Justice League – Review

A decade or more ago, movies such as Justice League would have seemed like an impossible dream.  All the hurdles it takes to make one super hero movie a reality; why would anyone want to undertake a movie with a whole team of superheroes?  But, over at Marvel Studios, they not only have found a way to make it work, they’ve done it multiple time now, with spectacular results.  Spending years of development through standalone franchise for each character, Marvel has managed to work out the formula for making very satisfying films that include all of their best heroes sharing the spotlight together.  And naturally, when one studio has found a gold mine of an idea, the rest all will follow in their footsteps.  The only problem is, Marvel’s formula doesn’t work for all things.  In the past couple years, we’ve seen several studios face-plant themselves after spending and wasting millions of dollars to establish their own “cinematic universes.”  Universal’s “Dark Universe” centered around it’s collection of monsters has been dead on arrival from Day 1, while Fox’s desperate attempts to keep their Marvel licenses in house has resulted in a jumbled mess.  The only real threat to Marvel’s dominance with regards to cinematic universes has been it’s long time competitor in the publishing world; DC Comics.  Like Marvel, they have their own collection of iconic superheroes, all deserving of their own long overdue cinematic treatment.  With the overwhelming success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy under their belts, DC parent company Warner Brothers felt confident that they had the means to create a cinematic universe of their own, and they set out to do just that.  But, again, when playing catch up to someone who’s clearly in the lead, you run the risk of one or many missteps along the way, and DC has not been immune to that.

They first launched their bold new plan with a revamped telling of the origins of one of their most beloved characters, Superman, in Man of Steel (2013).  Right from the beginning, things were off to a rocky start, as this new Superman film was criticized for souring the character and his story with a needlessly somber and dreary tone, as well as going overkill with some of the violence in the action scenes.  Much of the criticism was laid on director Zack Snyder, who many believed didn’t understand the character of Superman, and was just exploiting his story as a means to show off his very flashy style of film-making.  While it did have some fans (I kind of thought it was okay too, as you can read in my review here), Man of Steel was still universally seen as a step backward for DC, and a rocky start for their cinematic universe plans.  Things did not improve with the follow up film, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was the first feature intended to show their extended universe.  There was no denying it that time, BvS was an indefensible disaster, and the clearest sign yet that DC’s cinematic plans were close to derailing.  Like I discussed in my review here,  Snyder’s indulgences as a director were undermining the development of the characters, and it turned what should have been an amazing experience into a chore to sit through.  It seemed that things might have been looking up with their next project, Suicide Squad, given that film’s more irreverent and humorous tone, but even that movie ended up being bogged down by terrible editing and incomprehensible story.  But finally, this last summer, we got Wonder Woman, which was a breath of fresh air for DC’s films.  Centered around DC’s iconic heroine, Wonder Woman was focused and engaging, and it managed to finally be faithful to the essence of the character.  It was also an empowerment tale for women at a time when we really needed it, which made it’s success all the more rewarding.  Now, despite the rocky road up to this point, DC is finally letting us see all our favorite heroes together in the long awaited Justice League.  But, has DC finally figured their formula out, or are things still an under-cooked mess.

The film is starts out in the aftermath of the events proceding Batman v. Superman.  Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead and buried, and the world is still mourning his loss.  His allies, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), try to deal with the grief of losing their friend in their own way, while at the same time searching around the globe for other super beings that may be able to help them.  While looking through the notes left behind by the now incarcerated Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), they have learned the identities of three possible individuals that could join their team.  One is the Atlantean warrior known as Aquaman (Jason Momoa), who spend most of his days either drinking or saving stranded fisherman out in stormy waters.  Another is amateur physicist Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) who has managed to harness the power of super speed through his experiments, helping him to take on the identity of the Flash.  Proving to be elusive, though, is a recluse named Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), who has lost most of his body in a lab experiment and has been miraculously been brought back to life through robotic enhancements, making him the Cyborg.  Batman and Wonder Woman manage to track down and persuade them all to help out, thanks to the assistance of their non-powerful friends and associates, including Alfred the Butler (Jeremy Irons), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons).  Meanwhile, danger returns to earth as a super-powerful alien being known as Steppenwolf (voiced by Cirian Hinds) returns from his exile, seeking to reclaim three powerful weapons kept guarded on Earth known as the Mother Boxes.  When combined together, the Mother Boxes can transform a planet into the same make-up of Steppenwolf’s home planet, which is a hell-scape for the rest of us.  After defeating both the Atlanteans and Amazonians who have safeguarded the boxes for thousands of years, Steppenwolf proves to be quite unstoppable, until the Justice League finally stands in his way.  But, is he too much for them as well, and do they come to the realization that they need just one more element to make their team complete; the still deceased Superman.

