Double Feature: In "Thor: Ragnarok" & "Happy Death Day", What's Faded Is Shiny Again
If you were to tell me a year ago that a third Thor movie and a slasher teen comedy titled Happy Death Day would make a perfect double feature, I would've looked at you like you were speaking Martian.
But it's true. Thor: Ragnarok and Happy Death Day are larks that are unafraid to celebrate the more absurd aspects of their genres. Their leads also share a similarity in that they consciously chafe against their impossible beauty with a wry twinkle in their eye and hilarious self-deprecation. When actors are in perfect harmony with the material, it's its own rare sort of joy.
Taika Waititi, the New Zealand funny man who directed What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, saturates the seriously titled Thor: Ragnarok with his signature deadpan irreverence and sly wit. And, hell, why not? The shakespearean warring brothers angle didn't develop after Thor and the unremarkable network television direction in Thor: The Dark World ensured the mighty Marvel machine kept chugging along but had no distinctive feel to it.
Ragnarok might refer to the final destruction of the world in Nordic mythology, but with destruction, there's a chance to begin anew.
So yes, Thor: Ragnarok is an appealing facelift for the Avenger who's often been saddled with the weakest solo Marvel films. Ragnarok finds new avenues for Thor where it can. His flowing blond locks are scissored down to a modern 'do that an MMA fighter might rock. His magical hammer is crushed to pieces early on. And his new funky, jock-y 'tude, in lieu of his usual pompous dignity, is appropriate for a thunder god adventurer who traverses the galaxy in search of epic quests. Chris Hemsworth, who showed hints of his comedic potential in the previous Thor and Avenger flicks, is unleashed here in all his self-mocking macho glory and he's clearly having the time of his life. You can't help but get swept away in his joyous tide. Who would've thought Thor could be so electrifying without that hammer?
Although there's still the requisite big bad (Hela, the Goddess of Death) who thirsts for dominance, this time played by a gothic Cate Blanchett, Thor: Ragnarok is structured in such a way that favours tangents and diversion; it's a shrewd film that knows where its bread is buttered. And yet all those weird tangents still manage to pay off quite beautifully in the third act in between the pixelated crashes and bangs and other loud noises.
A good chunk of the film sees Thor and his mischievous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) stranded on a junkyard planet ruled by an eccentric dictator, The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum at his Jeff Goldblum-iest: dryly sadistic and dapper). The design of the junkyard planet is gorgeous; it looks like an entire city built from the discards of an old amusement arcade. It's a fitting design too, as its the place where Thor: Ragnarok luxuriates in its most off-beat comedy and weird characters. As advertised, The Hulk and Thor face off in a gladiatorial contest of champions, but that isn't even the best part of their friendship in this flick. “A couple of hot-headed fools” indeed.
Every so often Ragnarok will cut back to Hela strutting in Asgard and it's like a blander director has taken the reigns during these obligatory scenes; Asgard has never felt quite lived-in and fully realised. In this way, Ragnarok is keeping in tradition.
While Thor: Ragnarok is a markedly different kind of film from the previous two, it rounds out the story that began in the first flick in a neat, touching way. Much like the other Marvel films, the ending is an abrupt pause before the next exciting thing. Is that frustrating? Sure. But bring on the next exciting thing.
From Blumhouse productions, which funded other low budget horror projects such as Insidious and Paranormal Activity, Happy Death Day is a slasher flick that oozes charm, humour and surprisingly little blood and gore. It's like Mean Girls meets Scream meets Groundhog Day. By that combination alone you know if you're in or not. There's not much more to it than that. Full disclosure, I'm a cheap date for such a combination.
Jessica Rothe plays a sorority girl, Tree, who's cutting contempt for everyone and everything will either get on your nerves or make you laugh. Lest we all despise her too much, she's fatally shot, stabbed, run over, or bludgeoned to death every day by a mysterious masked stalker (the mask is a weird pig baby face with a single tooth – freaky) She wakes up to repeat the day all over again after her gruesome murder. Each morning Tree wakes up more and more frazzled and neurotic, desperate to find her killer and escape the monotonous cycle. The only problem is that she's such an asshole that it begs the question: Who doesn't want her dead?
Much like in Thor: Ragnarok, Happy Death Day's unoriginal conceit is bolstered by a self-aware and dynamically modulated performance from its lead. Rothe is naturally hilarious, imbuing her icy mean girl character with enough verve and heat to make her feel three dimensional. And that kind of full-throttle commitment to a role makes the more emotionally charged scenes, which don't work on paper, actually resonant. Also like Thor, it's unafraid of absurdity yet it never devolves into an embarrassing parody parade.
The aesthetic bears mentioning too. The sun-shiny and primary colour design, combined with a consistent rollout of radio friendly pop songs, ensures that even when Happy Death Day motions through the predictable beats of fall, redemption and victory, it's as bracing as an afternoon sea breeze.
Thor: Ragnarok and Happy Death Day are poppy flicks. Examine them too closely and they'll evaporate in your hands; their grace is derived from lightness and modesty. In two genres often leaden with sadism and self-seriousness, these two stand out as kooky gems.