In Norse mythology, Ragnarok is a series of events and battles that lead to the destruction of most of the gods. But different from Apocalyptic stories, it leads to rebirth for the Earth. After natural disasters wipe out all humans but two (Lif & Lifthrasir), the land submerges beneath the sea only to reemerge renewed and refreshed. The two humans repopulate the world, living with the help of the surviving gods. In Judeo-Christian terms, it’s closer to the story of Noah than Revelations. Ragnarok has been translated to English as “The Twilight of the Gods,” and as “Gotterdammerung” in German, where it served as the basis for the last of Wagner’s operas in the Ring series. In the Marvel Universe, though, Ragnarok means the regeneration of the Thor franchise.

The original Thor in 2011 was fun, with director Kenneth Branagh contrasting the operatic heights of Asgard with fish-out-of-water humor when Thor is banished to Earth. But Thor’s later appearances in the two Avengers movies as well as Thor: The Dark World (2013) were more standard smash-‘em-up superhero fare. Overall, Thor was a bit of a prig with all the “only he who is worthy can wield the hammer” stuff and his impossibly sculpted muscles. Star Chris Hemsworth was getting so bored with the franchise he was ready to bail out.

Enter writer/director Taika Waititi. The part-Maori New Zealander has a wonderfully cockeyed sense of humor that’s been displayed in his projects like What We Do In the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and he brings that sensibility to Thor: Ragnarok. While three screenwriters got credit for the Ragnarok script, including Dark World screenwriter Christopher L. Yost, Waititi encouraged his cast to improvise – something that usually does not happen in the Marvel Universe. The story also gives Thor a fresh dose of humanity.

After the events of Age of Ultron, Thor battles Surtur, a huge demon beast who plans to destroy Asgard. He defeats Surtur and returns to Asgard, where Thor discovers Loki is now celebrated after his supposed death during the Dark World battles. He finds Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and many Asgardians watching a stage re-enactment of Loki’s death. (The cast of the actors is fun, with Chris’s brother Luke Hemsworth playing the actor Thor, Sam Neill [Jurassic Park] as the actor Odin, and the actor playing Loki is an uncredited Matt Damon.) The tag at the end of Dark World revealed Loki (Tom Hiddleston) was alive and disguised as Odin, and Thor finds a particularly Thor-ish way to make the trickster reveal himself.

Loki takes Thor to where he dumped Odin – a retirement home in New York City – only to find the home has been demolished. But with the help of Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, in an extension of the tag at the end of Doctor Strange) they find Odin sitting on a bluff in Norway overlooking the ocean, awaiting his imminent passing. Odin warns Thor that his death will release Thor’s first-born sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death. Hela had been at Odin’s side as he conquered worlds, but couldn’t accept peace, so she was banished by the Valkyries. When Odin slips away, Hela appears. She destroys Thor’s hammer, then catches a ride on the rainbow bridge to Asgard, tossing Thor and Loki into space on the way. Thor wakes on a junk-strewn planet where he’s captured by a mysterious woman warrior (Tessa Thompson) and pressed into gladiatorial combat by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). His first bout is against the Hulk, who landed on the planet after he flew off at the end of Ultron.

The plot of Ragnarok is fairly thin and straightforward. What makes it soar is the humor and characterizations, especially with some smaller roles. You have an almost unrecognizable Karl Urban (Bones in the rebooted Star Trek and the remorseless killer in The Bourne Supremacy) as Skurge, an opportunist who’s taken over running the rainbow bridge from Heimdall (Idris Elba). There’s also the blue rock warrior Korg, with a truly unexpected voice provided by director Waititi.

This movie gives the most screen-time yet to Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, and it makes you wish for a full Hulk movie, even after the two misfires with Eric Bana and Edward Norton. (Seeing Thor try to play the Black Widow role to calm the Hulk is almost too bizarre to believe.) But the one who steals the movie whenever she’s onscreen is Blanchett as the first female big bad villain in the Marvel Universe. She gives Thor and the Asgardians hell, even as she looks divine doing it.