In the wake of Wonder Woman’s success and Batman v. Superman’s failure, you would think that DC has learned a few lessons as they’ve continued to push forward with their bold cinematic universe.  And in many ways, they have, but there are still several lingering issues.  Zack Snyder, up to now, has been the caretaker of this franchise, and his indulgences have done the series no favors.  Likewise, there has been a distinct lack of identity to the universe as a whole.  Up to this point, it seems that everything you can say about the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) is that they are trailing distantly behind Marvel cinematicly, and all their attempts to catch up make them look like amateurs by comparison.  The problem is that you can see the mechanics behind what DC is doing far more prominently, because up to now, they seemed to have been more driven by the potential for box office riches more than what was right for the characters.  But, again, Wonder Woman finally turned things in the right direction, making us all hope that DC had learned it’s lesson and were giving us the movies we deserve rather than the ones that they needed.  But, how does Justice League size up given the pressure that’s been put on it.  Well, it’s complicated.  I will say that it is light years better than Batman v. Superman, mainly because this movie is not bogged down by an unfocused story.  Justice League actually has a plot-line that makes sense, and the characters are actually portrayed much better here; actually becoming closer to their comic book identities than we’ve seen before.  But at the same time, the movie still feels hollow when compared to what Marvel has been doing this last decade.  Especially when compared to something like Marvel’s first big team-up, The Avengers (2012), Justice League is remarkably small in scope.  It’s a movie that is disappointing when considering the legacy behind it and the expectations we all expect of it, and yet it still shows some signs of improvement over the heap of failures that this studio has been responsible for up to now.    I guess your takeaway from the film will depend on your feelings towards DC’s cinematic universe up to this point, and for me, my feelings were that I was unimpressed but still entertained all at the same time.

Much of the things that keeps this movie buoyant are the characters themselves.  I have to commend the casting department at Warner Brothers for getting the right people for these iconic roles (at least for the ones that matter).  Ben Affleck is, I think, one of the better Batmans we have seen on the big screen, and up to now has been unfortunately saddled with material that doesn’t bring out his full potential in the role.  Still, he makes the most of it, and he’s served better here than he was in BvS.  Gal Gadot once again proves that she absolutely owns the role of Wonder Woman here, and she is easily one of the film’s greatest elements.  I give the writers and the director credit for not making her a token girl in this team as well.  She is an equal partner in the Justice League, given just as much respect as a member of this elite squad as anyone else.  She also has great chemistry with Ben Affleck in their few scenes together, showing a welcome comradry between heroes that has been sorely missing thus far in the DCEU.   The best new edition to the pantheon of heroes is Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, a thrill-seeking macho man who brings an extra bit of lighthearted fun to the mix.  Ezra Miller’s Flash is at times a little obnoxious with his constant “funny” quips, but he’s serviceable enough as the character and brings plenty of personality to the role.  Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is unfortunately the one disappointing addition to the cast.  The character in the comics is a lot more carefree and engaging, but this Cyborg is brooding and emotionally distant.  Still, the cast is solid throughout, and they more than anything, improve upon the material given to them.  The movie is still awkwardly written, but the one thing it does get right is the sense of teamwork between all the characters.  The movie doesn’t exploit their suspicions towards each other and have them but heads for no reason, like past films have done.  Instead, the Justice League comes together seeing the bigger threat in front of them, and use their best qualities to not only win the day, but also to gain each other’s trust, and that is something so refreshing to see in a super hero movie from DC.  If there is something to praise this movie for, it’s for getting the theme of teamwork through adversity right.

Everything else about the movie is a mixed bag.  One thing that you’ll notice while watching the movie is a noticeable hodgepodge of tones and styles of storytelling thrown together.  The film went through a late, eleventh hour re-construction, which saw the departure of Zack Snyder from the directing chair, and replaced with Joss Whedon, the man who brought the Avengers together over at Marvel.  Snyder still gets sole directing credit, but the Whedon additions are still very evident, and in some cases welcome.  The  movie contains far more humorous and light-hearted scenes than anything that we saw in BvS.  That is refreshing, but the movie still suffers from Zack Snyder’s annoyingly self-indulgent directing.  There are several scenes that still showcase his penchant for explosive and loud mayhem on screen, as well as his pretentious use of slow-mo to accentuate the action.  But, there is one thing that Snyder’s direction does service to the movie and that’s a sense of scale, which in a way is kind of undermined by Whedon’s more restrained style.  Snyder has a more operatic mind while Whedon has a more televised serial mind, and those two style don’t mix together well.  Still, I thought that Whedon’s additions brought more value to the film than anything it took away.  Something that Whedon clearly brought over with him from Marvel was the sense of knowing how to make the characters more relatable, and that’s accomplished through some very welcome moments of the heroes socializing and bonding through their shared experience.  If that’s the direction that DC is headed, than it’s a welcome one.  Apart from that, I will say that Snyder’s direction here is not as infuriatingly in your face as it was before.  The only problem is that by holding back a little, the movie unfortunately feels smaller, which is not the feeling you want to have while watching the Justice League movie you been waiting a whole lifetime for.  That’s the unfortunate result of an all too late course correction for the studio.

