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Non-Review Review: Thor – Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok is a pure pop superheroic pleasure.

Thor has always been the most archetypal member of the Avengers, the character cast in the most conventional superheroic mould. Captain America was a soldier; Tony Stark and Bruce Banner designed weapons; Black Widow was an assassin; Hawkeye was a cosplayer with a bow and arrows. In contrast, Thor was a literal demigod. He looked the part of a conventional superhero, with his billowing red cape and his awesome power.

To Hela back.

Part of the joy of superhero stories is the way in which they form a strange oral history tradition; the stock comparison is to modern mythology, and there are certain shades of that. Superhero stories provide a lens through which classic and archetypal stories might be reimagined and reconstructed. Building on Chris Claremont’s characterisation of Wolverine, James Mangold pitched the superhero as the spiritual descendant of the samurai in The Wolverine and of the cowboy in Logan.

Thor: Ragnarok understands the potential of the comic book superhero as a framework for remixing and reimagining classic tales, as a weird cultural cocktail that effortlessly blends countless different flavours. In this respect, director Taika Waititi is being faithful to the source material. The appeal of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s work on Thor was the synthesis of classic mythology and retro science-fiction to construct something that was utterly unique. Thor was both a Norse god and a cosmic champion, a superhero and a mythic figure.

Wave after wave.

Thor: Ragnarok is perhaps a little over-stuffed, particularly in its opening act. Ragnarok races to hit plot points and fill in details, with an ensemble that feels far too deep for a two-hour-and-ten-minute romp. The biggest problem with Ragnarok is that the movie is practically overflowing with delight and joy. This not a serious problem by any measure. The movie never drags, and its goofy charm is never anything but infectious. Ragnarok could be structured and paced better, but the chaotic nature of the movie is part of its appeal. Ragnarok constantly threatens to burst.

The result is a movie that lacks the finesse and efficiency that define the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but one that is overflowing with an energy and an eagerness that are endearing.

The ties that bind.

Thor has always been something of an oddball in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a piece that doesn’t quite fit. When Joss Whedon assembled the team in The Avengers, it is telling that the character arcs from Steve Rogers and Tony Stark came almost directly from Captain America: The First Avenger and Iron Man II, while the film hastily dismissed the cliffhanger from Thor with a line of exposition. Despite the fact that Loki was the team-up’s primary antagonist, Thor himself felt like a secondary character in the ensemble.

This carried over to the next wave of Marvel films. Thor: The Dark World was a production disaster, losing a director early in the process and stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster. Thor’s primary plot function in The Avengers: Age of Ultron was to disappear into a cave and watch a teaser for The Avengers: Infinity War. Chris Hemsworth was notably absent from the gigantic team-up in Captain America: Civil War, despite the fact that one might imagine a literal god would be at the centre of debates about superhero power.

Death becomes her.

Ragnarok understands all of this, accepting that the character of Thor has been drifting somewhat listlessly in this shared cinematic universe. Indeed, the film itself seems subject to this drift. There is considerable cast turnover between The Dark World and Ragnarok, with large swathes of the supporting cast simply not returning. There is no sign of Natalie Portman as Jane Foster, Stellan Skarsgård as Erik Selvig, Kat Dennings as Darcy Lewis, or Jaimie Alexander as Lady Sif. To be fair, given the mess that was The Dark World, one imagines those actors had better things to be doing.

With all of this in mind, it is no surprise that Ragnarok is a movie that is explicitly about the cluttered and the discarded. The movie’s main additions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe are essentially introduced as areas of discarded continuity. Early in the film, Thor and Loki discover that they have a sister that Odin never mentioned to them. Ragnarok is rather cheeky in how it structures this revelation; the film waits about thirty seconds between introducing the vague concept of Thor’s long-lost sister and having Cate Blanchett show up and announce herself as the film’s antagonist.

Skurge of Asgard.

