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52. Thor: Ragnarok – This Just In (#179)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, This Just In is a subset of The 250 podcast, looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Taiki Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok.

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I Came, I Thor, I Conquered: The Strange Postcolonial Politics of the Thor Trilogy…

The Thor franchise has never been particularly consistent.

Compared to the Iron Man or Captain America films, the three Thor films have lacked a clear sense of unity or direction. Part of this is down to the lack of a singular creative vision across multiple films in the trilogy. Jon Favreau provided a very clear statement of purpose when he worked on the first two Iron Man films, a loose improvisational style tailored around the personality of Robert Downey Jnr. The Russo brothers ensured that Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War were of a piece with one another, pseudo-political action movies.

In contrast, the Thor franchise has always felt like the runt of the litter. The first film in the series was directed by Kenneth Branagh, and bristles with the excitement of getting to play in the comic book world of grand language and bright colours. Branagh pitches Thor as the most classic superhero movie; he borrows the Dutch angles from Batman! and the bright aesthetic from Superman. In many ways, Thor is the most undervalued film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, perhaps the best distillation of the company’s formula applied to the character best suited to it.

Branagh did not return for the sequel, Thor: The Dark World. Marvel initially hired Patty Jenkins, but that fell through due to creative differences. Jenkins would demonstrate her ability to direct mythology-themed superhero action with Wonder Woman, but Marvel replaced her with Alan Taylor. Taylor was a television director, and by all accounts was treated as such by the studio. The film ended up an overstuffed tonal mess, often feeling like a half-hearted (and confused) imitation of the wave of “prestige-tinted blockbusters” that were popular at the time.

The failure of the sequel would lead to a significant delay between the second and third films in the series, not to mention a complete change of direction. The third film in the trilogy, Thor: Ragnarok, would be directed by New Zealander Taika Waititi. Waititi was a comedy director best known for his work on What We Do in the Shadows and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, who pitched the film as a superhero version of Withnail & I. The result was a film that felt utterly unlike either of the two earlier entries, even sending its title character out into deep space.

As such, the Thor films all exist at odds with one another. There is no consistent throughline to the series. The setting, the tone, the quality, the narrative focus; all of these elements change from one film to the next. The title character is introduced in Thor when he gets hit by a van, can become an inter-dimensional peacekeeper in The Dark World, and wield ray guns and steal space ships in Ragnarok. Attempting to impose structure or consistency upon the Thor films is an act of madness, one compounded when trying to integrate them into The Avengers or Avengers: Age of Ultron.

And yet, in spite of all of this, there are small themes and ideas that simmer through the three films in the franchise, recurring fascinations. In particular, the Thor trilogy is particularly fascinated with the idea of empire. In shifting away from the idea of Asgardians as literal gods or living stories, the franchise instead settled on the notion of Asgard as an imperial power tasked with bringing order to “the nine worlds.” With its magnificent spires, idyllic surroundings, exaggerated British accents, the Thor movies return time and time again to the idea of Asgard’s golden throne as the seat of empire.

Each of the Thor movies approach this idea in different ways, but they all play with the question of imperial legacy in a manner that is arguably more political than anything in The Winter Soldier or Civil War.

Note: This post contains spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok. Continue at your own risk.

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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.

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Kieron Gillen’s Journey Into Mystery – Fear Itself (Review/Retrospective)

This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!

Whatever about the quality of big “event” comics like Secret Invasion or Fear Itself, they typically serve as the launching pad for a variety of new series. Using the sales power of a tie-in to a big event, comic book publishers are more likely to convince readers to try something a bit new or a little outside the norm. It doesn’t always work, but – if used cleverly – these tie-ins can serve to draw attention to low-key books that might otherwise be flying under the radar. Or, you know, “Loki books.”

Kieron Gillen’s Journey Into Mystery is a contemporary classic. Even if one is unsatisfied with Fear Itself – and I’m quite fond of it, to be honest – Gillen’s Journey Into Mystery is enough to justify that juggernaut of an event.

Ghosts of gods of mischief past...