Where the movie suffers the most though is in the visual effects department.  This movie has, without a doubt, some of the worst CGI I have ever seen in a movie with this sizable a budget.  It’s almost like the movie ran out of time and money and just had to make due with what they had, which is a sad statement for DC’s organizational skills.  I understand the shake-up at the top, with Zack Snyder withdrawing suddenly and Joss Whedon coming in at the last minute, but given the build-up for several years that we’ve had for this movie, Warner Bros. and DC should have not had to cut corners here.  There are elements like Aquaman’s swimming under water and Batman’s wall crawling, tank-like vessel that look like they’ve come out of a video came, and feel very out of place in this live action film.  And then, we come to the film’s weakest point of all; the villain Steppenwolf.  We’ve seen bland antagonists before in both the DC and Marvel cinematic universes, but Steppenwolf may be the weakest of all.  This character leaves the minimalist of impressions on the audience, and is a complete waste of actor Cirian Hinds’ talent.  The talented Irish actor could have done something with the role, but he is relegated to just a vocal performance as the character is needlessly portrayed entirely through CGI.  And it’s some of the weakest, characterless animation that I’ve ever seen.  The animation is Jar Jar Binks level bad, which is unacceptable now in 2017.  Considering that only a few weeks prior we saw stellar work done on the character of the Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok, where so much detail was put into his personality and texture, and it just shows how much further ahead Marvel is by comparison.  Even with her brief screen time, Cate Blanchett left more of an impression as the villain Hela in the same film than Steppenwolf leaves here in Justice League.  It’s with a remarkably pathetic villain and the shoddy visual effects, (not to mention Zack Snyder’s typical washed out color palette) that we see the places that DC definitely needs to improve upon if they ever hope to be competitive in the future.

On the whole, especially compared to where they were a year ago, things are looking up for DC Comics on the big screen.  The best thing I can saw about Justice League is that it does a passable job of bringing the legendary super hero team together on screen for the first time.  But, after the huge leap forward that was Wonder Woman, this movie feels like a step backwards for DC.  But not a big one.  It manages to avoid some of the worst pitfalls that sank it’s predecessors, and offers a lot of welcome changes that hopefully take fruit over there.  The things that hold the movie back are mostly holdovers from the Zack Snyder era of the DCEU, which seems to finally be coming to an end.  He never was a great fit for this, and the cinematic universe will be better served under new guidance, whether it be with Joss Whedon or someone else.  The unfortunate thing is that the whole shake-up that the cinematic universe has suffered in the last year has unfortunately diminished the much anticipated team-up that we were all waiting for with Justice League.  The Justice League is iconic in the world of comic literature, and is even credited as the inspiration for Marvel’s Avengers.  The fact that the first incarnation of the Justice League on the big screen is not one the greatest cinematic experiences of all time and just ends up being barely passable is itself a very disappointing result.  But, my hope is that DC takes this lesson and continues to improve the League in the years ahead, helping it to live up to it’s full potential.  Wonder Woman certainly showed that good things can still come from this, and Justice League is still entertaining enough to rise above the rest.  It’s not a home run, and barely a base hit, but any comic book fan (especially those who love DC comics) will be entertained by this.  The best thing I can say is that it’s great to see the heroes of DC finally assembled together and working as a team.  One hopes that the same kind of teamwork continues to make the DCEU competitive with Marvel again, because friendly competition will only make both universes that much better.

Rating: 7/10

Hollywood Monsters – The Movie Industry’s Deep Rooted and Far Reaching Problem With Abuses of Power

Normally I try to steer clear of breaking headline news about controversies within the Hollywood Industry when writing articles for this site, but the recent activities going on over the past weeks have made me want to express my own thoughts on the issue given how much of an impact that they have on the industry as a whole.  That issue of course is the unprecedented fallout that has come to pass over the revelations of sexual misconduct, harassment, and even abuse that have been perpetrated by some of the most powerful people in the Hollywood community.  In many ways, these stories go far beyond your tabloid scandals of the week, and instead reveal a much more troubling fact which is the sickening way that such behavior has been allowed to flourish for so long.  The two biggest cases (so far) have been tied to two men who were once untouchable in Hollywood: uber-producer Harvey Weinstein and Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey.  Both are facing heavy scrutiny for what seems like years of serial harassment and alleged sexual assault against several victims that were swept under the rug with hush money and legal intimidation as a way to keep their bad behavior out of the headlines.  But, eventually, all those diversions couldn’t stop the truth from coming out, as victims started to stand together and demand for their stories to be heard, no matter what the consequences.  And with their stories, were are beginning to learn more about a side of the film industry that we wish wasn’t true and is sadly far more common than we would’ve thought.  Weinstein and Spacey are just the two of the most high profile names to be exposed and more are going to join them in the weeks ahead.  It’s a problem within the industry that extends beyond just the people involved and the crimes they have committed.  What these cases only demonstrates is the fact that there is a deep rooted problem with power being abused throughout the Hollywood community.

