Two peanuts were walking down the road. One was assalted.
Is this another Hail Mary pass from Marvel Studios? Taking a character whose being and stories were steeped in Norse mythology and Shakespearian overtones, and giving it the Guardians Of The Galaxy treatment? Perhaps. And what a choice for the director too: Taika Waititi, a man whose name, before now, would largely have exhibited a “Who?” from the collective. But he’s undoubtedly had a good few years: What We Do In The Shadows, Hunt For The Wilderpeople and whatever amount of influence he had over Moana. He’s got chops. But the kind of chops to take Thor to new and better places? I was a fan of both Thor and The Dark World, but the God of Thunder of Ragnarok’s trailers seemed like a rebooted deity. The elements for continued success were all there, but was Ragnarok a good way to continue Odinson’s story, or is the MCU desperately grasping for relevance in the face of mundane longevity.
What do you get when you cross an elephant with a rhino? Elephino!
Having figured out that his scheming brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has replaced Odin (Anthony Hopkins) as the King of Asgard, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) travels to Earth to seek his father. The journey brings a revelation: the existence of a long-imprisoned sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), the God of Death, whose release is prophesied to lead to Ragnarok and the end of Asgard. Defeated, exiled and caught by an ex-Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Thor finds himself part of the machinations of demented gangster the Grand Master (Jeff Goldblum), who soon has the God of Thunder facing off against former ally the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).
Knock knock. Who’s there? An interrupting cow. An interrup – MOO!
Well, here we are. For better, for worse, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is now a comedy franchise. It’s been coming. Ever since Joss Whedon let the glib out for Avengers Assemble, and accelerated by James Gunn’s Guardians Of The Galaxy success, the MCU has been tilting away from superhero action and drama with a bit of light-hearted comedy elements sprinkled about, becoming instead films where the over-rising emphasis on cramming jokes in has chipping away at any attempts at pathos. And then we got to Thor: Ragnarok.
There are 10 kinds of people in the world. Those who understand binary, and those who don’t.
Do you remember the first Thor? It was a Kenneth Branagh directed affair that emphasized the tragic story of two warring brothers and an ailing father trying to make a peace through duplicitous means. It was about what responsibility really was, and how you can’t solve all your problems by blundering about and throwing your hammer around. It was about how, sometimes, to prove yourself worthy you have to be willing to make sacrifices. It had jokes, but they were limited and in the appropriate place. And then there was The Dark World: a film again about parental responsibility for their children’s failings, about loss, about the sins of the past coming back to be revisited on the present.
Did you hear about the Italian chef who died? He pasta way.
Ragnarok attempts, at times, to have serious points, about fraternal rivalry and coming into your own and the importance of duty and what the difference is between a place and a people. But, at the end of the day, what’s its really about is Thor, Loki, Hulk and a few other people joking, snarking and guffawing at each other for over two hours, to a variety of backdrops and colourful supporting characters. Waititi is literally on record as saying he wanted to “destroy” what came before in the pursuit of comedy. And you know what? It’s fine. I laughed. I laughed a lot. Waititi gets humour, and there’s something undoubtedly bone-tickling about seeing these gruff serious characters turned into these clowns. It’s like a parody almost, an enjoyable one.
A pair of jumper-cables walks into a bar. The bartender says “I’ll serve you, but don’t start anything!”
But you can’t have this much comedy to this little drama and still expect people to play along with the drama. It is impossible. You cannot be engaged with the fight to liberate Asgard from Hela when Thor and Hulk are having a comedy spat on another planet, or when death and violence are treated with a certain sort of contempt for what they actually are (seemingly important characters in previous films are offed with shocking and uncaring suddenness here). What is the point of having a grand over-arching cinematic universe of dozens of movies, when the individual efforts are this light on seriousness? Why not just have lots of individual comedies?
What did one ocean say to the other ocean? Nothing, they just waved.
I’m getting side-tracked. The kernel of a good dramatic story is here, certainly. I could watch the Thor/Loki/Odin triangle all day, and while Hela’s sudden inclusion as a long-lost sister is a bit of a random occurrence, I’m happy to roll along with a story of intergalactic war, a resistance movement on Asgard and a confrontation between the God of Death and the God of Thunder. Hell, even the “Thor in exile” stuff has potential: fights to the death, friendships tested, redemption sought. Nothing special, nothing flashy, but good transitional bases for a narrative, that production elements could then enhance.
Why did the picture go to jail? Because he was framed!
But then: Loki, masquerading as Odin, watches a play version of his death scene in The Dark World (with a few unexpected celebrity cameos). Thor stops for a selfie while looking for his father on Earth. Mjolnir wrecks Dr Strange’s sanctum. Thor gets reduced to a drooling wreck by Valkyrie. The God of Thunder uses the phrase “He’s a friend from work” in regards Hulk, while in a gladiatorial arena. A portal is referred to as the “Devil’s Anus”. A rock monster voiced deadpans his way through the film. Cate Blanchett makes a Donald Trump reference. Mark Ruffalo recycles physical comedy from The Incredible Hulk. I’m very serious when I say this is a good comedy. I laughed the whole way through. But once the film was over, I couldn’t help but feel a little hollow about the experience.
Where do cows go on a first date? To the Mooooovies.
