Film of the Week: Thor: Ragnarok
“Ragnarok” in Norse mythology essentially means the end of the world, the ultimate battle, the twilight of the gods—the whole apocalyptic shebang, basically. As usual in a Marvel movie, the stakes are as big as they can conceivably be—and yet what makes Thor: Ragnarok stand out is that it is a bit of a throwaway sideshow, a flip divertissement that seems to cheerfully mark time before the three-ring circus of next year’s Avengers: Infinity War (a film that it’s safe to assume will be neither flip nor remotely throwaway).
The notion of The End of All Things doesn’t really mean much in superhero films, where total rampant annihilation—of cities, planets, universes—is calmly shrugged off before business as usual resumes in the next story (although sequels to both Marvel’s The Avengers and DC’s Man of Steel have knowingly made a point of urban destruction not being taken lightly: someone always has to clean up, or worry about insurance issues). As characters we thought had been destroyed routinely revive during the end credits to give us one last scowl, death in these movies has no more reality than Daffy Duck being rubbed out by the artist’s eraser in Duck Amuck, only to be drawn again. These movies may cost millions, and star the most lauded acting talent in the world (and Chris Hemsworth), but they’re also comic strips, goddammit.
Thor: Ragnarok isn’t by any means the panacea for superhero-movie burnout; once I’d got the joke, namely that the whole thing is a joke, I pretty soon found myself intermittently zoning out as usual. But at least this looks and feels like a comic—like something drawn by human hands, with a sense of design and color and pleasure, as too few such films have (exceptions include Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man, the recent Doctor Strange and Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy diptych). Better still, this looks as if it might have been drawn by the great artist who created Thor, and so many other Marvel mainstays, Jack Kirby. His baroque genius has been horribly traduced in three dud Fantastic Four movies, so it’s a pleasure to see a film that so wholeheartedly takes its visual cues from Kirby’s sense of shape and color. As a lapsed comics fan from, ahem, decades back, I have to confess that there’s something fetishistic about getting so much pleasure from a certain characteristic shape, but the antler-like forms of Cate Blanchett’s headdress here make Thor: Ragnarok the real deal just as decisively as the re-creation of Steve Ditko’s swirly window design did for Doctor Strange.
Thor: Ragnarok was directed by New Zealand’s Taika Waititi (Eagle vs Shark, Boy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) whose What We Do in the Shadows (co-directed with Jemaine Clement) did the impossible in finding new blood in that weary genre the vampire spoof. His take on Thor begins neatly: our hero (Hemsworth) looks straight into the camera and booms, “I know what you’re thinking—‘Oh no, Thor’s in a cage, how did this happen?’” But having removed the fourth wall, Waititi deftly puts it straight back in place—Thor isn’t addressing us at all, but a skeleton dangling in the cage with him. The film’s opening wastes no time in throwing us right into the preposterous action: Thor has been captured by a huge fire demon, and is soon required to fight an army of his minions to a soundtrack of—what else?—Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” Having whupped a few of his assailants, Thor then has to face an even bigger army. It’s like a joke about visual effects: “Look, we’ve got this snazzy software—if you want hordes of fire demons, we can pile on a few hundred more, no problem.”
Written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost—although Waititi has claimed that a huge amount of the dialogue was improvised—Thor: Ragnarok does remember at moments to get generically somber, or even poetic (there’s a fabulously lush insert of a slow-mo Valkyries charge on winged horses). But for the most part, the tone is as in-jokey and off the cuff as a Hope-Crosby-Lamour vehicle of yore: The Road to Asgard, perhaps.
The wit begins in earnest when Thor arrives back in the home of the gods—looking decidedly more Grecian and sun-kissed than Norse, a kitsch confection à la Maxfield Parrish—where his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is enjoying a dubiously propagandistic play depicting Thor’s malevolent brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as a good guy. The show turns out to be propaganda by Loki himself, who’s disguised himself as Odin; meanwhile, the on-stage Odin is played by Sam Neill, Thor by another Hemsworth brother, Liam, and Loki by possibly the most famous actor in the entire film, whom I completely failed to recognize.
Such Easter eggs are increasingly the staple diet of superhero movies, but here you could die of a chocolate overdose. It’s in the nature of what’s loftily known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe—as it’s long been in the print original, the Marvel Universe—that connections and repetitions played out from film to film, series to series, create coherence and continuity, and, more importantly, keep fans coming back for more. It has long felt, in fact, as if each new Marvel movie is simply a teaser for—or worse, a water-treading exercise before—the next one. When I saw this film prefaced by a trailer for the far glossier-looking Black Panther, it slightly felt, once Thor: Ragnarok started, that we were being palmed off with an hors d’oeuvre for the next, bigger thing down the line.