There is something playful in this jarring discontinuity, in the way that Ragnarok sets up the reveal and delivers on it almost immediately. Ragnarok is over two hours and ten minutes long, but it covers a lot of plot. The movie is packed to the brim with things happening. Despite the fact that Ragnarok has largely cut the franchise’s Earth-based cast, there are still far too many characters competing for space and struggling to satisfy their narrative arcs. Ragnarok seems to realise how impossible it would be to balance all of these demands, and so instead focuses on momentum and wit.

Several of Ragnarok‘s characters feel like their stories are compressed, or that their stories are compressing those of other characters. Anthony Hopkins gets a couple of good scenes, but is sorely underutilised. Karl Urban is incredibly charming as a somewhat disreputable Asgardian (“with strong survival instincts”), but his character arc feels somewhat underdeveloped. There is an extended cameo early in the film from another major Marvel character that feels somewhat gratuitous, throwing off the movie’s centre of gravity for about ten minutes.

What a waste.

However, Ragnarok finds something endearing in this narrative chaos. A lot of this is down to the combination of director Taika Waititi and his cast. Waititi understands that plot is largely a secondary concern in Ragnarok, and so focuses on establishing a jokey and playful tone. With its bright colours, its ridiculous faux!Shakespearean Norse deity trappings, and its lovable doofus jock protagonist, the Thor franchise has always lent to the ironic and self-aware style that Joss Whedon codified with The Avengers. The world of Thor is absurd, but that is why it is charming.

As such, the heart of Ragnarok is not found in its plotting or its pacing, more in its broad sense of fun. Chris Hemsworth has a solid sense of comedic timing, and a warmth that tends to fill up the film around him. More than Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton or Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor seems like he genuinely enjoys the trappings of being a bright-coloured superhero.

That joke really slays.

Early in the film, Thor relishes an opponent’s villainous monologue so much that he insists on being able to make eye contact during it. Later in the same scene, he awkwardly apologises for the fact that his big heroic moment didn’t land quite as expected. “Sorry,” he notes, filling an awkward silence between hero and villain. “Didn’t time that right.” Indeed, Ragnarok is all about having fun with the beats and rhythms of superhero action. One of the best gags later in the film plays on the most impressive climactic beat of The Incredible Hulk, itself lifted from The Ultimates.

Much like Doctor Strange late last year, Ragnarok also understands a temporary workaround for the long-standing difficulties that Marvel Studios have had in crafting compelling big-screen antagonists. Ragnarok doesn’t have a particularly compelling set of villains, but it does have a fantastic ensemble. Much like Doctor Strange simply let Mads Mikkelsen loose on a one-note foil and asked him to treat the scenery like an “all you can eat” buffet, Ragnarok does a lot of its own work by casting Cate Blanchett and Jeff Goldblum in major antagonistic roles.

A hair cut above.

Hela is far from the most complex or nuanced of characters, but she is written in such a way that Blanchett can just go to town on the role. Much like Loki in the original Thor and The Avengers, Hela is pretty much the concept of camp vamp personified; greasy black hair, flowing cape, pale skin, intense stare. The character’s most memorable moments have little to do with her motivations or origin, instead anchored in the character’s rumination on the importance of a good executioner to any would-be ruler: to execute their vision, of course; and anything else that might need executing.

Over the course of Ragnarok, Thor and Loki find themselves cast out of Asgard and on to the world of Sakaar. In keeping with Ragnarok‘s fascination with the awkward place of the Thor franchise within the continuity of the shared universe, Sakaar is presented as a planet of dangling loose ends. It is a planet surrounded by wormholes that serve to dump huge piles of waste across the landscape. Sakaar is home to the discarded, the unwanted, the lost. In someways, it feels akin to the comic book concept of limbo, the place where unwanted things go when nobody can figure out what to do with them.

Sparks fly.

There is a wonderful dissonance to Thor’s arrival on Sakaar, influenced as it is by the same knowing seventies and eighties nostalgia that informed a lot of Guardians of the Galaxy. Thor is the Norse God of Thunder, so there is something delightfully off-kilter in seeing the character navigate a strange setting; a fantasy character who wanders into a science-fiction narrative. There is something of Lee and Kirby in all this, evoking the sixties stories where the character would fight living planets and alien invaders.

