Review and Analysis – Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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I haven’t written about movies in over a year and a half, so please bear with me. I just couldn’t let a Star Wars movie pass without making an attempt. This first review section will be spoiler-free, while the second section will be spoiler-filled and have ample warning before you get to it.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a mess. It’s also highly enjoyable. It is satisfying. It is disappointing. It is lazy, pandering, and focus-grouped. It is emotional, heartfelt, and genuine. It honors the legacy and themes of the entire saga. It misunderstands what Star Wars is about. It is silly and dumb. It is a thought-provoking discussion-starter. It is unpredictable. It is so predictable. It wastes characters. It gives characters the opportunity to shine. It answers many questions. It wastes many opportunities. It is the safest Star Wars ever. It is the craziest Star Wars ever.
The best description of The Rise of Skywalker is one I’ve seen making the rounds quite a bit. It is “a lot.” I truly did enjoy it but I can’t honestly say it’s very good. One of the benefits to it simply being “a lot,” jam packed with plot and answers and action and humor and moments to cheer, is that there’s something for almost everyone to like. Conversely, there’s something to bother almost everyone. I feel like The Rise of Skywalker, and perhaps the sequel trilogy as a whole when people look back on it, will end up being a Rorschach test for how people feel about Star Wars and how they approach storytelling generally and the revival of beloved franchises specifically.
On the whole, though, I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker. It has humor and heart, it serves as a broadly satisfying close on the story of the Skywalkers, and it is generally fun. It has some of the best performances of this sequel trilogy, particularly from Daisy Ridley as Rey and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, while Anthony Daniels gets to shine as the inexhaustible C-3PO. JJ Abrams and company manage to do a good job crafting a final role for Leia from Carrie Fisher’s deleted scenes from The Force Awakens, and it would have felt wrong for her not to be there. There are moments in the film that made me cheer, made my heart swell, and brought tears to my eyes (an admittedly easy feat).
But I wouldn’t call The Rise of Skywalker a particularly great movie. The script from Abrams and Chris Terrio is riddled with coincidences, plot holes, unexplained important events, and occasionally flat dialogue. Rose has been relegated to a criminally minor supporting role, but even Poe and Finn (who had great arcs in The Last Jedi) are mostly misused. There are new characters like Naomi Ackie’s Jannah and Keri Russell’s Zorii Bliss who are nice additions but aren’t given much of a chance to make an impact in a script that is too stuffed to let things breathe. So much of the movie is devoted to action/plot or to the Rey/Kylo/Palpatine triangle that there’s hardly room for anything else.
The Rise of Skywalker has about 50% too much plot. It’s too obsessed with answering questions that didn’t need answering, and with throwing bones to fans who didn’t like The Last Jedi. It’s never openly antagonistic to Rian Johnson’s vastly superior film, but there’s enough of a course correction there to please fans who felt burned by the previous movie. It feels like it was constructed by committee who sent out surveys to fans on what they’d want to see from the final chapter and wrote the script based on the statistics of the responses. The result isn’t bad, per se, it’s just lazy and pandering, not to mention often extremely predictable.
My ultimate conclusion is that JJ Abrams is a great trailer director. What I mean by that is that he knows how to engage an audience from the start, and he has far less interest in the story as a whole or its conclusion. (And this is coming from someone who deeply loves Super 8.) The sequel trilogy suffers from not having a plan from the start, with Abrams doing his thing (like he did on Lost) getting the ball rolling and letting other people sort things out from there. It really illustrates the limits of “mystery box” storytelling, and I hope Lucasfilm finds a new method going forward. The trilogy was redeemed in my eyes by Rian Johnson’s middle chapter, and from that perspective The Rise of Skywalker is an enjoyable but only serviceable finale.
I’m sure my thoughts and feelings about this Episode 9 will change over time. I wasn’t particularly a fan of The Force Awakens when it first came out, and some things about it still bother me, but it’s grown on me over the last few years, largely due to the strength of the characters it created. I went into The Rise of Skywalker with lower expectations than I usually would for a Star Wars film, and came away generally pleased and entertained. My childhood wasn’t ruined, the sequel trilogy wasn’t ruined for me, and I’m eager for more Star Wars in the weeks, months, and years ahead. It’s still a mess, with some objectively bad mistakes and missteps as well as some things that just didn’t work for me personally, but I’m looking forward to watching it again. The last four years have brought us five Star Wars movies, ranging from spectacular to just fine, and if this is the way this period ends I’m ok with that.
B+
 
