After writing about MCU films for what feels like an eternity, I’ve begun to notice some familiar patterns.
Every time I like a film in this franchise, it’s brought down by a handful of studio-enforced failings. These arbitrary and unnecessary issues always keep a good film from being great, which in turn is so frustrating that it overshadows the initial goodness. Eventually, you sort of run out of clever ways to say “This would be better if it was less MCU-ey.”
Since Thor: Ragnarok comes very close to great, it seems petty to focus on the Marvel-ey things it does wrong. So in the interest of fairness, I’m just going to run through the laundry list of consistent MCU problems that always pop up – so we can get to the stuff it does right.
- There are too many moments that serve little purpose but to remind you of other, lesser, films. (Particularly bad in Thor: Ragnarok because a key plot point requires a callback to the worst part of the worst MCU movie so far.)
- The film transpires events exactly the way the universe needs them to go, and does so in a “safe” studio-friendly manner. (More on this “safety” later.)
The villain is weak, unmemorable, and wasteful.(Actually this one doesn’t apply here because Cate Blanchett gets plenty of scenery to chew through. However, she’s also the biggest victim of #4….)
- The film brings up interesting ideas but then refuses to fully flesh them out. (But we do get a weird moment where the film’s director looks directly at the camera and explains one of the major symbols…. while he’s an 8-foot-tall CGI rock monster.)
- NEW ENTRY! The third film in a series always involves the hero being stripped of their iconography and forced to prove that they can be superheroic on their own.
Great, okay, there’s the major complaints out of the way, let’s talk about the rest of the world.
While traversing the cosmos to find the source of his recurring nightmares, The Mighty Thor (Chris Worth-of-Hems) learns of the prophesied Ragnarok – the utter destruction of Asgard following the death of Thor’s father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Indeed, Odin does die, leaving Thor and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to deal with their long-forgotten sister, Hela, Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett) – who has come to claim her place on the throne and continue a long-standing reign of conquest. In true Silver Age fashion, Thor and Loki find themselves stranded on a lawless war-world run by a party-hungry despot (Jeff Goldblum), which they can only escape with the help of The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and the battle-weary alcoholic Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson).
Since the first airbrush met the first sweet van, there has always been a corollary between the actual Norse Pantheon and some specific subdivisions of metal music. Naturally, this has bled over into the Marvel comic versions of the Norse Gods, which themselves influenced (and took influence from) Heavy Metal magazine and its respective movie. As a result, the God of Thunder has always held an air of cosmic 70’s arena rock which the MCU has avoided directly referencing – until now. Ronnie James Dio and Robert Plant taught us that if you’re earnest and sincere about it, you can make the goofiest subject matter – even celestial tigers and Tolkien references – seem undeniably cool and sexy through sheer force of will. With this in mind, Thor Ragnarok proudly swaggers through action sequence after action sequence with a cocksure smirk on its face. Boasting a score by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh and officially proclaiming Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” as its theme song, the film embraces its silliness in a non-cynical manner and finds its perfect dork-cool niche.
It took three movies for the Thor franchise to find its tone.
Credit for this achievement goes to writer/director Taika Waititi, who seems almost incapable of cynicism. Waititi has a uniquely personable sense of humor that allows the cast to stretch their comedic chops. (Thompson benefits greatly from this, adding a little sorority-girl levity to what could have been yet another tropish Femme Fatale.) This isn’t to say that Waititi has only silliness to offer – it’s worth noting that he made a film where the villain is a thinly-veiled metaphor for Imperialism. But it’s the unmistakable quirky charm that carries the film through. Unfortunately, it comes at the expense of some of the emotional resonance Waititi brought to films like Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Thor Ragnarok moves at such a clip that moments of empathy come across as brief blips between jokes and laser-gunfights.
Here’s where having an actor like Tom Hiddleston comes in handy. Given limited script time to delve into Loki’s emotions and motives, Hiddleston does much of his work in small mannerisms. Through sighs, smirks, nods, furtive glances, and occasional moments of panic, Hiddleston’s body does the work that his dialogue isn’t allowed time to do. For what feels like the first time, Hiddleston and Hemsworth’s on-screen dynamic absolutely reflects their characters. Hemsworth is a brash and imposing figure who is able to command screens with his voice and charisma, while Hiddleston steals as many eyeballs away from his co-star as possible through every acting “trick” he knows.
In fact, the film works so well because everyone involved is used exactly the right amount and given the opportunity to play to their strengths. Blanchett gets to bring regality to her vengeance, Thompson proudly boasts her moniker as bad-ass girl crush, and Karl Urban gets some screen time to essentially pretend he’s in another Riddick movie. Thor: Ragnarok also pulls double-duty as not only the best Thor film, but also the best Hulk movie as well. Ruffalo has always been good as the nervous Dr. Banner (forced to adopt a veneer of coolness here as he steals Tony Stark’s clothes). But he’s finally come into his own as the big green guy – and we’re finally allowed some non-smashing Hulk downtime to see the very funny side of the character.
So back to those flaws I listed at the beginning. Hela’s backstory makes it clear that she is the result of generations of Odin’s Imperialist conquests. She makes reference to her people’s “divine right” to rule all the realms and expresses anguish that her brutality has been whitewashed from Asgard’s history. But just as with every other MCU “sins of the father” theme, this can spins around before being fully kicked down the road to a later film. Just once I’d like to see a Marvel film fully engage with the ideas it presents – though Thor Ragnarok and James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy series go further than most.
As for that “safety” I mentioned – everyone in this movie ends up about where you expect them to in order to set up the next movie. There are no surprises. They even cut the one half-second which would confirm the not-quite-hetero-ness of a character who is canonically not-quite-hetero. The film just suffers from taking the path of least resistance. Remnants from previous films which would be too difficult to reconcile with the new tone are either killed off unceremoniously, dumped off-screen, or in Jamie Alexander’s case – just completely absent with no explanation.
It’s these kinds of decisions which make wanting to like MCU films such a constant exercise in futility.
Especially with a talented eye like Waititi involved, the movies are always just good enough to make you wonder if they could be better. Marvel Studios is like an eyedropper for creativity, only letting a little bit out at a time. In the case of Thor Ragnarok, they give Waititi just enough freedom to play around in the Jack Kirby-made sandbox in order to make a movie that’s very good, but keep enough restraint that it’s not fully great. But then again, Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth may not be technically great either. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t know how to ROCK.Liked This? Share It!