With regards to the accusations leveled at Harvey Weinstein, the revelations are not at all surprising.  Weinstein has been a power player for several decades in Hollywood, making a name for himself in the independent film circuit with the two companies that he co-founded with his brother Bob, called Miramax and The Weinstein Company.  Along with his sharp eye for spotting new talent in film-making, which has included the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, he has also garnered the reputation of being a bully within the industry.  His aggressive Oscar campaigning and strong-arming smaller production outfits in order to put his name on the best movies on the market has always left him with this love-hate relationship within the industry.  No man has been more thanked at awards ceremonies and sweared at more outside of them than Harvey, and it’s a reputation that I get the sense that he probably enjoyed.  But, it’s that same kind of attitude that also made him feel invincible within the business, and made him believe that he was capable of having everything he wanted, including the women he wanted whether they wanted him or not.  Suffice to say, Weinstein’s rise included him trampling over quite a lot of less fortunate people, and his sense of entitled power and need for self-fulfillment led him down the road that turned him into the disgraced monster that he is today.  Kevin Spacey’s problems are different, but no less disturbing.  While maintaining his image as a well regarded, and talented actor, we are now learning about years of inappropriate, and sometimes predatory behavior towards men, and most shockingly, to underage boys as well, according to his first accuser, actor Anthony Rapp.  Spacey’s misconduct has been the more shocking recently, because of how much more it has clashed with his polished image, but it nevertheless shows us that Hollywood’s problems with powerful men taking advantage of the less fortunate is very widespread.

The surprising thing that has occurred with the revelations made against these men and those like them is the swiftness and scope to which they were dealt with.  Harvey Weinstein was exposed by a long-researched article in the New York Times, which detailed years of misconduct that included a large number of accusers, and within a week of these revelations coming to light, Harvey went from Hollywood’s most powerful producer to virtually un-hirable.  He was fired by his own company, booted from the Academy of Motion Pictures membership, and had his name removed from every film he’s produced in the last year.  His company is now on life support with the possibility of going bankrupt in the near future, leaving many in-progress projects up in the air.   And as bad as that was, Kevin Spacey’s was even more dramatic.  He’s been fired from every project he’s been working on with his long standing partnership with Netflix, including his acclaimed series House of Cards, which is now desperately trying to restructure itself without it’s primary star around.  And, just announced this week, director Ridley Scott made the unprecedented and shocking decision to cut Spacey’s role in his new upcoming movie, All the Money in the World, and replacing him with actor Christopher Plummer in a costly re-shoot intended to help the movie still reach it’s December release date, only weeks away.  That is what you call quick and decisive action, but why did it have to get this bad in the first place.  I don’t blame the production companies and filmmakers that have cut their ties with them; they are not guilty of the same actions, and it’s fully within their understanding to protect their own products and reputations.  But a lot of questions need to be asked of an industry that sees behavior like this happen and takes so long to do anything about it.

These cases tell us a lot about the ugliest aspect of Hollywood, which is the way that underprivileged and desperate talent are often taken advantage of within the industry.  It’s the downside of the dream factory that is Hollywood, in where so many people come to sunny Los Angeles with dreams of fame and riches.  But, in order to make it, some people have to go through a long process of proving themselves to those who are already established.  It’s not an always dangerous path.  Many people, myself included, have gone through internships and part-time jobs with the hopes of opening up doors to better things later within the film industry.  It’s competitive, and not everyone makes it through, but you can make it in the film industry if you do show a level of talent and motivation that people on the inside can take notice of.  But there are those out there that offer up the shortcut to stardom by having those desperate enough conduct favors on their behalf, and this is where the predatory aspects begin.  Some people in the industry know how desperate some of us dreamers want to succeed and they prey on that desperation in order to satisfy their own selfish needs.  This becomes most sickening when it involves sexual favors in return for advancement.  And the abuse of this power doesn’t just end with the solicitation, but also throughout the aftermath of such actions.  Sometimes the people in power use a person’s desperation as a means of silencing them, by proclaiming that they hold the power to make or break their careers moving forward.   It’s this level of behavior that is at the heart of what’s the problem within the industry, with so many people using their status to hold power over the less fortunate and forcing them to do things that not only is demeaning, but can significantly damage their lives.  I want Hollywood to be a place where people believe they can go and add to a vibrant artistic community and not demean themselves for a chance at something better that’ll probably never come true.

