2 posterPhase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is well underway with the release of Thor: The Dark World. The sequel to 2011’s Thor stars Chris Hemsworth, reprising his role as the God of Thunder, as well as Tom Hiddleston as Loki–Thor’s treacherous stepbrother, Natalie Portman as Jane Foster–Thor’s human love interest, and Anthony Hopkins as Thor’s father Odin. Joining the cast this time out is Christoher Eccleston as the film’s main heavy, Malekith.

The first Thor movie was unexpectedly rousing and fun thanks to the cast’s performances and expert directing. This time out Alan Taylor takes over the directing duties in this tale that takes place a couple of years after the first Thor movie. Thor and Jane are still separated from each other after the wormhole that first brought the hero to Earth in the first film has been shattered.

Thor: The Dark World introduces us to the Dark Elves, malevolent beings who wanted to use a weapon called the Aether to destroy the universe. Fortunately, the Dark Elves were defeated thousands of years ago by the Thor’s people, the Asgardians. But a handful of Dark Elves and their leader Malekith escaped and went into suspended animation. In the present day, Thor is in his home realm of Asgard and kept from returning to Earth and his love Jane Foster due to obligations. At this time, a space/time anomaly allows portals to open up everywhere and link worlds, including Earth. In London, Jane is unexpectedly sucked into one of these portals. Just as she is sucked into the passageway, Thor comes back to Earth looking for her and eventually reunites with Jane. After they journey to Asgard, she and the Asgardians discover that the ancient Aether weapon is within her.

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Malekith is reawakened after sensing the Aether. Assembling his elven army, he uses this opportunity to attack Asgard to get the weapon and conquer the universe. As the Dark Elves wreck havoc on Thor’s world and threaten Earth, Thor is forced to turn to his imprisoned, hated stepbrother Loki for help in defeating Malekith and his vicious army.

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Whereas the first film introduced audiences to Thor’s rich, majestic world that was obviously inspired by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s early comic book stories, Thor: The Dark World presents us an expanded world taken from writer/artist Walt Simonson. Malekith was a supervillain introduced in Thor #344-349, which was during Simonson’s tenure on the title. Using the Dark Elves will please many Thor fans and general audiences who wanted to see something different in this sequel. The villain Kurse appears in this film and he is a faithful recreation from Simonson’s epic run. He looks like he stepped out from the comic books.

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Overall, Thor: The Dark World is an enjoyable, humorous, and exciting adventure. However, it isn’t as satsifying as the first Thor movie. It does have a lot going for it, the special effects are top notch, as is the production design that showcases various worlds that Thor and Malekith battle in during their epic conflict. Regarding the acting, everyone does a fine job but Hiddleston steals each scene he’s in with his portrayal of Loki. Hiddleston simply doesn’t let go of his screentime. It’s clear that he relishes what he is doing and Loki is now the top villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s unfortanate that Malekith can’t compare to that. On paper he is a good villain but he comes as a by-the-numbers foe for Thor that lacks Loki’s gravitas.

The core issues with this film have to do with the feeling that the stakes are high this time out. Sure the universe is imperiled but it’s hard to feel as if there was any danger. We know that Thor and company will prevail, and even an important character death doesn’t have much impact. Adding to that problem is that Thor doesn’t have the emotional journey that he had in the first film. He doesn’t have to learn humility or any other lessons. Here, he’s an obedient son to Odin and is more of a traditional superhero with few faults. But now he doesn’t have that Arthurian journey to undergo.

Still, this is a well-crafted movie that adds to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Be sure to stick around for the two secret endings!

Steven L. Walterson and Lewis T. Grove

The Avengers

Wow. The new movie The Avengers literally left me breathless and spent after seeing it. Marvel Studios needs to take a well-deserved bow for their efforts throughout the years that culminated in this film. Many had doubts regarding the ability to pull this endeavor off but they are quickly dispelled with The Avengers. It so profusely feels like the climax that had been building up for many years.

Marvel Studios clearly made the right choice with Joss Whedon as the film’s director. He has the filmmaking talent and perhaps, more importantly, possesses a clear love and respect for the Marvel universe and it shows onscreen. But this film isn’t some slavish fanboy production. No, Joss Whedon and the crew had an understanding of how the Marvel universe works, how the Marvel characters behave and how to translate that to the screen and entertain even non-Marvel fans. It is difficult to imagine anyone else achieving what Whedon did and The Avengers will make him a deservedly A-list director. (On a side note, hopefully he will have the clout now to do a Firefly revival. Hey, we can only hope!)

