Thor: Ragnarok – he’s come a long way, baby

The first Thor came out back in 2011, if you can believe that. And at the time it was a bit of a punt by Marvel who, until this point, had only really – successfully – thrust a decent Iron Man upon the world. Because Captain America: The First Avenger was to come later in 2011; but first the studio had some Aussie beefcake most people hadn’t heard of as the lead, along with a luvvie director (Kenneth Branagh) at the helm, putting together a flick about the God of Thunder.

What could go wrong?
Well, more importantly, what could go right?

Because Hemsworth shocked a lot of us by utterly owning the role and Branagh, considering his lack of experience in the genre, got the tone spot on, delivering action and comedy with verve and dynamism. Plus, the film was a commercial hit, which allowed Marvel to start making bigger plans to introduce a host of other characters and expand the MCU at a more rapid rate. So Thor, along with Iron Man, kinda led the way.

Moreover, if we take the team-up films, aka Avengers and Civil War off the table for a second, standalone films are probably the true measure of the strength of a character, and Thor’s sequel, The Dark World (2013), was solid enough, but perhaps suffered from ‘difficult second album’ syndrome.

Yet even an average Marvel film such as this was still a helluva lot better than most blockbusters.

So our God of Thunder weathered the storm and Marvel, as a studio, continued to read from a blueprint that the rest of us, quite frankly (wait for it), marvelled at. Because their quality with every release just kept improving, even with the odd dip, they kept upping their game and pushing the formula, lest it get stale.

This, in turn, has given us wonderful oddities such as Ant-Man and Dr Strange, and the mad, unexpected crowd-pleaser that was Guardians of the Galaxy.

And other directors have seen this, and no doubt become attracted by the prospect of a big budget and the chance to put their own stamp on a Marvel superhero.

Granted, some filmmakers with too singular a vision just couldn’t manage to adhere to the studio’s rules (Edgar Wright), but for those that did (James Gunn, Scott Derrickson) the rewards were that they produced a film audiences and critics loved, which was also a huge hit.

Which leads us to Taika Waititi.

Now for those of that haven’t seen Hunt for the Wilderpeople, get thee to your nearest TV or streaming device and watch it. For it be very funny. And most strange.

Set in New Zealand, it stars Sam Neill and some kid that’s barely acted before, and it’s offbeat and hilarious. Think Flight of the Concords/Mighty Boosh territory with a bit of Thelma and Louise thrown in and you’re halfway there.

This is what Taika brings to Marvel.

Well, that, and a large slice of Flash Gordon with lashings of retro ’80s aesthetic. I mean, the film is pretty darn cool. But in case you were worried it wasn’t cool (or weird) enough, just add more Jeff Goldblum. Or any amount of Jeff Goldblum really.

Because the man has always been about five miles left of normal, and these days he’s ripening as the years go by, like an old fruit left out in the sun. Which is actually rather delightful, as he pretty much steals most scenes.

But I digress. As usual, off topic. Rambling and setting the scene.

Let’s focus on Ragnarok.
Story and timeline wise, this film picks up two years after events in Avengers: Age of Ultron (and around the same time as Civil War and Spider-Man:Homecoming) where Thor has gone off to hunt for infinity stones. He’s introduced in a bravura first sequence involving a fire demon, a scene which rivals that of Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2′s opener.

It’s kick ass, stirring stuff.

And through events involving Odin (Anthony Hopkins) Thor’s sister Hela (Cate Blanchett, having a whale of a time), the Goddess of Death, is freed after a long imprisonment.

She immediately sets out to rule Asgard and lay waste to anyone in her path – and it’s up to her baby brother to stop her.

Only problem is, he’s been waylaid on junk planet Sakaar which is ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). There he’s forced into combat with the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) – whom we last saw hightailing it away from earth in a spaceship for reasons only Hulk can answer.

So this predicament means Thor needs help to get off the planet and save his people. Luckily, this comes in the form of a Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) whom he finds in self-imposed exile, and, of course, his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Plus Hulk. So they form a team (of sorts) to take Hella on.

Basically they’re following Top Gear’s mantra of ‘ambitious but rubbish.’

Now, Marvel films are known for their in-film banter during fight scenes but this is, by some margin, the funniest the studio have put out so far. Yes, more so than Ant-Man, Guardians and any others you care to name. Again, the Taika influence is strongly felt, as he reportedly added a lot of the humour to the script once he came on board.

Hemsworth, too, wanted the tone to be lighter, and he’s clearly demonstrated why being let loose has been a blessing. Yes, the God of Thunder with his hammer and cape is all a bit silly. So why not double down on how mad it is? Additionally, if you were looking for a companion piece in the MCU, Guardian of the Galaxy wouldn’t be a bad bet.