Ghosts of gods of mischief past…

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Fear Itself (Review/Retrospective)

This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!

Part of what is so remarkable about Fear Itself is how uncomfortably it fits into the “huge event” role that Marvel cast for it. Matt Fraction’s seven-issues-and-change epic crossover event is really just a Thor story arc that dips its toe in the waters of Ed Brubaker’s Captain America. Instead, Marvel cast it as this gigantic universe-altering mega-important miniseries with over 100 crossovers and tie-ins from all corners of the Marvel Universe.

Positioned to capitalise on the release of both Kenneth Branagh’s Thor and Joe Johnson’s Captain America: The First Avenger, Fear Itself seems like a story told in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like Brian Bendis’ Secret Invasion would undoubtedly have worked better as an arc of New Avengers than as a full-blown “nothing is ever the same again” epic, Fear Itself would have been a much stronger comic had it been allowed to play out on a smaller stage.

Hammer time!

Hammer time!

Still, despite the problems inherent in large-scale epic crossovers, Fear Itself works surprisingly well. Indeed, it it probably the strongest Marvel “mega-event” of the past decade if only because it is built on a strong ideological premise and develops some of the underlying themes and ideas of Fraction’s other Marvel work. Treated as a seven-issue story arc from Matt Fraction’s The Mighty Thor, it’s a fascinating climax of ideas that bubble away in the background of his run.

The choice to let Fraction craft Fear Itself, with assists from Ed Brubaker on the prologue and epilogue to the event, is inspired. Fraction is not the most consistent of comic book writers, but he is also incredibly wry and self-aware. There’s a sense of charming self-deprecating to Fear Itself, as Fraction allows the characters involved to reflect on the absurdity of it all without ever losing track of their humanity. Fear Itself might be far from perfect, but it is clever, fun and thoughtful. And those are endearing virtues.

Suit up!

Suit up!

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Captain America: Man Out of Time by Mark Waid and Jorge Molina (Review)

This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!

Captain America: Man Out of Time suffers under the weight of its nostalgia.

The past few years have been kind to fans of the star-spangled Avenger. Ed Brubaker enjoyed an extended run on the character that enjoys favourable comparisons to the best work by the best writers ever to work with Steve Rogers. A Captain America film finally saw theatrical release with Captain America: The First Avenger. So it made sense for Marvel to try to extend the brand in 2011, as that blockbuster was ready to hit cinemas and as the character’s stock was at an all-time high.

"It's okay, Cap. The First Avenger wasn't THAT bad..."

“It’s okay, Cap. The First Avenger wasn’t THAT bad…”

Mark Waid was a great choice to assist in this. Waid is a well-liked comic book writer with a long history at Marvel that includes two extended well-received runs on the character. Waid has written a number of genuine comic book classics, and he’s a writer who tends to handle nostalgia very well. So tasking Mark Waid with writing a comic book set in the early days of Captain America’s revival was a no-brainer. A five-issue miniseries about Captain America waking up in contemporary times written by Mark Waid? That should be a default slam dunk.

Unfortunately, there was a miscalculation somewhere. Man Out of Time feels sappy ans manipulative, with little new or interesting (or insightful) to offer about its temporally dislocated protagonist.

The man in the iron mask...

The man in the iron mask…

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Roger Langridge & Chris Samnee’s Thor: The Mighty Avenger (Review)

This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!

There really aren’t enough all-ages friendly comic books, and there certainly aren’t enough comic books that you can pop into a curious stranger’s hands and say “hey! read this!” In this era of blockbuster movies and hit television shows based off comic book properties, you’d imagine that companies would be working hard to attract new fans, trying to make comics accessible and enjoyable to those with little experience of picking up a comic book or graphic novel.

Thor: The Mighty Avenger is a wonderfully accessible piece of work that provides a brilliant introduction to Marvel’s take on the classic Norse God of Thunder. However, it remains a tragedy that this is one of very few efforts to provide such a comic, and also that Thor: The Mighty Avenger came to such an unceremonious end, cancelled after only eight issues.

Taking Thor for a spin...

Taking Thor for a spin…

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