Many parallels attend the two latest outsized superhero movies from the two biggest brands, DC and Marvel: both Justice League and Thor: Ragnarok involve epic team-ups of familiar characters battling a big, horned-headed baddie; both feature excessive bodily flinging; both employed half the world's population as digital animators; both hired a weird New Wave bandleader as composer (Danny Elfman of Oingo Boingo for Justice League; Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo for Thor: Ragnarok); both are more amusing than abusive (whew); both resound with dubious accents; both feature a heroine of divine heritage who’s the best aspect of each movie (Gal Godot as Wonder Woman; Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie); both show off a beefcake grunge-rocker type oddly revising their character’s comic-book image (Jason Momoa's pecs, abs, and locks as Aquaman; Chris Hemsworth's pecs, abs, and locks as Thor); and both movies are huge, silly fun built for pre-holiday box office before the lightsabers, uh, decimate the competition.
Happily, I emerged liking DC’s Justice League -- which was far from guaranteed, given that I could only cherry-pick a few enjoyable minutes collectively from the pompous Nolans, Snyders & Singer (Oh, my!) which preceded it. This time, the pairing of Zack Snyder (who started the project) and Joss Whedon (who finished it) seems to have canceled out both directors' irritating tendencies, the result being not too punishing, not too smartass, but just right. Blatant rave for marketing in 3, 2, 1: Justice League is the classic superhero movie we’ve been waiting for!
What transpires? An interstellar CG bully called Steppenwolf -- amazingly, for Snyder: no “Magic Carpet Ride” accompanies him -- and his nigh-infinite army of flying zombie jerkfaces strive to transform Earth (represented by a tiny corner of Russia) into their icky, absurdly-spelled planet, “Apokolips” (name not explicitly stated). The Batcave sucks (it’s a dull warehouse), and obviously the producers are saving Atlantis for their Aquaman movie — but the rest of Justice League is a big, zany romp. Any plot logic emerges from a childlike sense of “just because,” and as the stakes are absurd, this lighthearted consistency proves pleasing if you roll with it. This goes especially for resurrecting Superman, which makes no sense but kinda rocks. Thus far the most adequate stand-in for Christopher Reeve, the British guy playing this quintessential American icon finally stops pouting! Oh, and fair’s fair: we're overdue an American James Bond and Doctor Who.
The plot of Super Friends — oops! — Justice League is less important than its tone and the chemistry of its leads, these qualities lending the jam-packed two-hour movie a sense of delight missing for a generation from the DC cinematic universe. Our heroine and heroes battle valiantly, but they also ponder, crack wise, and struggle together in a splashy way that perfectly fits the material. Wonder Woman mixes it up with brooding Batman (almost inoffensive Ben Affleck), sensitive Cyborg (solid Ray Fisher), flippant Flash (Ezra Miller playing OCD or something), and arrogant Aquaman (Jason Momoa, that little wussy). From the genuine despair of a homeless person’s cardboard sign reading, “I TRIED,” to dusty old Dostoyevsky finally being used as a joke, there’s actually some thought behind the heroic hijinx. Plus it’s a blast to behold.
Vaulting along after her successful standalone film earlier this year, Wonder Woman (Godot) focuses this show, being not merely another “badass” (yawn), but radiating wit, charm, and hope. My fave sequence comes early, as she foils terrorists and saves many hostages -- bracelets blazing. This crucial image of a woman stopping cold that hideously familiar hatred and violence is a massive metaphor for our times, and I had real tears in my eyes, loving what I observed. Brava.
Thor: Ragnarok sees Justice League's enjoyable but safe bid and ponies up considerably more mayhem. The third movie in the MCU's Thor series (following Thor: Down and Out in New Mexico; and Thor: A Very Surly Sequel), this entry proves pleasingly ostentatious: the loud party guest who won't shut up but actually entertains until, like, 10:30. Basically, Thor: Ragnarok is a one-stop, all-you-can-eat buffet of superhero extravaganza, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Mad Max -- designed for consumers averse to sitting through separate movies.
As with Justice League, stuff in Thor: Ragnarok happens because it happens. The movie opens with a thrilling, Led-Zep-infused -- and funny! -- scene of Thor battling a cross between the Balrog and Steppenwolf, then it's off to Asgard to discover that his tricksy brother Loki (a bucket of pancake makeup concealing Tom Hiddleston) has displaced Odin-Wan Kenobi (Anthony Hopkins). Enter previously undeclared evil older sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett vamping as the Anti-Galadriel), and for some reason she wants to destroy Valhalla before Heimdall (Idris Elba, briefly) can lead its diaspora to Helm's Deep or whatever. The plot technically works, but really it's a platform for the movie's constant stream of rejoinders. You also get one masturbation joke (“Pulled off?!”), one orgy joke (“Don't touch anything”), and Hulk nudity -- in a Disney movie. Naughty!
The puzzling thing about Thor: Ragnarok is that, despite a few darkly epic shots, it sustains an incongruously chipper tone for a movie about the end of the world. Half the movie takes place on a lavishly-detailed garbage-dump planet where a lascivious Liberace (Jeff Goldblum) holds gladiatorial contests because -- why? Who cares! Blatantly using Mike Hodges' 1980 masterpiece Flash Gordon as its template, then aggressively competing against it for sheer scale and hyper-jollification -- as against the aforementioned series -- this crazy monstrosity delivers. I'd call it — hello, publicists — the best, most-rockin’ movie in the MCU thus far!
Who are the champions? Well, I invited a friend to Justice League, and he ended up paying, so that, and the movie's significantly improved tone over previous DCEU movies, make for real appreciation. Thor: Ragnarok could win on sheer audacity — but it also includes some truly ugly, typical-Hollywood gun-fetishizing, involving LotR-alum Karl Urban’s trademark scowl as he proudly shows off his automatic weapons (from “Tex-arse!”), which is so untimely, vulgar, and insensitive it almost ruins the movie. Both movies bring sensory overload in the third act, stuffing in elements we’ve already seen and heard — which left me slightly sleepy. But on the whole: both Exciting!, both Thrilling!, both Great fun! They both win! Participation trophies for everyone.