***Spoilers Below***
 
So Rey is a Palpatine. It was one of the popular theories, and one that seemed more and more likely to me once it was announced that Palpatine would return for TROS. (Even if I originally assumed she was Luke’s daughter after TFA.) Generally, I’m ok with her being a Palpatine even if it wasn’t what I would have preferred. I liked the idea from TLJ that she really was a nobody, and the idea that you don’t have to come from some famous background to be a hero or be important. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for the more broad idea that you’re not defined by your background, and your name or your parents are not responsible for your legacy. Rey is able to set aside her shameful family name and her evil grandfather and choose a family and a name that has more meaning to her. Star Wars has always been about the families you create being more important than those you’re born with, so in that sense it fits thematically.
Rey’s struggle throughout the trilogy has been about identity. First she defined herself solely by the parents she was waiting for and the longing she had for a family that wanted her. She learned to stop waiting for that family and went looking for “someone to show me my place” in TLJ. But she eventually learned that she alone was enough, and she didn’t need to be defined by a family she had waited for that would never come back. In ROTS she learns she’s a Palpatine and that her parents abandoned her for her own safety, which is kind of a cop out from TLJ’s claim that they sold her for drinking money, but both have enough truth to work with the “certain point of view” theme that is a constant through Star Wars. And I could totally see how choosing the Skywalker name could feel like a step backwards for many people, but I look at it as coming full circle for her, not waiting for someone to bring her meaning, and no longer feeling like she has to stand alone, she chooses to take the name of those who meant so much to her, to keep what they fought for alive in a way that is stronger than blood.
I appreciated the return to Tattooine as a fan, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense as a final resting place for the lightsabers from Rey’s perspective. Leia has no connection to the Lars homestead, but whatever. It’s symbolic more for the story than for the literal actions of the character. What I don’t understand is people claiming online that the scene means Rey is going to now live there? That doesn’t seem implied or stated by the scene at all. I guess it comes from the title of the track on the soundtrack, “A New Home,” but I think believing Rey is actually going to live there seems like a misreading of the character even in a movie as messy as TROS. I kind of hope that she took the kyber crystals from the two sabers and is using them in her new, yellow saber, though.
Then there’s Ben Solo. I haven’t been a fan of Kylo Ren at all. I thought he made for an interesting villain, but I wasn’t eager to see his redemption and I certainly didn’t ship him and Rey. But I very much enjoyed his arc in TROS, and especially Adam Driver’s performance. I appreciate that he was able to be redeemed as Ben Solo without an unrealistically happy ending after participating in the murder of billions with Starkiller Base. I don’t think I would have been able to buy that, though had he survived and gone into hiding to do atone in secret I could have accepted that too. There’s definitely some nice parallels to Anakin with Ben having the power to bring Rey back from death, and his sacrifice was a fitting end to the Skywalker line, a line of Jedi who came into being to balance out Palpatine’s rise and which ended with Palpatine’s fall. I can get on board with that. The scene with his memory of his father was an emotional, but predictable, surprise, and I especially love that his mother was the one to turn him and Rey back from the darkness. Driver really sold the transformation, and his wordless performance as Ben for the rest of the film was truly special.
I’ve admitted to not being a Reylo shipper, and I’m happy to admit that shipping has never been a particularly passionate thing to me in fandoms generally. I enjoy the anticipation of possible relationships, and I definitely have couples I ship, but I’m rarely too upset when things don’t work out. But I also recognize that as a man there is probably something significant I’m missing in Reylo, so I’m trying to do my part to listen to why some people are so upset. I know many women identify with Rey and were thrilled to have a character they could see themselves in in Star Wars. So I can see how it feels like a betrayal that the relationship between Rey and Ben ends in tragedy because it feels like the powers that be are saying to women that they simply can’t have it all. They can be heroes but they have to be alone. I don’t personally read the story that way, but I can definitely see how it would feel like that kind of statement and I have no interest in dismissing that pain or that interpretation. I believe and I hope that Rey goes on to a full and happy life with her friends Finn and Poe and Rose and the droids, finds love and happiness and family and gets to continue being a hero to the galaxy. I don’t think the film contradicts that vision, it just doesn’t take the opportunity to show that a woman can have it all, which is understandably like a betrayal to many.