Marvel’s ever more complex network of self-referential winks contrives to avoid alienating newcomers and less-committed fans, while flattering the hardcore cultists who don’t need to consult websites like this to know that, for example, the character acted in motion-capture by Waititi himself—a warrior named Korg, resembling an agitated pile of rubble—appeared in the very first Thor strip back in 1962. Who knew? Who but the most obsessive could possibly care? Do Marvel Studios have teams of researchers paid on commission to unearth the most obscure connections possible? What’s laudable, I suppose, is the ecological soundness of the Marvel mythos: nothing, however antique or archaic, is ever wasted.
There are less recherché references on show, although still hazy for the non-specialist (er, that blue thing glimpsed in Asgard is a Cosmic Cube, isn’t it—but why does the camera linger on it so significantly for a moment longer than you’d expect? No doubt we’ll find out a few movies from now). Then there are more basic connections from movie to movie. Just as Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark was the “special guest” in Spider-Man: Homecoming, essentially gluing that film into the canon, here you get three crossover names: a briefly glimpsed Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange, and the Hulk, within whose lumbering digitized mass somewhere lurks Mark Ruffalo.
Poor Hulk—the biggest Marvel name, in more ways than one, yet condemned to be a wandering exile after two solo vehicles flopped ignominiously. He’s been a team member in the Avengers films, and here a guest of honor—but Thor: Ragnarok finds more for him to do, more entertainingly, than he’s been allowed to before. He turns up as a raging, Roman-helmeted warrior on a planet named Sakaar: Thor, condemned to fight, beams at the sight of him (“He’s a friend from work!”), only to realize that the green giant is in belligerent “Hulk stomp!” mood. The sweet interplay between the two, backstage between fights, is the film’s most charming element, and even better is the Jekyll-Hyde inner conflict—if Dr. Jekyll were a total whining nebbish—between Hulk and his neurotic boffin alter ego Bruce Banner, with Ruffalo encouraged here to channel what can only be called his Larry David side.
This Thor is a succession of characterful turns. Hopkins’s Odin stands on a Norwegian clifftop exuding white-bearded gravitas as if he’s had enough of being outdone by that young upstart Ian McKellen. Jeff Goldblum plays a decadent intergalactic ruler, the Grandmaster, like a regally stoned survivor of a ’60s cult that modelled its iconography on Italian peplum movies. Cate Blanchett is suavely evil as Hela, the dominatrixy Goddess of Death, something like a cousin to Cruella de Vil, with her purring asides: “Darling, you have no idea what’s possible!” And Tessa Thompson—from Creed, Westworld, and Dear White People—plays a Valkyrie fallen on rough times, now a tough, stroppy, drunken scavenger, and generally coming across less like your average Marvel heroine than like the Tank Girl that the movies never gave us. She also triggers the film’s best in-joke, not about the Marvel mythos but about the competition, when Thor comments, “I think it’s great there is an elite force of women warriors. About time.”
Within the framework of a half-serious, basically generic Marvel plot, Waititi and his collaborators give us a lot of diversions. Shot by Javier Aguirresarobe, it’s a super colorful film (what most made me want to see it was the poster, which mixed citrus hues in a way I’d never seen in superhero-movie artwork). The design, by Dan Hennah and Ra Vincent, skips from palette to palette with little regard for the usual unity of style. They favor garish but often faded-looking primary colors, as if taken directly from a comic left out in the sun; at one point, the Valkyrie pilots a spaceship that looks as if it’s flown off an old ELO album cover.
As for poor old Thor, the character in these movies whom no one much cares about, Hemsworth continues to be likable by playing him as essentially a good sport: unflappably enthusiastic, like a burly but inept rugby player who can’t quite get it into his head that he’s only on the team on sufferance. Most superhero characters come alive in movies when they get to show that reliable staple, their Dark Side—but here, it’s Hemsworth’s essential stout-fellow affability that makes his Thor more substantial than before.
Meanwhile, Waititi himself rather steals the show as Korg, a lumbering rock thing who happens to speak in a weedy, self-deprecating New Zealand voice (“I tried to start a revolution but didn’t print enough pamphlets”). Right up to the end credits, with their cartoony disco-era flavor, this is as close as the Marvel cycle gets to the self-mocking insouciance of a British Christmas pantomime (are they a thing in New Zealand?). You almost expect Thor to walk on screen and bellow, “I am the God of Thunder!”—and Loki to step up and lead the audience in a resounding chorus of “Oh no, you’re not!”