You usually don’t go to a superhero movie to laugh out loud (with the exception of Ant-Man), but this movie will garner that reaction several times. Yet it still works perfectly as a Marvel film. Hemsworth’s Thor is rejuvenated by his trials, while the actor himself is reinvigorated by this take on the character. While the story may look at the “Twilight of the Gods,” this film is a delightful romp in the mid-day sun.


Nope, There’s the Kitchen Sink, Too

The phrase “everything but the kitchen sink” has been around for at least a century. It means grabbing everything you can, overloading, filling something to overflowing. However, it doesn’t necessarily have a negative connotation. If you’re on the receiving end, a deal where you get everything but the kitchen sink is great for you, though it might be overwhelming. The phrase came back to me as I watched Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

The first Guardians film was a mammoth sleeper hit. Even though it was part of the Marvel Universe, it literally was far out on the edge with little to tie it to Ironman, Captain America, et al. Even the tag of Thor that introduced Benitio del Toro’s Collector featured two secondary Asgardians rather than the Thunder Lord himself. Chris Pratt was known more for his comedic turn on “Parks and Rec” and was definitely not thought of in beefcake terms. While Zoe Saldana is beautiful and talented, it’s not that easy being green. Former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista had only done a few movies where he was mostly featured for his physique. And arguably the two best-known actors in the cast, Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, were voices for CGI characters, including one who said only three words.

But it worked. After an opening that ripped your gut emotionally, it switched to the pure joy of comedic action during the opening credits. And it did benefit from a truly awesome mix of songs from the 1970s and 1980s. Writer/director James Gunn had paid his dues with some schlocky material, including scripting two Scooby-Doo movies, but he’d also shown his humor with the comedic/horror film Slither and the superhero deconstruction Super. He let the film flow from action to farce to tenderness to humor to heart-tugging emotion. It became the third highest grossing film of 2014, and beat out Captain America: The Winter Soldier as the most successful Marvel movie that year in the US, though Cap took the worldwide box office.

But you don’t get to fly under the radar twice. There was a huge amount of pressure on Gunn to match or beat the success of the original movie, and he had a budget twice as large to work with. It could have been a situation like The Matrix: the original a sleeper hit, the subsequent movies bigger and louder, but with plots that, to be charitable, were piles of mush. The good news is that Gunn’s blasted through the expectations and created an enjoyable movie that recaptures the feel of the original while going a bit deeper. The first movie was about five disparate characters merging into a family. Volume 2 is about how you bind that family into a unit, and about picking up a few cousins along the way.

Needless to say there are growing pains. The movie opens with a short piece from Earth in 1980, showing Meredith Quill with her spaceman boyfriend. Fast forward to the present day with the Guardians hired by the Sovereign race to protect the Anulax batteries from a rampaging monster. Most of the battle takes place in the background while Baby Groot rocks out to “Mr. Blue Sky” by the Electric Light Orchestra, which definitely belongs on an awesome mix tape. In exchange for protecting the batteries, the Sovereign High Priestess, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), gives the Guardians Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillian) for the price on her head. However, Rocket figures since the batteries are right there, unprotected except by the Guardians, he might as well take them. The Sovereign don’t take kindly to it and send a huge drone force to destroy the Guardians. Their ship sustains major damage, but they’re saved by the arrival of Peter’s father, riding on a white egg-shaped spacecraft. The group separates with Peter, Gamora, and Drax accompanying Ego (Kurt Russell) and his companion, the empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff) to Ego’s planet. Rocket and Baby Groot remain to repair the ship, unaware that the Ravagers who kidnapped Peter from earth have rebelled against their leader, Yondo (Michael Rooker) and are coming for the Guardians at the behest of Ayesha and the Sovereigns.

The kitchen sink comes into play on individual sequences, such as one where Baby Groot is asked to find a piece of equipment that will help Rocket and Yondo escape the Ravagers. It goes on and on, dancing perilously close to becoming repetitive and boring, but just when it’s about to tip over the edge Gunn cuts it and leads into a massive battle sequence.