The one and only positive to come from these scandals is the fact that it’s affecting some change.  People who have abused their power are now finally being held accountable for it.  A large part of this change has been the growing union of voices coming forward to tell their stories of abuse over the years.  And the sad thing we are learning is that Hollywood has not given much credence to the voices of victims, with many in the industry spending millions to keep much of it hushed for years.  It goes beyond the tales of those infamous casting couch sessions that you hear actresses and starlets divulge in interviews.  For a long time, there have been rumors of inexcusable behavior by Hollywood elite that stem all the way to the early days.  You hear about child actors being beaten on the sets of Little Rascal shorts from the 1930’s, or Judy Garland being repeatedly molested by MGM execs, to Charlie Chaplin having sexual intercourse with underage girls, and rape accusations connected to Marlon Brando, and so on.  And yet, none of these have been treated as anything more than tabloid gossip, or a smear campaign by religious organizations as a way to paint Hollywood as this morally depraved place.  But after the outpouring of victims stories that we’ve heard in recent weeks, you can’t help but think that there may truth to all these stories that we’ve heard.  I for one shudder to think that any one of my friends and associates who have tried to pursue a career in film have faced this kind of abuse in their lives or are about to face it without knowing it.  Many people have paid a heavy price for access in this industry, and that’s a practice that absolutely needs to end.  People in power, whether they are beloved or not, should be seriously questioned when they are confronted with these kinds of accusations.  The disturbing thing is, there are a lot of hurting voices out there, and it’s not just limited to those within the industry, and most likely, it’s someone we may all know in our own lives.

What angers me the most about Hollywood with regards to this is the systematic way they have tried to bury so many of these scandals over the years.  As a way of protecting their brand, the industry has set up many networks to keep bad press from leaking out into the public.  We have heard this before with regards to keeping an entertainer’s sexual orientation hidden to the public, as well as details about celebrities sometimes rocky marital problems as well.  But, now we are learning about how accusations of sexual abuse and harassment have been kept from the public as well.  And this withholding of public attention is what is angering most people outside of Hollywood right now because it’s making the industry look like it’s only in the business of protecting it’s own.  As scandals like Watergate and Penn State have proven to show, actively trying to cover up a crime is criminal within itself.  Sure, Hollywood hates being labeled a moral abyss by right wing and religious groups, but suppressing victims stories to perpetuate an image of purity only opens you up even more to such claims.  This was particularly problematic in Kevin Spacey’s case with his desperate attempt to change the narrative by proclaiming his homosexuality to the world.  For one thing, the fact that he’s gay was not the thing that the accusations against him were targeting too, and second, his pitiful excuse to use his sexuality as a shield against being labeled a child molester only gives credence to the argument that is unfairly aimed at homosexuals by right wing hate mongers.  And as a gay man myself, I found Spacey’s actions particularly despicable and it sickens me that he would think that this was his “get out of jail free” card to play to save his own skin.  I wish you nothing but the worst going forward Mr. Spacey; you’re selfishness has caused a lot of pain for those of us in your community.  But if Hollywood is so image conscious, don’t they realize that it would do them a lot better to expose the truth rather than hide it.

Most of the anger leveled at Hollywood these days is because of the fact that many people knew about this abuse and did nothing.  Sure, a lot of people didn’t know the whole truth and act without being sure, but the thing that needed to change in the industry is the realization that it’s not all just rumors.  Victims need to be taken seriously, especially when they come forward the first time.  You’ve got to remember, people in power like Weinstein and Spacey have deep pockets and can have their legal teams pick apart anyone’s stories to make it look like the victims are not being truthful and have ulterior motives.  In some cases, that may be true, but when a victim’s story is concrete enough to withstand the scrutiny, justice will be done.  For Spacey, it took only one convincing accusation to open the door for many others, and it has pieced together a history of obscene behavior that went long unaccounted for.  Hollywood must also understand that people who abuse their positions in this way shouldn’t continue to be rewarded.  If you want to show that you take this issue seriously, than you need to stop making excuses for people you know to have been doing something wrong or illegal, no matter how talented they are.  It’s true, some great art has been made by terrible people; something which I discussed in a previous article.  But appreciation of art should never turn into a defense of a person, and if someone has done something criminal, they should absolutely be shunned by the community.  I think Hollywood would be well served by not rewarding people like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, who seem to have been given a pass despite provable evidence of their awful histories.  It won’t take away from the brilliance of Chinatown (1974) or Annie Hall (1977).  Movies, as well as all art, outlast the mortal lives of their creators, and we can still appreciate them outside of the scandals.  In the end, Hollywood just needs to show some commitment to showing that they indeed are a caring community and not one that only protects those with established power.