Speaking of Finn and Poe, what a wasted opportunity for the two of them. There are racial implications to Poe’s backstory as a drug smuggler that I don’t feel qualified to address and which I admit didn’t occur to me until they were pointed out. After all of his growth in TLJ, he basically became Han Solo this time around. Finn had one great scene with Jannah about leaving the First Order, but that was most of his story, too. Apparently his secret for Rey is that he’s Force sensitive? I don’t have an issue with it, but it didn’t add anything to the film and felt kind of tacked on. Really, the biggest missed opportunity was for Finn and Poe to become a couple, which would have worked so well in the film’s finale, but I have no doubt the powers that be weren’t ready to go that bold. LGBTQ+ representation is extremely important, and it’s no small deal that TROS has the first onscreen same sex kiss for Star Wars. But how awesome would have been for Finn and Poe to kiss upon their reunion? That could have been Finn’s secret.
I don’t really know what to say about Palpatine being the puppet master this whole time. It seems like it was the easy decision for the production team to make to please fans and find a way to wrap up the trilogy where they clearly didn’t have a plan. I don’t particularly care that Snoke was grown in a vat, but I don’t have a problem with it either. I can accept Palpatine surviving the end of Return of the Jedi even if it’s inherently silly. It’s just… fine. The Palpatine stuff was the least interesting aspect of the film for me, and this is from someone who loves Palpatine in all of the Lucas films. He’s a fascinating character in the prequels and in ROTJ, but here he was just kind of cartoonish. He’s probably the only villain that would have felt big enough and provide enough of a threat to work with Rey and Ben’s story, so it’s fine from that standpoint, it just wasn’t super interesting to me.
I was kind of overwhelmed by the Jedi voices encouraging Rey, so I’ll have to pay closer attention on the next viewing, but I love that they brought in more than just the obvious ones from the films. Nice to hear Ahsoka and Kanan! As far as other cameos, it was nice to see the Ghost from Rebels and Wedge return in the finale (though right after Wedge lost his adopted son, Snap), and I’ll be curious to watch people dissect the footage as time goes on to see what other hidden gems are scattered among the fleet. I loved the “They’re not a navy, they’re just… people” line so much, and it was one of the most Star Wars lines in the film. The idea that “Rebellions are built on Hope” is one I cling to desperately, and I loved the idea in this film that villains win by making people feel alone.
There’s a lot of healthy debate going on about how much TROS was intended to undo TLJ, but a lot of that comes from having lived the fan backlash the last two years. It would be impossible for the experience of watching the movie not to be colored by everything that has happened. But for the most part I read a lot of the “corrections” as growth and development rather than antipathy towards TLJ. Things like Luke preventing Rey from destroying the lightsaber feel like Luke acknowledging his failures, something that feels very in tune with his character growth in TLJ and Yoda’s lesson for him. I choose not to buy into the theory that JJ and Rian hate each other and there’s some kind of war between them. That’s just silly to me, even if they have very different styles of filmmaking and storytelling.
In all, I’m curious to see how and if my feelings about The Rise of Skywalker change with time and repeat viewings. I know I won’t become more accepting of things like the sidelining of Rose or the flattening of Poe and Finn. But things like the overstuffed plot and the Palpatine stuff that I’m neutral on now could go either way. Could I go back in time I would have given this trilogy to a single director, or at least found someone with a singular vision for the sequels. I don’t begrudge anyone being disappointed or hurt, but for now I’m choosing to be positive. It doesn’t undo the things I found most meaningful in The Last Jedi, particularly Luke’s story. It gives Leia a loving ending and Carrie a beautiful sendoff. It leaves the door open for more adventures while putting a reasonably satisfying cap on the Skywalker Saga. And Rogue One still exists. I can be happy with this messy, pandering film for now, and maybe one day I’ll grow to love it.

Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

solo_a_star_wars_story_posterSolo: A Star Wars Story comes at a bit of a difficult time for Star Wars, although most of the franchise’s issues have been vastly blown out of proportion. All of the new films have been commercial and critical successes, grossing over a billion dollars each (with The Force Awakens becoming the 3rd-highest grossing film of all time) and have connected both with longtime fans as well as a new generation eager for their own Star Wars stories. But there have been bumps along the way for Disney, who took over the reins from George Lucas in 2012, magnified by a fanbase that is vocal and demanding, occasionally to the point of absurdity. There was an outcry when decades of Expanded Universe stories were struck from the canon, giving Lucasfilm and Disney a clean slate to start fresh with their own stories and timeline. The Force Awakens was an unprecedented smash, seemingly designed expressly to please longtime fans, but it had its detractors who complained that it was basically a rehash of A New Hope. Rogue One was likewise a hit, but stories of massive reshoots led to (untrue) rumors of a production troubled by interference from Disney, while some fans found the characters to be less compelling than the original heroes or the new trio from The Force Awakens. Then The Last Jedi dared to be different and bold, and critics responded with enthusiasm, but a vocal minority strongly objected to how the film handled Luke Skywalker and planned boycotts and sabotage of the film’s online ratings. The Star Wars fandom has never been more divided, and it has become impossible for the artists behind these films to please everyone.

Of course, that was never really possible, but the internet magnifies the voices of the angry while ignoring the voices of the masses who seem to have generally enjoyed everything they’ve been given so far. We live in an age where fandoms increasingly claim ownership of the things they love, and the expectation has grown that studios have an obligation to deliver exactly the film that each individual wants, just as they had always imagined it in their head, regardless of the fact that there are thousands of different viewpoints about the “correct” direction of the franchise. These people want to only focus on characters from the original trilogy, those people want to honor the prequels, others just want to see the new heroes. These people want family films, others want R-rated “adult” movies. These people want movies about the Force and the Jedi, others want to spend time in the world of bounty hunters and smugglers. Some want Old Republic movies, others want to fill the gaps between the prequels and the original trilogy, while more would rather see what happened after the fall of the Empire. Some want the movies to have a political side, the way George Lucas intended, while others take any instance of inclusive representation of women, people of color, or LGBT individuals as a “SJW” or “Feminazi” agenda from people who only want things to be “PC”. Star Wars is such a broad franchise, with so many diverse fans, that no movie will ever satisfy everyone. Yet everyone expects every movie to satisfy them personally. It’s a lose-lose situation.

All of this is to say that Solo: A Star Wars Story, much like Avengers: Infinity War, does not exist in a bubble, and it’s impossible to try to completely separate the film from the context in which it exists. Solo comes in with its own set of burdens that could potentially threaten its success alongside the current state of the film industry and the Star Wars fandom. Its production featured the departure of its original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, partway through filming over “creative differences”, leading to Ron Howard stepping in to finish the film, while early negative fan reactions to the film’s lead fueled rumors of acting coaches and major concerns by Disney. And then there’s the constant talk that “nobody asked for this,” that a film about Han Solo’s origins was not something people particularly desired to see. But my goal is always to take each movie at face value, judged not on everything that went on behind-the-scenes, or the prevailing winds of the current internet conversation, with the hope of enjoying it. The fact that Solo works pretty well is a testament to the creative forces behind it, as well as the guiding hands of producer Kathleen Kennedy, who has stuck to her guns as the president of Lucasfilm and who has a vision of the types of Star Wars movies she wants to see made. Solo is a fun adventure, filled with the action and humor we expect from Star Wars, punctuated by moments of connection that enrich these characters we know so well, and holding a few surprise cards up its sleeve. It may be the “safest” Star Wars movie yet, in that it is neither revolutionary nor particularly challenging, without as much to say as earlier films, but it’s an enjoyable ride that combines the new with the familiar in unexpected ways.