The Avengers jumps right into the action when demigod Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) nemesis and brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives at an underground S.H.I.E.L.D. bunker and makes off with an otherworldly and powerful MacGuffin called the Tesseract (that’s the Cosmic Cube seen in many Marvel comics that grants unlimited power to wielders). After Loki escapes from the bunker, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson doing his usual tough-as-nails shtick) assembles a team of super heroes to help him retrieve the Tesseract and stop Loki’s plan to conquer the Earth.

Then the fun begins as beloved characters like Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor, Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, replacing Edward Norton and Eric Bana), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) meet for the first time. In the typical Marvel comics manner, they don’t get along with each other and even come to blows. But they learn to get along and even respect one another just in time to confront Loki and his alien army.

The Avengers is an action-packed bonanza with fantastic characters and that’s before the climatic final third of the film. Taking place in New York City, the beachhead for Loki’s alien invasion, the explosive, multi-tiered battles on the streets and in the skies are simply spectacular. There have been some complaints over how low-budget some previous Marvel Studios productions have been, but here no expense was spared. But unlike some empty, big-budget films, the action was very fluid and easy to follow, but more importantly the audience cared deeply about the heroes as they fought the alien army. Each character, even some minor ones, had their moment to shine. The Avengers could’ve easily been dominated by one or two characters like Iron Man due to the actor’s charisma but Joss Whedon knows how to give the actors just enough time to make their contributions before moving on the next character or plot point.

This film has set new standards for super hero films. One can only wonder how the filmmakers will top themselves (a clear, audience-rousing hint is given during the end credits; Marvel fans will rejoice) or how other studios’ films can compare to this one. Marvel Studios would be wise to retain Whedon for the inevitable sequel or at least use him for other productions. BTW, stick around for the very end, there’s another post-credit sequence. Without giving anything away, it isn’t anything earth-shattering, but rather a cinematic equivalent of having a cigarette or a relaxing drink after being so pumped out by the movie.

José Soto

Thor Is Better Than Iron Man!

There’s the other blu-ray release this week, Marvel Studios’ Thor, which came off as a pleasant, unexpected surprise when released in theaters this past May. Why was it better than it seemed? Blame it on marketing, maybe (man did those awful heavy metal riffs at the end of the trailer nearly kept me away from the movie). But it looked very uninspiring in the trailers as some run-of-the-mill fantasy romp. Instead the film was a clever re-imagining of the Marvel character while celebrating its larger-than-life Kirbyesque landscape.

In the comic books, Thor is the God of Thunder from Norse myth. While the comics also state that he and his fellow Asgardians are more or less extra-terrestrials, this film full on states this as fact. The result is one of the more imaginative alien cultures shown on film. Basically, their technology is so advanced that it seems almost like magic to us. For example the famed Rainbow Bridge which leads to other realms is for all intents and purposes a sort of wormhole machine and it looked spectacular on the big screen.

More importantly, director Kenneth Brannaugh’s science-based vision of the Asgardian world is so rich that it fires any viewer’s imagination. Right away, I was able to conceptualize how Thor is probably genetically attuned to his hammer that is itself a probable lightning rod. Despite some misgivings from some about the Earth based scenes, which inject much needed humor, the entire effort pays off and enriches the burgeoning Marvel movie universe.

Why is it better than Iron Man? I could go on forever but I’ll just go over a few points. For starters, the villain Loki is so much better than Iron Man’s Obadiah Stane. Loki could’ve been a Joker rip off but in this film, he’s so calculating and subtle that you can’t help see his side that Thor isn’t entitled to rule Asgard. Stane on the other hand, is your average evil capitalist. Too many Marvel films have them. Another point is that with Iron Man, it takes forever for Tony Stark to actually become don his regular Iron Man armor. In fact, I believe there are only three scenes where he’s in the red-and-gold outfit and this happens after more than hour into the film! With Thor right away you see him using his powers (which is one of the main reasons he gets exiled to Earth) and actually Thor doesn’t bother with a standard origin storyline and that’s a relief. Instead the transformation into a hero has to do with Thor transforming his soul. And one last point is that Iron Man after a fantastic first hour starts to drag once Stark escapes his captors, then it’s waiting until he fights Stane. And that came off as a quickly done robotic fight straight out of a Transformers film. Not with Thor, I know some people complained about his scenes on Earth but to me it added more to his story and only made me wish they spent more time with the fish-out-of water aspect to it.

The film was a big hit and a sequel’s in the works. However, it did seem to get lost in the buzz but that’s because the market is saturated with superhero films. Add to that the crappy 3D conversion that everyone complains about (when will studios realize that cheaply done 3D results in hard-to-see film that will turn off audiences from shelling out moolah for any future films?) and that’s why it wasn’t as big as hit as Iron Man. That’s too bad, but now that it’s on DVD it’s worth a look.

Lewis T. Grove