You see scandals like these erupt every now and then and it’s clear that a failure to do anything usually comes about from an organization or community’s reluctance to expose it’s dirty laundry for the world to see.  Perhaps many in Hollywood saw these as isolated incidents that were not worth casting too much light on, in fear of characterizing their whole community as being morally depraved.  But what was not being dealt with was the larger problem of bad behavior being overlook and somehow seen as desirable within the community.  Forceful men have often been misread as productive types within the community, and oftentimes they are given advancement based on their ability to bully their way towards success.  That certainly seemed to be the case with a producer like Harvey Weinstein, who despite his skills as a producer has been revealed to be a deceitful and dangerous human being.  The one thing a person in the film industry shouldn’t have is the power to hold a less fortunate person’s career path in their hands and not face any consequences for their abuse.  The good thing about all this is that these types of alpha male bullying and obscene behavior is now being exposed for the ugliness that it really is.  People in Hollywood need to know now, silence is no longer acceptable with regards to the misdeeds within their community.  It doesn’t matter if you respect the person for their work, or admire the art they create; if there is truth to hurtful things they have done to someone else, there has to be consequences.  And exposing misdeed in the community will not shatter the image forever.  The Catholic Church had the most horrific claims of child abuse laid against them, and yet after it coming to light, the church has endured and now has a Pope that’s taken steps towards reconciliation with the victims and is considered one of the most enlightened and compassionate that we’ve ever seen.  Penn State faced the embarrassment of child molestation within it’s organization and saw several years of victories wiped out of the record books, but after the dust has settled, they regrouped and are now an elite team once again.  Hollywood will always be the dream factory that we’ve always believed it to be, and holding terrible men and woman accountable for their years of abuse and intimidation will be the best step towards keeping it that way.  Today we are finally seeing some action taken against the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, and many more will follow.  It’s an ugly reality punch for Hollywood, but one that can start us down the road towards healing.

Thor: Ragnarok – Review

Since it’s start in 2008 with the release of Iron Man, Marvel Studio’s bold Cinematic Universe plan has had to endure many years of cinematic scrutiny in order to get where to the place they are at right now.  Devoting multiple films from multiple franchise all towards a singular goal ahead in the form of the the sweeping Infinity War saga is a remarkable example of one studio’s incredible discipline and commitment to doing something never done before on the big screen. And yet, to undertake such a goal, they have had to weather changing tastes in the market, as well as competition from like-minded producers, and also the very high risk of audience fatigue the further they go along with their plan.  But, Marvel has managed to weather the storms and has moved towards their larger ambitions with very little interference.  Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (the MCU) not only is still going strong 10 years after it’s launch, they seem to also show no signs of slowing down.  While there have been some hiccups (mostly on the television side), the great majority of their film output has been both financially and critically successful.  Even when it looked like the bottom was going to fall out from under them, such as with the troubled production of Ant-Man (2015), they still managed to do just fine.  And the reason for this enduring success is mainly due to Marvel’s very special ability to refocus their larger plans to a changing market.  While all their plans are still working toward the same goal, their tactics have managed to allow them to fix things internally that didn’t work well the first time and improve them for every next chapter.  You can especially see this in the way that they have changed their franchises tonally over the years, with some growing darker and grittier while others grow lighter and sillier, all suiting the needs of their natural progression.  And no where have we seen that more than within the franchise of the god of thunder himself, Thor.

Of all the Marvel properties to make it to the big screen, Thor may have been the trickiest one.  For one thing, he’s the only character within the Marvel universe whose origins don’t come from the comics themselves.  He is of course a figure out of Norse mythology, dating back centuries.  To do a film about Thor means that you have to take into account his background in legend and importance to Nordic culture.  At the same time, Marvel has taken the mythic figure and worked him into several decades of their own ongoing stories.  There’s the legend of myth and the comic book superhero, and both have to merge together into one character that audiences can identify with and root for.  Despite the challenges, Marvel managed to find a way to make Thor not only a viable on-screen character, but also make him a vital part of their Cinematic Universe.  A large part of their success with the character certainly has to do with the excellent casting of Australian actor Chris Hemsworth in the role, as he’s done a fantastic job of finding the humanity and soul underneath the myth.  The franchise also benefited from an assured foundation built upon the direction of the first film by Kenneth Branagh.  Branagh brought his Shakespearean sensibilities into the Marvel comic adaptation and managed to bridge both myth and comic legend together in a beautiful operatic package with his 2011 film.  In particular, he found the driving force for the drama in the dynamic relationship between Thor and his deceitful brother Loki, which has been a factor that has shaped much of the MCU so far.  But, there have been many critics that have found the Thor franchise to be the most staid of the MCU, because of it’s at times melodramatic tone.  This was especially the case surrounding the serviceable, but unremarkable sequel Thor: The Dark World (2013).  If any Marvel franchise needed to change with the times, Thor certainly look like the one.  Thus we have a third entry in the series that seems to shake up the Thor franchise completely called Thor: Ragnarok.  But is it a change in the franchise for the better or is it too much of a heel turn that spoils what came before?

