Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost
Directed by Taika Waititi
Since the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thor the God of Thunder has been traveling across the Nine Worlds and the universe in search of the Infinity Stones with no luck. Meanwhile, his brother Loki has been posing as Odin since Thor: The Dark World. The two siblings are confronted with a significant change to the status quo in Asgard. The results of this shake-up send them hurtling across the universe to Sakaar, a junk planet run by The Grandmaster, the host of the Contest of Champions. Thor finds himself reconnecting with an old friend and discovering that another lost Asgardian has made their way to this strange corner of the galaxy. It will be up to Thor to gather a ragtag group of heroes to reclaim his home. Or, will the prophecy of Ragnarok, the death of the gods, come to pass?
Thor: Ragnarok is a damn fun and funny film. I had no doubts about that when I heard director Taika Waititi was at the helm. If you have seen his previous work (Eagle vs. Shark, What We Do in Shadows, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople), then you knew that too. Waititi is a contemporary of Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, The Flight of the Conchords. Like them, he has this off-kilter and dry sense of humor. Jokes don’t come out of slapstick, while there is some there, but rather more often from a specific tone in his characters that undercuts what could be super serious and brooding. The perfect example of this from Ragnarok is the character of Korg, a rocky gladiator in The Grandmaster’s stable. Korg is voiced by Waititi himself and has a higher pitched, drier type of delivery than you would expect. Because of the portrayal of characters like The Thing and Hulk, we see a giant monstrous guy and think deep booming voice. This subversion of tone is what places Thor: Ragnarok in a very different tier of film than many of the other Marvel pictures.
Ragnarok introduces two very interesting characters: Hela and Valkyrie. Hela is played by Cate Blanchett, and she is able to meld the hamminess that such a villain inevitably possesses with the quirky humor happening throughout the picture. Frustratingly, her plot peters out into a very cliche Final Battle scenario that doesn’t do anything fascinating with her. She’s just another disposable one-shot villain. Valkyrie, on the other hand, is a wonderful addition who belies some of the problems I’ve had with Wonder Woman in the DC films.
The problem with DC’s superhero movies is the “god” complex. They want to present their heroes as their Olympian figures, and so we often don’t get to see flaws. Wonder Woman attempted some “fish out of water” moments in its first half, but then shrugged them off to fall into the same story beats pretty much every superhero movie succumbs to. Diana was much more interesting when she made mistakes or didn’t understand what was going on. Waititi brilliantly introduces Valkyrie communicating that she has some big problems. She steps down the walkway of her fighter ship, takes a swig of alcohol from a bottle, and proceeds to drunkenly fall over into a pile of trash. She avoids the awful cliche of the “badass” female hero while proving herself to actually be what that statement is meant to imply. She is flawed, she is cowardly, she is traumatized, she is a drunk, she is brave, she is a lot of different and contradictory things. So while the gods of the DC movies may seem awesome, characters like Valkyrie are why Marvel is better at creating an emotional connection with the audience. I found it very refreshing that actress Tessa Thompson, who plays Valkyrie, says she finds the term “badass” to overused and annoying. I agree, it’s such a reductive term, and it’s been used to present one-dimensional female characters whom we’re told are good because they are strong and beat up people. Characters have to have more meat on their emotional bones than that to be interesting and worth our time.
Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and what will go down as their smartest decision was allowing certain films to establish tones that put them beyond just a superhero movie. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the first instance of one of their films feeling different. Winter Soldier was an homage to 1970s conspiracy films, like Day of the Condor, but also more pared down and straight action movies. Spider-Man: Homecoming was mainly a high school comedy with a super-hero in it. I would hope that Marvel would continue down this route. Recent pictures, like Doctor Strange and Ant-Man, have felt very formulaic and dull because they go back to the routine origin story.
Thor: Ragnarok has one of the most personalized flourishes of any Marvel film to date, save James Gunn’s work on Guardians of the Galaxy. However, it’s third act is not very interesting and devolves into the sort of slugfest with the villain that has been handed to us time and time again. When the story is taking place on Sakaar, with Thor and Hulk having hilarious conversations or Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster doing some incredibly insane things the movie is at its best. I hope we have more films in the future that can embrace the weird and avoid the formulas and cliches.