Strangely enough, the two outstanding characters in the film are Yondo and Nebula. For Nebula, she gets to work out her issues of being the least liked daughter with Gomora. Of course, with these characters the “working out” is a prolonged battle that nearly kills both of them. For Yondo, he gets to rise to true hero status.

This is a movie you’ll likely want to see multiple times, just to catch what you missed the first time through, or the second, or the third. The final credits are another kitchen sink moment, with six – count ‘em, six! – tags, plus extras salted into the credits, including lines that say “I am Groot” that eventually are translated into an actual credit.

Volume 2 satisfies. Go ahead and watch it – a few times.

Not So Fantastic

Most people who grew up on superhero comic books (back when they were comic books rather than graphic novels) have a particular series that was their favorite – SpiderMan, Batman, Thor, Green Lantern, etc. For me it was the Fantastic Four: Reed Richards, his girlfriend and later wife Sue Storm, her brother Johnny, and test pilot and Reed’s oldest friend Ben Grimm, who get exposed to cosmic radiation on a space mission and become, respectively, Mr. Fantastic who can stretch, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch, and the Thing (indestructible with super strength). They were the first superhero series written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby, the start of the Marvel Universe.

The series also had Victor von Doom, a genius inventor as well as Romani sorcerer who was disfigured in an experiment and became the masked and hooded supervillain Doctor Doom. He blamed Reed for his disfigurement, thereby setting up the classic struggle of good and evil, and perhaps preparing the way in the 1960s for Obi-wan and Lord Vader in the 1970s. The series also introduced other facets of the Marvel Universe including the Silver Surfer and the Inhumans who are now being featured on “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD.”

While the rest of Marvel’s heroes have had movie success, that hasn’t happened with the Fantastic Four. There was an el cheapo version made in 1994 with a cast of unknowns; Stan Lee later said it was never meant to be released and was shot only to retain the movie rights for the series. The 2005 version with its 2007 sequel were light-weight when compared to the first two Sam Raimi Spiderman movies or the beginning of the Marvel movie renaissance, 2008’s Iron Man. I hoped that that would be corrected in the new Fantastic 4, released this weekend.

It had potential. The director Josh Trank made one of the best and most original superhero movies, 2012’s Chronicle, and he was once again working with actor Michael B. Jordan, who’d followed up Chronicle with a stunning performance in Fruitvale Station. Trank also wrote the script along with Simon Kinberg (2009’s Sherlock Holmes, X-Men: Days of Future Past) and newcomer Jeremy Slater. The early trailers featured a darker look to the story that was missing from the earlier movies.

The first part of the film is decent, even if it makes major changes to the backstory and progresses at a leisurely pace. The earliest sign of weakness, though, is in the casting. While Jamie Bell is an excellent actor, having him play Ben Grimm is like having Tom Cruise play 6’6” Jack Reacher. In the comic book Grimm is a football hero with strength to spare. In fact, the genius of the Fantastic Four was that the cosmic rays gave superpowers that highlighted the character archetypes: the scientist is flexible, his love interest becomes invisible, the young brother is a hothead, while the jock becomes raw strength. With Jamie Bell in the role and with the changes, Grimm is diminished from part of the team to a good luck charm for Richards.

Jordan and Kate Mara, who plays Sue Storm, are decent in their roles but are underutilized. Most of Mara’s time on screen is spent staring at a computer screen. The biggest weakness is with Miles Teller as Richards and Toby Kebbell as von Doom. Teller is an incredible, intense actor as he proved with Whiplash, but he can’t breathe excitement into the underwritten role, while Kebbell comes across as a 2nd tier Euro-trash musician.

Once the trip to the other dimension is made, the rest of the film feels truncated, as if the main plot development got left on the cutting room floor. That may be true, since scenes featured in the trailer are not in the film. Trank tweeted that the version he made was recut by 20th Century Fox executives. The film comes in at a brief 100 minutes. Ant-Man, in comparison, is almost twenty minutes longer. There’s also no cameo by Stan Lee, who showed up in Ant-Man and even made an appearance in Big Hero 6. Worse for fans of the interconnected Marvel Universe, there are no tags at the end.