Where the movie begins makes more sense if you’re familiar with the MCU as a whole.  We first find Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in the underworld battling a demon known as Surtur, who reveals that he is destined to destroy Thor’s home world, Asgard, in a cataclysmic event known as Ragnarok.  Thor bests the demon and returns home, only to find his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in charge under the guise of their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins).  Thor demands that Loki reveal where he’s hiding their father, which leads them back to Earth where they find him in Norway.  Odin, it turns out, is dying and with his last moments he reveals to his sons that they have a sister named Hela (Cate Blanchett), whom Odin has hidden away for fear of her dark ambitions and ruthlessness.  After Odin perishes, the self-proclaimed Goddess of Death emerges from her prison and promptly chases after her brothers.  Thor and Loki end up getting sidetracked as they fall out of the Bifrost portal, leaving Hela uncontested as she returns to savagely reclaim her throne in Asgard.  On Asgard, Hela enlists the help of a disgruntled former warrior of Odin’s army named Skurge (Karl Urban), and with him by her side, she lays waste to all who stands in her way, with only the loyal gatekeeper, Heimdall (Idris Elba) left to save who’s left.  Thor meanwhile ends up in a trash heap of a planet known as Sakaar, which is ruled by a gladiatorial games loving overlord named the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum).  Thor is trapped and taken in shackles to the Grandmaster’s palace by a strong-willed warrior named Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), where the Grandmaster chooses him as the next challenger for his beloved champion.  When Thor enters the arena, he discovers that the Champion that he is about to face is none other than the long missing Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who is undefeated in the arena.  After finding his “friend from work,” Thor seeks to find a way out of Sakaar and back home to defeat Hela, which proves to be a bigger test than he realizes.

The first thing that you will realize upon watching this movie is how much of a tonal whiplash it will be compared to the previous Thor movies.  Thor: Ragnarok dispenses with the somber and operatic tones of the first two movies and instead embraces the weird and campy side of the character and his world.  More than any of the previous Thor movies, Ragnarok is the comic book part of Thor’s legend come to life.  We no longer see here an attempt to take the mythology of the character any more seriously, and instead bring him fully into what Marvel has turned him into.  The movie is also, without a doubt, way more of a comedy than the last two films, both of which used their comedic bits sparingly.  And, for the most part, it’s a complete makeover for the franchise that not only works, but was pretty much essential.  Like I was saying before, Marvel has survived through the years by adapting their stories and characters while still working towards the same goal, and Ragnarok is the perfect example of how to do that right.  They recognized that Thor’s story was being somewhat limited by it’s more somber tone, so they looked at what did work with the character and put a whole lot more emphasis on it.  When you look at the best moments with Thor, from both his franchise and the Avengers movies, you can see that his strengths were in his goofy, misplaced machismo, which often led to hilarious moments of humility for the mythic hero.  Here, the movie plays up his mischievous side a lot more, allowing us to enjoy a lot more of the things we love about the character.  The movie is also unafraid to be a lot more self-aware in it’s campiness, which is something that was definitely influenced greatly by director Taika Waititi, whose other films What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) also had that side of campy fun.  And yet, with all the tonal changes, the movie still manages to feel like a natural progression of what has come before, and that’s largely thanks to the fact that the film’s whole theme is centered around change, and how the old way of doing things will no longer work, leading for new directions and possibilities to open up.

There were funny moments in the previous films, but they were sporadically placed throughout and were more or less tied to Thor’s often “fish out of water” placement in the story.  But, after several years of this, it’s clear that Thor is no longer an outsider type of character, but instead a man of two worlds, comfortable in both.  So, with that in mind, director Waititi knew that the source of humor in his movie no longer needed to be centered around his main character, but instead around the world itself.  In this movie, it’s clear that Waititi wants to lampoon everything about Thor (his character, his story) while at the same time maintaining a sense of appreciation that honors the character’s legacy.  That’s why this movie has such a playful sense of humor to it, with no opportunity to make a joke wasted.  There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, especially those involving Thor and Hulk together, and it is a refreshing change of pace for the series overall.  However, the one negative that I can say about the wall-to-wall humorous tone is that it exists in detriment to the overall narrative.  While I was having a great time watching the movie and laughing at it’s most hilarious moments, I could still feel while watching it that there was something lacking in the plot itself.  In particular, I feel that the comedy in the film undermined the menacing aspect of the villain Hela in the film.  The thing is, Hela could have become one of Marvel’s all time greatest villains, and she certainly feels like it at times in the movie, with Cate Blanchett delivering a magnificent performance.  But, she is barely in the movie at all, disappearing for large stretches of screen-time.  I can see that Waititi wanted to maximize his comedic and action-filled moments, but by doing so, this iconic comic villain unfortunately gets diminished.  I wanted to know more about her apart from some rushed exposition and for her to truly let her wrath go wild.  But, while the movie mostly lands it’s laughs, I felt that it still left some things off the table that could have solidified it as one of Marvel’s greats.

