The best moment in Thor: Ragnarok is enclosed to protect it from the rest of the film like a glass jar around a firefly. Anthony Hopkins – the most self-respecting of all sellouts – glares with his one eye from a Norwegian cliffside as the myth-mongering Norse king, Odin of Asgard. The resident Shakespearean in a film of hotties, Hopkins monumentalizes himself, playing a comic book hero’s angry dad like no one told him he wasn’t playing the Odin of legend. The moment I’m talking about is seeing him there on the mountain in a salmon jacket and eyepatch, leering into the sea, knowing something we don’t. The scene that follows it is exposition, murky and rushed, and then a battle built for show and bearing no load. This image of Odin is a beautiful topiary in a house built only for looks. Despite aggressively arguing in its marketing that the movie stands out significantly from other Marvel films, the only difference with Ragnarok is that there was a spark inside that I’d hoped would shine as brightly as it does in those phenomenal promotions. Destroying that spark makes this one worse, in a way. Usually I’m content to just wander empty rooms, hoping for a topiary.
From the trailer, a tantalizing Baroque painting of a death god and a rain of Valkyries is, in the film, no larger or more important than that same single image. Even Thor is really just a symbol of his part in other movies, as are Loki and Dr. Strange and Odin. These characters purposely remain static images so they don’t trouble the franchise continuum with development, disavow the company of the ability to send multiple scripts into simultaneous production, or make scriptwriting a bigger job than “find and replace.” Odin stands on a cliffside echoing myths but the symbol bounces off an empty wall. Thor stands everywhere echoing his self as seen in past films, but he has nothing new to do under the sun. Observe the prompt way Jane (Natalie Portman – the central love interest in Thor and Thor: Dark World) is discarded on a whim as a one-liner and never contextualized by Thor’s (or the film’s) heart. She’s just gone.
The central conceit of Thor’s growth as a character is that he must learn not to rely on his mighty hammer but on his big heart (and lightning powers) to save his home, prove himself worthy of his godhood, and beat a big bad guy. This is a premise similar to Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Dr. Strange, The Avengers, and even the first Thor. Taika Waititi’s comedy only softens the tone of the same “overcome thyself” narrative Thor shares with so many other characters. Being lighter doesn’t change the foundation of the story: it just no longer requires that inimitably likeable Chris Hemsworth to strain himself at the outset to feign irascibility. Hemsworth is a hunky blast in Ragnarok from the opening seconds, in which he monologues to himself about the adventurous way he ended up in chains. But this happens exactly one time. As in everything else, the tone is playing a bunch of bit parts.
Waititi wasn’t thinking of Norse legend any more than he was thinking of character growth. The Thor brand had two mealy offerings that Disney moguls weren’t too keen to reheat, so they hired an outsider to, presumably, follow clear instructions: use Thor assets to capitalize on the popularity of Guardians of the Galaxy. The stunning abandonment of all previous tone and development in the Thor films in favor of something Dino De Laurentiis could have produced is jarring. And everyone praises it, like throwing out a series in favor of another one is some great feat. Where other examples of such departures (Batman Forever, Superman III) were reviled for ditching their laurels for a fling with a hot new tone, Ragnarok is given a high-five for playing around. The fact that he saves his people to the tune of a groovy pop anthem doesn’t change the fact that his movies have been different up until now, that fans of those movies have been abandoned, and that those same people will die at the beginning of the next film without a second thought.
Diversification is a key concept with these Marvel films, both in how a wide spread of genres prevents the universe from sinking with the failure of any one of its parts and how consistency within even the smaller series is unnecessary next to their adherence to the whole. Ragnarok meets the critical failure of Thor: Dark World with the tone of a different franchise, but since Guardians of the Galaxy applies just as much to the macroeconomy of the cinematic universe, it’s just as valid an inspiration as Thor.