With a 4.1/10 rating on IMDb and a 10% on Rotten Tomatoes, people will stay away from this movie in droves, and that’s as it should be. It is a major disappointment. IMDb notes that a sequel has been announced, but that’s highly unlikely now. Maybe in 10 more years a filmmaker will finally give the Fantastic Four their due with a good movie that captures the feeling of the comic books. I’ll keep on hoping.

Critical Mass(ive)

(My apologies for not having posted in a couple of weeks. I’ve moved to Des Moines, IA, so I was a bit busy. I’m back to doing regular reviews now and will start with the behemoth that appeared between posts.)

With its far-flung Universe and interconnected bloodlines, the Marvel Superheroes are a geek’s version of another literary genre: the multi-generational drama. The books of Howard Fast, Jeffrey Archer and others have a commonality with Ironman, Thor, Captain America, et al. They tell big stories that can stretch over multiple volumes, or, in this case, movies. That’s not strange to those who read the early comic books where the plot arc would continue for five or six editions, similar to how Charles Dickens serialized his novels. That’s why AMC Theaters could offer a 27 hour binge viewing of the previous Marvel movies in the lead up to the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron. There’s a concern, though, that eventually this could reach a critical mass with Marvel going into meltdown. When does it become too much of a good thing?

For this sequel to the billion dollar hit The Avengers, Writer/Director Joss Whedon throws the viewer into a huge battle right from the start with Ironman (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) attacking a Hydra stronghold in eastern Europe. This follows the first tag at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though to see how the Avengers get to the secret base you’d have to watch the episode of “Marvel’s Agents of Shield” on the Tuesday before the movie’s release. With an assist from robotic sentinels run by Stark’s AI valet, JARVIS (voiced by Paul Bettany), the Avengers make defeat the Hydra forces, but they run into two new characters with powers, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). The Scarlet Witch manages to give Ironman a major case of paranoia when he discovers the power source Hydra was using for experiments – Loki’s scepter.

Ironman’s fear-centered paranoia causes him to use the scepter to create a new version of the sentinels. But the power in the scepter has an intelligence of its own, and the result is Ultron (voiced by James Spader), who swiftly crushes JARVIS while he creates his own metal body. Tony Stark had envisioned Ultron as a way to protect earth’s population, but Ultron sees that most of the problems are created by people and the earth would be better off without them.

The movie is almost overwhelmed by the first battle sequence. Watching it on a large-format screen with the Dolby Atmos sound system, it’s almost a physical attack on the audience. But Whedon then reins in the action and focuses on the story. Another challenge with the movie is incorporating all the sidereal characters who’ve shown up in other movies: James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) in his War Machine mode, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) a.k.a. Falcon, Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders). Even Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter gets a spin around the dancefloor. Somehow, though, Whedon manages to juggle a dozen balls at the same time and not miss a beat.

This time Whedon has chosen to go deeper and darker. As with Greek tragedy, the heroes – primarily Ironman/Tony Stark – have fatal flaws within them that set the story on the path to its destructive climax. While he doesn’t go as far as F Scott Fitzgerald’s famous line, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy,” Whedon does take it a step further than the first Avengers where some of the responsibility falls on SHIELD with the power weapons they’ve horded. Here, the responsibility for Ultron rests squarely on the shoulders of the Avengers – Tony Stark for instigating the creation and the others for not stopping him. Yet Whedon also incorporates an excellent sequence where he develops the character of Hawkeye, who was the least fleshed-out of all the characters. It’s a moment of humanity that underlines the stakes for which the Avengers are playing.

With most action flicks, the rule is the movie is as good as its villain. Ultron is part-Voldemort, part-Silva (from Skyfall): nearly invulnerable and definitely a psychopath, but one who carries his evil with panache. James Spader’s vocal talents are perfectly matched to the character.

There is one discordant note with a previous Marvel Universe movie, and it underlines why after farming out Spiderman and the X-men to other studios (Sony and Fox respectively), Marvel’s now keeping its characters in house. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character Quicksilver is the same one played by Evan Peters in X-Men: Days of Future Past. But since Wolverine rewrote history in that movie, we’ll let it go.