Basically, when things get too serious or preposterous, burst the bubble with a joke.

Works every time.
This is something that DC, for all their progress (by the looks of the Justice League trailers) just don’t get. Superheroes are ridiculous, so let them be.

By and large, this will be the best time you’ll have seeing a Marvel film. Even if you’re not the biggest superhero nerd and have no idea the difference between DC and Marvel or who the Avengers are or anything like that, you’ll still have fun.

It kind of sets the bar pretty high for the forthcoming Black Panther if I’m honest. And though it’s likely that film won’t compete on humour (how can it?) it will probably take the title as the coolest Marvel film so far. From Run the Jewels on the trailer to Black Panther as a character and his homeland of Wakanda, it remains something of an exciting prospect to see how it comes together on screen.

So even without seeing it, I feel confident saying this is going to be a pretty strong year for Marvel.

Marvel – masters of the cinematic universe

avengers natasha romanoff

For this posting I’d like to discuss the evolution of the Marvel universe. I recently – finally – got around to seeing The Avengers. Or, as it’s known in the UK, Avengers Assemble (damn you, Steed).

I have to say, having unavoidably seen and heard many reviews, I was worried I wouldn’t enjoy it and be expecting too much. Would it live up to the hype? Would it feel rushed/crowded with so many larger-than-life characters jostling for screen time? Well, much like everybody else, I found it thoroughly enjoyable. Great pacing, great action, great characters, great dialogue.

avengers natasha romanoffPlus all the Avengers were given – more or less – an equal amount to do, including the new characters: Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. The latter unsurprisingly well written, given writer/director Joss Whedon’s affinity for strong, female characters (Buffy et al).

So, before this becomes an Avengers review, back to the subject in question. I had a vague awareness of the fact there’s been quite a few films over recent years that have come out of the Marvel studio. However when you really look, it seems like an unstoppable wave. To name the live-action films we’ve had since 1998:

  • 5 X Men (2000, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2011)
  • 4 Spider Man (2002, 2004, 2007, 2012)
  • 3 Blade (1998, 2002, 2004)
  • 2 Iron Man (2008, 2010)
  • 2 Hulk (2003, 2008)
  • 2 Fantastic Four (2005, 2007)
  • 2 Ghost Rider (2007, 2012)
  • 1 Thor (2011)
  • 1 Captain America (2011)
  • 1 Avengers (2012)

I’ve left off the experiments that were Daredevil, Elektra and Man Thing, simply because they weren’t hugely successful and it’s unlikely there will be a follow up to any of these in the near future. Therefore I’m only including films where the characters have appeared more than once in the Marvel cinematic universe. So, from 1998 to 2012 (that’s 14 years, keep up), we’ve had 23 films. That’s 1.6 films a year! I’m not sure if what I’m expressing here is good shock or bad shock? Perhaps both.

snipes dorff bladeLooking ahead
I suppose, with this sort of prolific output, you’ll have successes and failures. In recent years, they’ve begun to have more of the former, both critically and commercially. For every mediocre Daredevil or Fantastic Four you’ll get a decent Spider Man or Blade.

Or, if you’re really lucky, strike complete gold and unearth Robert Downey Jr. A man born to play Tony Stark. Don’t believe me? Watch some of his early work, like Natural Born Killers. Check out this classic scene. For me, if you take his character there, throw in a little Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Tropic Thunder, you’ll get Tony Stark. Perhaps a leap but it makes sense to me!

Don’t stop us now
With recent successes of the Avengers’ characters, both in their ensemble film and stand-alone outings, the plan for Marvel films over the next few years is looking quite exciting. Next year we’ll get a second from the blonde Asgardian, Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 3.  In 2014 we’ll have, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, plus – most intriguingly – a massive departure from the norm with Guardians of the Galaxy. A film which has a sentient tree and a raccoon with a gun as main characters.

I can’t say I’m excited about this one…yet. Although I do approve of the concept art above. What I like is that you cannot accuse Marvel of resting on their laurels or playing it too safe. That, in itself, is reason to be quietly optimistic. But I guess we’ll see. Oh, and there’s also a second Avengers due out 2015, just in case Guardians doesn’t go as planned.

Defenders of the universe
So, on the whole, I think it’s great Marvel are mixing it up. Yes, they’re putting out films for a lot of their mainstream superheroes, but they’re safer bets. Keeps the money coming in. They could just sit on that but, like any industry, if you’re not moving forward you’re doing the opposite.

So introducing a new host of characters is brave, yet wholly necessary. Eventually we’ll get sick of superhero films and want westerns or zombie films for a few years or something. But, if Marvel keep freshening things up, maybe we’ll stay a while longer. Maybe a character called Rocket Raccoon is just what’s called for – long live diversity!