This sensibility is reinforced in the production design, with an emphasis on bright colours and strange patterns that at once evoke design of sixties and seventies science-fiction while also capturing the texture of Jack Kirby’s iconic illustrations. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has always been a relatively bright place, but Ragnarok turns that sense of colour and wonder up to eleven. The world of Ragnarok is delightfully gonzo, a setting wherein a Norse God of Thunder can pick up a giant ray gun and fly a spaceship without batting an eye.

This sense of Sakaar as a planet where all the loose ends of the galaxy converge is reinforced by the presence of the Incredible Hulk. Indeed, as much as Ragnarok might be influenced by the work of writer and artist Walt Simonson on Thor, the film is most directly an adaptation of Greg Pak’s Planet Hulk. The Hulk has been a challenging character for Marvel, on a number of different levels. The character has been rebooted and recast on several occasions over the past fifteen years, perhaps the only major character less comfortable in the Marvel Cinematic Universe than Thor.

After all, rights issues with Universal have reported prevented Marvel Studios from producing a solo Hulk film since Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk almost a decade ago. Production on that film was particularly troubled, with Marvel and Ed Norton deciding to part ways before The Avengers. As a result, Bruce Banner and the Hulk have been (barring a post-credits cameo in Iron Man III) largely confined to the Avengers films. In fact, along with the character of Black Widow, Bruce Banner was one of the “homeless” characters given a clear arc in both Avengers and Age of Ultron.

Entering to monstrous applause.

As such, the Hulk’s presence on Sakaar confirms that the planet is essentially a cosmic “lost and found”, home to a variety of continuity loose ends. Sadly, the Incredible Hulk is somewhat underserved in Ragnarok, which is quite consciously a Thor movie. The movie is too focused on the politics of Asgard, on the brotherly dynamic between Thor and Loki, to devote the necessary time and space to the narrative thread focused on the Hulk. Bruce Banner is a supporting character in the film, not introduced until near the midpoint and largely a passenger in the story being told.

There is an interesting story to be told here, of course. Planet Hulk is one of the most enduring and classic Hulk stories for very good reason, in that it is built around a clever inversion of the core mythology; what if the Hulk found himself in a place where he fit in more comfortably than Bruce Banner? It is a clever twist on the central dynamic between Bruce Banner and the Hulk, one that somewhat prefigured Jason Aaron’s later restructuring of the premise; what if Bruce Banner was the problem, not the Hulk?

A smashing time together.

There are shades of this intriguing central dynamic in Ragnarok, with the Hulk so comfortable on Sakaar that he has not changed back into Banner for two whole years. The Hulk seems happy to live in such a brutal society, in a world where being the “strongest Avenger” has real currency. However, Ragnarok is too light and too fast on its feet to really dwell on these questions. There is never any true pathos to the Hulk, never a moment where Bruce Banner feels like a man with a giant green rage monster on his back, a man who designed a bomb and then became a bomb.

Still, this isn’t really a problem. The Hulk is not a central character in Ragnarok, instead slotted into a bizarre ensemble of mismatched heroes. There is a delightful off-kilter buddy dynamic to the relationship between Thor and the Hulk, particularly as the former tries at once to balance his own ego and avoid the latter’s hair trigger temper. The unlikeliness of this combination plays into the endearing weirdness of the film, the sort of gonzo mix-and-matching that defines comic book storytelling.

Fall from grace.

Ragnarok is a movie that embraces the pop sensibility of the superhero genre, the genre’s capacity to throw crazy ideas and images together to create a surreal synthesis. At its best, Ragnarok is pure pop opera. The movie is a heady cocktail of bright colours and contrasting styles that create a unique flavour, Waititi transitioning skilfully through various styles and various tones in a manner that never feels distracting. The movie’s opening scene establishes this hybrid aesthetic through its choice of soundtrack; Immigrant Song is Norse mythology as seventies rock song.