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Review: Avengers: Infinity War

avengers_infinity_war_posterIt’s tough to form an opinion on Avengers: Infinity War. As the culmination of 10 years and 18 movies of building the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s more of an event than a film, certainly the most anticipated movie of the year, and probably the most hyped since Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Everything has been building to this, a chance for all (or most) of the characters we’ve come to know and love so far to come together to face the villain that’s been teased since the first Avengers movie. Of course, we’ve been through this before in 2012, though on a smaller scale, with that first joining of Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor as Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, but things have grown so much since then. The scale of Infinity War is such that it’s easy to lose track of the fact that you’re still watching a movie, and a movie that just happens to be the first of two Avengers films a year apart which were filmed back-to-back. Occasionally, Infinity War forgets that, itself, getting lost to exposition or action that feels more like setup for the future rather than its own moviegoing experience. It hops from moment to moment with a feeling of inevitability, as though this was the predestined conclusion rather than a natural or organic culmination of everything that came before. But oh, those inevitable moments are still spectacular, thrilling, funny, and emotional, and when people look back on this Marvel Cinematic Universe experiment, Infinity War will be one of the defining pieces of the grand whole.

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Review: The Post

When I tell people that my favorite director is Steven Spielberg, I tend to get a lot of eye rolls from fellow movie buffs. He’s considered too popular or mainstream, he plays it too safe and isn’t edgy or artistic enough, he’s too sentimental and melodramatic, his only interest is in spectacle, etc. Cinephiles love to hate on the man who is probably the most successful (critically and commercially) filmmaker of the last fifty years, and are often quick to point out alternative artists who they feel has a similar career but does everything better (Christopher Nolan frequently pops up in these discussions). But from now on when anyone brings up these hackneyed Spielberg criticisms I will simply point them to one scene from The Post and ask them to show me another filmmaker who could make that scene any better.

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Review: The Greatest Showman

I’ve always loved the phrase “more than the sum of its parts,” particularly when it comes to film. Like any view on movies it’s an entirely subjective opinion, but it’s a phrase I’ve been known to use. I appreciate the fact that it so easily communicates a quality that can be unique to film, that sometimes a movie rises above the potentially mediocre pieces from which it is assembled to become something more. We all have movies that feel this way to us, that have poor acting, an uninspired story, or other faults, yet still manages to capture our hearts. However, there is of course another side to this coin. Some movies have wonderful individual moments, whether great acting, an engaging story, or beautiful production design, yet they leave you feeling disappointed, as though they’re wasting the enjoyable bits. So despite loving much of The Greatest Showman, including its performances, many of its musical numbers, and its message, I was left feeling like it was less than the sum of its parts.

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Spoiler-Free Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the film that finally allowed me to be at peace with the new trilogy of Star Wars movies. There was a lot that I loved about The Force Awakens two years ago. I thought the new cast of characters were all compelling, particularly Rey and Finn. I enjoyed seeing the old favorites back, I appreciated the way it tried to honor the films that came before, and generally found it to be both a fun ride and an emotional experience. At the same time, there were a number of things in The Force Awakens that did not sit well with me, which ultimately served as distractions from the experience. I felt its tone was inconsistent and its humor occasionally felt forced or like it didn’t fit stylistically within the greater Star Wars saga. It occasionally felt too much like fan fiction (and I don’t mean that as a compliment), and it tried too hard to try to distance itself from the prequels. It also was far too much of a remake of A New Hope, which is not a huge deal for me the way it is for other people but which felt kind of lazy. Most of all, it bothered me that they were continuing the main series of films without George Lucas, and in fact intentionally disregarding any plans he might have had for them. I understand why they did it, but The Force Awakens did not justify these new uncharted waters they were sailing. (On the other hand, I 100% love Rogue One, even if its characters aren’t nearly as strong as those in The Force Awakens.)

