Thor (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

It was time someone took the piss out of the MCU. Just as well Marvel decided to do it for themselves. The result is a hoot.

Finding gainful employment for the universe’s dumbest superhero is no joke, but in a welter of visual and verbal gags the studio celebrates his stupidity. I was laughing from the outset and I didn’t stop and from the mad recaps to the giant goats, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) treating his weapons as if they had the power to upset him, his ignorance of the devastation he wreaks, and non-PC references to orgies and the size of his manhood, the inevitable Marvel save-the-world plot takes second place to humor.

Asgard has been turned into a tourist attraction, terrible actors perform sagas in tacky productions to entertain visitors, until Gorr (Christian Bale) the god-killer, having been allocated in normal mysterious fashion and in Excalibur-style the Necrosword, comes calling, kidnapping children, packing them off to the Shadow Realm as a means of luring Thor. Fortunately, lost love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), unfortunately dying of cancer, reappears in his life, though, on the debit side, she steals his hammer, causing him to turn to his axe. There’s hammer hocus-pocus, the usual lengthy daft exposition, but that’s offset by Thor, sensitive soul that he is, feeling he has to woo the discarded axe.

Also recruited are Asgard king Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and stone-man Korg. First port of call, naturally, is Omnipotence City where all the top gods hang out, including Zeus (Russell Crowe), the top god of all. Unwilling to help them out when there are delectable maidens hanging on his every word and orgies to enjoy, Zeus foolishly picks a fight and loses his lightning bolt.

But that’s enough of the madcap fun. Now it gets serious in the usual annoying way, redemption and its alter-ego sacrifice required at every turn, as you try to keep up with the new ideas suddenly introduced, the Bifrost and Eternity, and have to remind yourself of the rules regarding the axe and sword and the various pitfalls awaiting the characters. But the first half has given the movie sufficient energy to woosh you through the second half.

I’m not sure of The Avengers recruitment policy and how Thor ever fitted in and it’s just as well his cohorts in this adventure, part of the way at least, are the equally demented Guardians of the Galaxy phalanx led by the vain and vainglorious Star Lord (Chris Pratt). I always felt the rest of the MCU mob, albeit they occasionally deliver a good quip or two, were just too serious a bunch, what with all the saving-the-universe-and-beyond malarkey whereas Thor and Star Lord are blood brothers, daft specimens, useless at romance and anything serious, good for nothing except a good scrap.

There are a whole bunch of stand-out comic scenes – Thor looking to Star Lord of all people for advice on matters of the heart, the goats leading the space craft crash-landing into a planet. Admittedly, excepting the serious bits at the end, this is far more light-hearted than anything else in the MCU and thankfully sticking to the one universe rather than the multi-universe departures of late.

Chris Hemsworth (Thor: Ragnarok, 2017) as usual is superb, just the right bombast and imbecility coupled with vulnerability and sweetness, his clipped delivery at odds with his befuddlement, his eve-of-battle speeches would have Churchill turning in his grave. But Russell Crowe (Unhinged, 2020), with his mangled Greek accent, matches him in the dumb stakes. Natalie Portman (Lucy in the Sky, 2019) makes a welcome return and Tessa Thompson (Passing, 2021) proves a good side-kick to both. Christian Bale (Ford vs. Ferrari, 2019) bring his malevolent A-game as a memorable villain. Watch out for cameos from Matt Damon (The Last Duel, 2021), Melissa McCarthy (Superintelligence, 2020), Luke Hemsworth (Death of Me, 2020) and Sam Neill (Jurassic World: Dominion, 2022).

Director Taika Waitiki (Thor: Ragnarok , who also voices Korg, does a quite brilliant job of combining action and comedy. He also takes credit for the screenplay along with Jennifer Kaytin Robinson (Unpregnant, 2020).

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

While sharing similarities to Black Widow with family to the fore, warring siblings,  understated love interest and greater emphasis on character than action, this is a bolder origin story.  Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), living as a car valet driver in America under the pseudonym Shaun, is drawn home by his father Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), who gave up global domination for love. Shang-Chi is somewhat surprised to discover that the mother he believed dead is instead being held prisoner.

Family reunion is complicated by the fact that Shang-Chi shamed his father and abandoned his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). Shang-Chi’s not-quite-girlfriend Katy (Awkwafina), when not aiding exposition, mostly provides comic relief until superceded in that department by  wacky thespian Trevor (Ben Kingsley). As the story picks up it also drops back to explain the family dynamics but without losing any tension. On paper the tale sounds a tad overcomplicated but it works like a dream on screen and we only really enter Marvel territory filled with mythical Chinese creatures in the last reel. So on the one hand it works as an interesting drama while on the other delivers innovative bang for your buck.

There’s a brilliant sequence on a runaway bus in San Francisco, Shang-Chi battling a group of thugs led by the appropriately-named Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) while Katy tries to control the vehicle. Then there’s a terrific battle on skyscraper scaffolding. Throw into the mix a drive through a terrifying forest and a return to their mother’s village to confront the evil that threatens the world. And in keeping with Marvel dynamics pendants that hold the secret of finding the hidden village.

The set-up is particularly well-done with clever twists to audience expectations, what appear at first to be expository voice-overs turning into conversations, the undefined Shang-Chi/Katy relationship causing grief among parents and friends, their driving skills put to superb use in the plot, while the father’s backstory, lust for power being assuaged by love, is not given short shrift. The story more than toys with the audience in other ways, setting up different expectations which prove unfounded.

All the main characters have great story arcs –  Xu Wenwu from ruthless villain to romantic softy and back to ruthless when training his son, Shang-Chi from apparent waster to unwillingly accepting a different path, Xialing the girl who had to learn skills her father refused to teach her, and, her driving apart, Katy from mere observer in action scenes to participant.

Primarily a television actor and stuntman Simu Liu makes massive impact in the leading role, adding a fresh face to the MCU. Asian superstar Tony Leung (Infernal Affairs, 2003) makes a comfortable leap into the Hollywood big time. The relatively unknown Meng’er Zhang (In the Mood for Love, 2019) comes up trumps and rapper Awkwafina (Jumanji: The Next Level, 2019) brings a welcome touch of normality to the proceedings. Look out for Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000), Florain Munteanu (Creed II) and Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange, 2016).  Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley almost steals the show.

Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy, 2019) does a brilliant job of marshalling not just the visuals but the drama and brings clarity to the storyline. Special mention to an unusual score by Joel P. West.

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