Although Ragnarok still leans on the half-hearted “Asgardians are sufficiently advanced aliens” logic that has anchored the franchise since Thor, Waititi gently embraces the idea of the Asgardians as legitimate gods. Various moments in the film – a clash of titans, the history of Asgard – are framed in such a way as to evoke a Renaissance fresco; wide angles, beige colour scheme, almost static figures, depth of field. These compositions stand in effective contrast to the brighter kinetic sci-fi trappings of other scenes.

Ride of the Valkyrie.

Ragnarok is decidedly self-aware in all of this, cognisant of the fact that the much of this storytelling is reflexive and self-aware. Early in the film, Thor returns to Asgard to witness a performance of “the tragedy of Loki”, a self-serving reimagining of the events of The Dark World. It is an old story retold, history rewritten. Reinvention and repetition are recurring themes of Ragnarok, as the title might suggest. The film is built around the mythic cycle of death and rebirth for the Norse gods, which is at once “prophecy” and “history.”

Ragnorak is full of circles and patterns. On finding himself captive on Sakaar, Thor is trapped in a perpetual circular corridor. “But not a normal circle,” his cellmate Korg helpfully suggests. “Like a weird circle.” As much as the movie plays on Thor’s meathead persona, the character at least seems aware of these patterns and recurrences as they apply to the people around him. While his half-brother might remain oblivious to his own nature, Thor recognises that the true “tragedy of Loki” is to remain forever trapped in cycle of pointless betrayals; earning trust and casting it aside, redeeming and then condemning himself.

Drink it in.

In some respects, this is the tragedy of most comic book characters. As iconic figures in popular culture, comic book characters will inevitably be drawn back towards their most recognisable interpretations. Any character growth or development that might accrue is inevitably brushed aside as characters are reset to factory settings so that their stories might be told again. Comic book characters inevitably go through their own ragnarok; rebooted and deaged, taken “back to basics”, the boulder rolling back down to the bottom of the hill so Sisyphus might try again.

Of course, this is an increasingly central tension within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. On the comic book page, the illusion of “Marvel Time” allows for the illusion that Peter Parker has been a teenager or young adult for over half-a-century. As the outside world moved on, but the comic book world remained static, Tony Stark’s origin has shifted from Vietnam to Afghanistan. Big screen universes do not have that luxury. The character of Thor might be immortal, but Chris Hemsworth is already six years older than when he started.

Knife to see you too.

As such, there is something interesting in how Ragnarok approaches the challenge of death and reinvention. As much as Loki might find himself trapped within certain destructive and repetitive cycles of behaviour, playing out his old tricks time and time again, Ragnarok suggests that change and death are inevitable. The characters in Ragnarok end the film in a very different place than where they started. The film ends with the tease of a new beginning, but not a reset, a compromise between the timelessness of the source material and the constraints of live action production.

Perhaps the most striking juxtaposition within Ragnarok is that between tone and theme. In terms of tone, Ragnarok‘s closest stablemate in the Marvel pantheon is probably Guardians of the Galaxy. However, in terms of theme, Ragnarok is a lot closer to Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Buried beneath the ironic sense of humour and the self-aware playfulness is something approaching a postcolonial superhero movie. Indeed, Ragnarok arguably goes a lot further than The Winter Soldier, its political commentary insulated by its fantastical setting.

A Banner year.

Ragnarok effectively picks up some of the more interesting (and underdeveloped) subtext of The Dark World. In its more compelling moments, lost amid computer-generated spectacle and clumsy plotting, The Dark World suggested that Asgard had been built upon some pretty horrific foundations. Odin’s original sin in The Dark World was an act of genocide. Retroactively justifying his characterisation in The Avengers, Loki insisted that he was simply trying to follow in his adoptive father’s footsteps by grinding a world beneath his heel.