There is still plenty to appreciate though.  The cast in particular are all uniformly excellent here.  Both Marvel and Taika Waititi made the wise choice to ground this movie firmly within Thor’s world, allowing more free range for all the actors to embrace their more campy instincts.  Hemsworth, as always, perfectly embodies the character of Thor, and this movie allows him more than ever to show his range; especially his knack for comedy.  This is a very relaxed version of Thor, laying far more into his charisma than into his ability to look strong while fighting.  You can also see the maturity that has seeped into his performance, as he clearly shows the way that living on earth among mortals has left an impact on him.  Tom Hiddleston likewise shows new layers for Loki here, showing how his character has gone through a transformation over the years, going from power hungry to uncertain and aimless under different circumstances.  And, I also have to point out that this is by far the best Hulk that we’ve seen in any movie to date, with the green guy getting a lot more character development than we’ve seen before.  We even see a playful side to him, which is especially uncharacteristic based on all his other appearances, yet still very much welcome.  The newest editions to the cast are also welcome.  Cate Blanchett makes the most of her sadly all too brief screen-time, clearly relishing the part she’s playing.  Tessa Thompson also makes Valkyrie a well-developed and interesting heroine; something that I have to say was severely lacking in this series up to now.  However, my absolute favorite character in the movie is the Grandmaster, with Jeff Goldblum owning every second of screen-time that he has.  It’s a perfect match of actor and character and the movie came to life every time he appears.  It’s clear that the Waititi intentionally had Goldblum just play himself throughout the movie, making the actor’s distinct personality be what defines the character, and it totally works.  If anything, the movie is worth seeing just for this character alone (and stay to the end of the credits to see even more of him).

Another great thing about this movie, in addition to the changed tone, is the visual aesthetic.  Kenneth Branagh’s original Thor had a bold look of it’s own, but it was grounded far more in the realm of fantasy and folklore, with Asgard looking as ornate and grandiose as something that you would see in any Lord of the Rings film.  Ragnarok owes a fair share of it’s visual style to the fantasy and sci-fi films of the 1980’s.  You can really feel the finger prints of movies like Flash Gordan (1980) and Masters of the Universe (1987) all over this movie.  I’ve heard other people call this movie a Heavy Metal album cover come to life, which is a comparison that’s not without merit, given the heavy Frank Frazetta feel of it all.  But, the movie’s visuals have a more comic book basis, especially in the moments on Sakaar, and that’s from the artwork of Marvel’s own Jack Kirby.  Kirby’s colorful style, which defined the publisher for many years, with it’s bold color schemes and dramatic compositions are clearly an inspiration for the colorful world of Sakaar, which is by far the most comic book-ish world that we’ve ever seen in any superhero film to date.  It’s remarkable to think that it’s taken Marvel this long to actually find a way to put Kirby’s distinctive style somewhere into the MCU, so thank goodness this film finally allowed the opportunity to happen.  The movie’s film score, provided by Mark Motherbaugh of Devo fame, also is a wonderful throwback to an 80’s style, using a heavy dose of synth rock to the orchestral music.  Clearly the movie knows that this is a heavy metal rock album come to life, so why not sound like it.  At the same time, it still feels within character of the franchise, as it fits the Nordic god of thunder quite well, both in the commanding way and the tongue-in-cheek way.  Led Zepplin’s “Immigrant Song” which was used to sell the movie in the trailers also makes an appearance in the film’s score, once again, fitting well with Thor’s character.  Both sonically and visually, this is a pleasing experience and without a doubt gives this franchise more of an identity than we’ve ever seen before; one that I hope they continue to use well into the future.

So, as far as Marvel Cinematic Universe movies go, this is an admirable change of pace for a character that needed it, that unfortunately falls short of the stellar heights that the studio has reached in the past.  But, as an entry within it’s own franchise, I can safely say that Thor: Ragnarok is the best Thor movie to date.  It finally feels like the franchise has found it’s identity, and they did so by fully embracing it’s cheesier elements.  I really appreciated the fact that it found the humor within it’s over-the-top world and is not afraid to drawing attention to it’s sillier aspects.  The first two films served their purposes in establishing the character, but this movie allows Thor, the comic book super hero, to finally emerge and be what he was always meant to be.  He’s no longer shackled by the legacy of his past, but is now instead a warrior whose story is yet to be fully written, and that’s a promising future for this character.  I just wish that this tonal change didn’t undermine some of the things in the story that still needed to be grounded, like the villainous Hela, who could have been given a more definitive role in this film and the MCU as a whole.  Still, the movie works for the most part, especially as a change of course for the franchise moving forward.  It’s interesting that it’s take the exact opposite direction as the Captain America franchise, as that one started off sillier and more colorful with The First Avenger (2011) and has since gone darker with The Winter Soldier (2014) and Civil War (2016).  But, like with Captain, Thor’s transition as a character is well reflected in the direction of the franchise and I’m glad to see both embracing the right tones as they have gone along.  Both represent the incredible ability of Marvel to make the right changes while at the same time not losing their focus on the big picture.  It’s going to be interesting to see how everything ties together by the time we get to Infinity War next year.  Ragnarok, in it’s literal translation, means the end of all things, but as we see with this new Thor movie, an end leads to new beginnings and that’s what I hope ends up being the ultimate result of this film.  Thor’s story has ended one chapter, and is about to enter a whole new, and much crazier, next phase, one that I hope will be worth the ride.

Rating: 8.25/10