Overall, Avengers: Age of Ultron could have been a rollercoaster that ran off the rails in spectacular fashion, but Joss Whedon manages to keep things under control and deliver the audience to the station with smiles on their faces after a thrilling ride. It’s not the best Marvel movie yet – Captain America: The Winter Soldier retains that distinction – but it’s up there with the best.

Big Heart One

In 2004 Pixar took comic book superheroes and blended it with their trademark animation to make The Incredibles, which lived up to its name. The Brad Bird directed feature had plenty of thrills as well as the cockeyed humor the Pixar does so well. Now Walt Disney Animation, which has made a strong comeback with movies like Tangled, Wreck-it Ralph, and last year’s mega-hit Frozen, has taken a step into the Marvel Universe with Big Hero 6. This time, they blend the story with the emotional resonance of Bambi and Beauty and the Beast.

Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) and his brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) live in the alternate universe city of San Fransokyo with their aunt Cass (Maya Rudoph). Yes, they’re orphans; this is a Disney flick. You could do a sub-classification for Disney Animation movies on whether the main character has lost one parent or two and almost all their movies would be listed on one side or the other. Hiro is a 14-year-old genius but is only interested in hustling at robot fights. Cass feels completely out of her depth with Hiro, so it’s up to Tadashi to play the parent. He takes Hiro to the university laboratory where he’s studying and introduces him to his lab mates: Fred (TJ Miller), Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) and Go Go (Jamie Chung). Hiro’s fascinated with their work, and is in awe of their professor, Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell), who created much of the technology Hiro uses in his robot. Tadashi also shows Hiro his creation, an inflatable medical robot called Baymax (Scott Adsit).

The visit fires Hiro’s drive, and he creates an incredible technology for a science competition where the prize is entrance into Callaghan’s class. The creation captures the attention of Alistar Krei (Alan Tudyk), the billionaire head of Krei Industries, who makes Hiro an offer on the spot. Callaghan denounces Krei as an opportunist who cuts corners to make money, and Hiro decides to reject the offer and take his place in the laboratory. But on the night of his triumph, a fire breaks out in the display hall and Tadashi is killed trying to save Callaghan.

Hiro retreats to his room, but he discovers that Tadashi has stored Baymax there. Hiro thinks his work for the science competition was destroyed in the fire, but then he and Baymax follow a lead and discover a kabuki-masked villain duplicating Hiro’s work.  They try to report their encounter to the police, but the desk sergeant is less than impressed. Hiro realizes the masked man likely caused the fire that killed Tadashi, and decides that he must capture him. But to do that, Baymax needs a major upgrade.

As you’d expect with Disney, the animation is astounding, especially the busy street scenes. The characterizations are sharp and fun, in particular the four lab mates who reach out to Hiro after Tadashi’s death and get recruited into his plans, thus providing the 6 in the title. But what sets Big Hero 6 apart from many superhero stories is how it takes on such deep themes as the corrosiveness of revenge, the power of teamwork, and the cost of heroism. The movie uses its super powers to tug at your heart strings.

There are no songs in the film, so for parents who have listened to “Let It Go” a bazillion times, it’s safe to go back into the theater. The script (by Jordan Roberts and Daniel Gerson & Robert L. Baird) was adapted a Marvel comic by Duncan Rouleau and Stephen Seagle, but completely reimagined might be a better way to describe what the writers accomplished. The comic book was more of a straightforward adventure in the X-Men vein, but in the film it’s the labmates’ scientific accomplishments that allow them to craft their superhero characters. The original also objectified women, but that is completely rejected in the film, amen and hallelujah! Baymax was more a normal robot, but the Baymax in the film is an absolutely brilliant creation. Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams have a gift for blending both heavy action and heart-warming humor.

It is fascinating to see the blending of Marvel and Disney, two almost polar opposites in the animation realm, but it works beautifully. There’s even a direct nod at Marvel in the tag at the end of the credits that will warm nerd hearts.