Ragnarok represents the best of this strategy, for being a punchy drink of action and talky nonsense, a splash of misdemeanor garnished with comradery, a lot of color, spunk, and Jeff Goldblum. He’s the Caesar and croupier of a backwater gladiatorial planet. His fingernails are painted turquoise. His eyes are deeply sassy, dark-lined, entrepreneurial. His smucky misdemeaning is infectious. He sold me in a second, and the film should have served us more of him. Ragnarok and the audience don’t seem to find the same things important.
Cate Blanchett hurls her hips around the screen, admonishing, frowsy as ever, hot as hell. Hela is a goddess of death and that seems to be what Blanchett was told when she slipped into her leather and antlers. She’s imposing but just sort of shows up, as a Marvel movie villain, to the point that cutting back to her scheme in Asgard feels like cutting away from the film. Since it’s Blanchett, monumental, sensuous, she works to much the same effect as a king’s scepter, never used as a weapon but wielded wisely as a symbol of authority. There’s way more Oscar power within Ragnarok than will ever come out of it.
When Blanchett tips over an infinity gauntlet at one point and absently says, “Fake,” Waititi seems to reproach the series for taking itself so seriously, tipping over the whole franchise in passing. He’s not totally wrong: this is more fun than the average Marvel film. There are some laughs. There's a disillusioned, drunk Valkyrie girl (Tessa Thompson) that I'd watch a whole movie about.
But let’s step out of our underoos for a second and become skeptics again. I just know that Waititi had within him an ageless riot, a sparky cosmos of realistic absurdity and quiet disorder that could have made sparks fly from the fingers of Ragnarok, re-inventing superheroes and re-aiming the industry in his image. You might have seen how it peeked its head out in the mockumentary trailers for Ragnarok, which were vastly more entertaining than the finished film. With the trailers there was no production restraint, no consistency requirement, no expectation. They dismantled the genre in less than five minutes, rebuilt it in sublime parody, delivered it deadpan with a twist: Hemsworth as a comedian turning out far more extraordinary than as an actor. These teasers had the same prickly mundanity as What We Do in the Shadows, that genre-dismembering vampire buddy comedy starring and co-directed by Waititi. It’s no exaggeration to say that the “Team Thor” trailer is one of my favorite Marvel films.
In comparison to the teasers, Ragnarok flounders, just as Ant-Man did (originally to be directed by Edgar Wright, who was let go for working too hard on it). The solution to the problem of Blanchett empowered by the cosmos to beat up bodybuilders is a deus ex machina so blatant that I wonder if the screenwriters read the term and thought it was literal. Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner offers a shocking filament of tragedy to Hulk’s dumb lightbulb of self-surety and Looney Tunes physical comedy (in this movie, Hulk has finally been reduced to a frat boy, making protein shakes and whining about his “gains”). I love the scenes with Banner, particularly when he’s trying not to be Hulk. But any serious crisis gets whited out by the crowd-pleasing action. You just crave his part to be satisfying but it isn’t. In the context of the film, the final transformation into Hulk is an existential tragedy, though I wouldn’t expect it to matter in any of the sequels. (Is this even Hulk anymore? He’s a big green jerk-off; he does things that would happen in a South Park parody of the character. The men have scenes where if they had been left alone any longer they’d have started measuring each other’s cucumbers.)
One more thing: no one will ever convince me that Tom Hiddleston is appropriate to play the trickster god, Loki. He says everything with the tone that movie stars say, “You want my autograph, right?” when you have them cornered. I was cornered by Ragnarok the other day and it sounded like that before giving me its autograph, as though I asked. Then it complained about its annoying family members for a bit before powerwalking away into a cloud of out-of-tune Led Zeppelin mumbling and body spray. It crossed the street without waiting for the light to change, but why should it worry? Who’s going to dare hurt it?
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
Eric Pearson (screenplay)
Craig Kyle (screenplay)
Christopher L. Yost (screenplay)
Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Larry Lieber (characters)
|Bruce Banner/Hulk||Mark Ruffalo|