Ragnarok embraces this idea and runs with it. Assessing her father’s legacy and touring the hallowed halls of Asgard, Hela ruminates that her father was “proud of what he had, ashamed of how he got it.” Hela repeatedly suggests that Odin has effectively rewritten the history of Asgard in an attempt to wash the blood from his own hands. The Dark World and Ragnarok both teasingly suggest that Odin and Loki have more in common than either would like to admit. Loki is introduced in Ragnarok engaged in the act of rewriting history. It is soon revealed that Odin is just as guilty.

“Where do you think all this gold came from?” Hela challenges Thor, as the two square off in the great halls of Asgard. Ragnarok suggests that she has a point. As somebody with a deeper knowledge of Asgard’s history than anybody else in the royal family, Hela reveals Asgard is literally built atop a tomb. “Do you want to see what real power looks like?” she taunts. Ragnarok suggests that Asgard is built upon horrific atrocities, its golden spires erected at the highest possible cost. Asgard is an imperial power, and its mythology belies history.

Indeed, one of the more interesting recurring elements of the Thor franchise is the goofy faux!Englishness of Asgard, often brought to life by non-English actors speaking in exaggerated faux!Shakespearean accents. Odin is played by Anthony Hopkins, a Welsh thespian. Thor is played by Chris Hemsworth, an Australia. The Warriors Three have been played by two Americans, a Northern Irishman and a Japanese man. The Dark World suggested an element of class politics to the nine realms, Christopher Eccleston’s Manchester accent standing is sharp contrast to the polished accents of Asgard.

Norse the battle to the strong.

Once again, Ragnarok builds on this idea. Waititi infuses the film with a distinctive voice, one that is heavily informed by Australia and New Zealand. Although she delivers a lot of her dialogue in a vaguely English accent, Blanchett occasionally slips back into her Australian accent for the movie’s more charged moment. Karl Urban plays working class Asgardian Skurge with an exaggerated version of his New Zealand accent, rather than trying to conceal it. American performer Tessa Thompsoneven plays Valkyrie with an accent that evokes Australia and New Zealand rather than England.

On Sakaar, these accents are even more pronounced. Waititi provides the voice for rock monster Korg in his distinctive New Zealand accent, while New Zealand regular Rachel House serves as a prominent goon. (In contrast, Jeff Goldblum continues to sound like absolutely nobody else in the entire cosmos, and is a delight to behold as the eccentric synth-playing Grand Master.) Sakaar is implied to have a strained relationship with Asgard, a dumping ground for its unwanted and its undesirables, connected to Asgard by a gigantic wormhole known as to the Sakaarians as “the devil’s anus.”

A ‘bluming success story.

Couched in superhero metaphor and fantastical imagery, Ragnarok is able to construct a more compelling postcolonial superhero narrative than The Winter Soldier. It often felt like The Winter’s Soldier was anchored too firmly to contemporary politics to be allowed to make any concrete criticisms about power and abuse, couching any potent commentary behind the facile suggestion that the surveillance state is perfectly acceptable so long as it is not run by literal Nazis. In contrast, because Ragnarok is not explicitly about any real political entity, it can be a bit bolder in its arguments.

Although these postcolonial themes are never the central focus of Ragnarok, they enrich the film. Along with the film’s meditations on death and rebirth, these ideas provide a strong thematic throughline. Ragnarok is a film that threatens to fall apart at any given moment as hurdles through its plot, to snap apart due to some poorly conceived twist, or to crumple under the weight of all its characters. Ragnarok is held together through its endearing sense of humour, the charm of its cast, and the sheer unbridled joy of playing with superheroes as pop opera.

If Kenneth Branagh’s Thor was faux!Shakespearean family drama by way of Richard Donner superheroics, then Ragnarok is Jack Kirby by way of Led Zeppelin. It’s a hard combination to resist.

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One Response

  1. Ragnarok grasps the comedy at the core of the ludicrously posture overwhelming superhuman class.It’s in fact a good humorous movie.

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