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5 Things I Love about Moana

In an effort to cut through the backlog of movies left to review after everything that’s happened the last couple of years, I’m going back to movies I skipped and giving them each 5 Things. These can be things I loved, things I hated, or anything in between, they’re just 5 thoughts I had about the movie. Today I’m tackling Moana, one of my favorite movies of 2016, and probably my favorite Disney animated film since Tangled. I gave it an A+ in my movie log at the time I saw it, and I probably love it even more today than I did then. It’s gorgeous, has fantastic music, and characters I find immensely relatable and compelling. So without further ado, here are 5 Things I Love about Moana!

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Review: Geostorm

I’ve never liked the phrase “so bad, it’s good” when it comes to movies, even though I’ve used it myself. The truth is it can occasionally be the perfect description for a movie that is enjoyable not in spite of its badness but because of it. But I don’t subscribe to the notion of film quality as something quantitative that can be numerically measured, even though we all give grades to movies. I especially don’t think that there’s some hypothetical badness line where once you cross it a movie suddenly becomes good again. There are plenty of bad movies that I genuinely like, but also plenty of “equally” bad movies that are just torture to watch with no possibility of enjoyment whatsoever. But beyond this philosophical disagreement with the idea of a “so bad, it’s good” movie, I’m not a fan of movies that intentionally strive to be terrible with the hopes of crossing that imaginary barrier into the “so bad, it’s good” realm. The Sharknado series comes to mind, which works very hard to be bad in order to try to capture an audience that might be out there looking for the next sublime failure. That sort of thing holds no interest to me. “So bad, it’s good” movies are ultimately a very personal thing, just like all movies are. What I might love in an awful movie someone else might find insufferable, and simply having a bad story, bad acting, bad writing, or bad directing isn’t necessarily going to make something likable. Making a great, bad movie is much more difficult than that, but it also requires a very subjective reaction. So when I say that Geostorm is dumb, loud, clumsy, and ridiculous, know that it’s an objectively poor film. But when I also say that watching it was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had in a movie theater in many years, know also that I enjoyed it both because of its badness and because of my own personal preferences when it comes to bad entertainment.

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Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Everyone has their pop culture blind spots. Some people have never seen Star Wars or read Harry Potter or watched an episode of Seinfeld. (All of those are unforgivable and if they apply to you I demand that you take immediate steps to rectify the situation!… Just kidding… sort of.) One of mine is Agatha Christie. I have never read any of her books nor seen any of the film or TV adaptations of her works in their entirety (I have seen part of Witness for the Prosecution). In fact, the most exposure I’ve had to Agatha Christie is that episode of Doctor Who in which the Doctor and Donna Noble solve a mystery with Christie’s help and end up fighting a giant wasp. But her legacy of tightly-constructed mysteries, brilliant detectives, compelling characters, and her sprawling influence on books, film, and TV for the last hundred years or so is simply inescapable, and I know that some of my very favorite works owe her a huge debt. So it was that I went into the new version of Murder on the Orient Express without any Christie-related baggage, lacking any devotion to a previous adaptation of the story or to the original source novel. In the end I found it to be fully enjoyable, with a compelling mystery highlighted by a fantastic cast who are clearly having a great time, set against a sumptuous and lavish backdrop, all solidly anchored by director and leading man Kenneth Branagh.

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4 Things I liked, and 1 Thing I didn’t, about Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok is a blast. It’s Thor’s best solo outing thus far, and one of the most fun Marvel movies yet. It may not be the most emotional movie in the MCU, nor does it pack the biggest punch despite the two heavy hitters Thor and Hulk leading the way, but it’s stylish, hilarious, and unique. Ragnarok may have been one of the Marvel “Phase 3” films I was looking forward to the least, but it has rapidly become one of my favorites and I can’t wait to see it again. Overall, I’d give it a solid A-, but instead of writing a normal review I’m instead going to give you 5 Things from Thor: Ragnarok that made a difference to me, good or bad. I might work this format into future reviews, or try to use it to take care of some of my review backlog. In this case, I’ve got 4 Things I liked about Thor: Ragnarok and 1 Thing I didn’t like. Read on, and let me know if you agree with any of my picks, or what you liked or disliked about the God of Thunder’s latest adventure.

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