How about some other good elements before I get accused of a title wave of negativity? I quite liked Tessa Thompson’s involvement. Natalie Portman is gone, her absence handwaved away very quickly, but a better female presence is here instead. I loved Thompson in Creed, and she’s good here as well, a bitter, washed up alcoholic ex-Valkyrie, who obviously still has a little bit of a conscious. I generally liked Mark Ruffalo/Hulk’s involvement, outside of the constant comedy, as this may be as close to a World War Hulk adaptation as we may get. And the film is generally acted quite well, for what it is: Hemsworth, Hiddleston, Elba, Goldblum, they all do the necessaries, and demonstrate a good grasp of comedic timing.
Why was six afraid of seven? Because seven eight nine.
And the film looks good. Any concerns that Waitit may not have the chops for the big budget spectaculars ends quickly enough during an opening volcanic escapade and from there Thor gets the full Guardians treatment: lots of colours, lots of exotic locales, lots of varied alien species, yet all having just enough restraint that it doesn’t become an incomprehensible cosmic mess that you can’t relate to it at all. It isn’t quite the jaw-dropping visual feast I have read the film described as, but if you like the way the MCU’s other galactic offerings have looked, then you will surely appreciate what’s been done here.
Two guys walk into a bar. The third guy ducks.
And then what is not so good? The film’s action gets predictable and rather boring fast: lots of sword swinging and cutting down a multitude of mooks, be it Thor with Surtur’s goblins, Hela with the Asgardian army or the finale, wherein every Asgardian character still standing starts ripping through Hela’s undead minions with abandon. Efforts to freshen things up – with magical hammers, with gladiatorial combat, with assault rifles – are only partially successful, and Waititi clearly isn’t an action orientated director (the cinematographer, Javier Aguirresarobe, isn’t of that persuasion either). That wasn’t the priority here, and it shows. The films best action sequence, an airborne chase wherein Asgardians are jumping from vehicle to vehicle, is kept regrettably short, when it had the potential to be something truly special.
What do you call a can-opener that doesn’t work? A can’t opener!
A multitude of the supporting characters also have journeys and narratives that are painfully limited. I’ve given up on trying to figure out what the MCU wants to do with Loki, who was a genocidal tyrant in the making a few films ago and is now a somewhat morally dubious good guy apparently. Jeff Goldblum’s Grand Master is just a second act ornament really. Karl Urban’s Scurge has a pathetically predictable number of plot beats to shuffle through. Idris Elba’s Heimdall might have five lines total. And the various cameos, extended or otherwise, is an inevitable end result of a bloated universe trying to maintain cohesion.
I witnessed an attempted murder earlier. Luckily only one crow turned up.
And, in the grand tradition of the MCU, we have another nothing villain, who had the potential to be interesting but ends up being Cate Blanchett aping her 20 second “Evil Galadriel” bit from The Fellowship Of The Ring for an entire film in terms of acting, and with a character that is just sort of boring: evil for the sake of being evil, who wants to take over the universe because she wants to take over the universe and appears, by the end of proceedings, to be just a sideshow of a prophecy that is real self-fulfilling.
What do you call someone else’s cheese? Nacho cheese!
Here’s the final point I want to make about Ragnarok’s central issue, and you can consider it a spoiler for the films finale, so read on at your peril. At the conclusion of Ragnarok, as per the film’s title, Asgard gets destroyed, torn to pieces by the war between the royal family and finally blown up a gigantic fire demon (voiced by Clancy Brown, keep up the superhero work!). It’s a dramatic moment. This is one of the powers in the universe, the home of a near immortal race of superbeings, being annihilated before our eyes. It’s been a location we’ve seen being fought over, bled over, for three movies. It’s one of the tentpoles of the Marvel universe. What survivors exist are now refugees, forced to seek shelter across the stars. And this moment of high drama is marked by a comedy monologue from Waititi’s rock monster character, who says they can rebuild the place as long as the foundations are strong, sees it blow up and then deadpans: “Well, the foundations are gone.” If Marvel don’t take such a momentous event seriously, why should I? Why should I care?
How do snails fight? They slug it out!
It’s hard to take things seriously when there’s a punchline every few lines isn’t it? It’s hard to care. It starts to get a bit distracting when you’ve come into the experience expecting something somewhat dramatic, and then when the thing flips to being mostly comedic, the dramatic stuff just feels weird, obstructing, odd. Look back over this review. Do you think the jokes improved it? Or to ask a better question, do you think it’s structured well with all the jokes? When Thanos launches his galactic takeover with the help of the Infinity Stones next year, should I take him seriously? Or will I be waiting for Peter Quill or Tony Stark or Rocket Raccoon or the rock monster or Vision or any one of two dozen characters to say something sarcastic, or make a fart joke, or start dancing for some reason?
How do you feel when there is no coffee? Depresso.
I’ll be in the theatre for Black Panther, because supporting that film has an importance beyond supporting the MCU. But after that? I honestly don’t know. I’ve seen every single MCU film in theatres, usually within a day or two of release. But if the reviews for Infinity War, invariably 99% on RT, tell me it’s another laugh riot, I don’t know if I can muster the enthusiasm. Maybe on Netflix or iTunes, so I can have a laugh on a relaxing evening and not have to pay the better part of €20 for it. And I think that I will laugh. But I won’t be all that engaged. And a few years later, I’m not sure I’ll really remember it. Thor: Ragnarok certainly isn’t going to stick in my head as a memorable cinema-going experience.
What’s the best way to carve wood? Whittle by whittle.
Let’s sum up then. If you go to see Thor: Ragnarok, you’ll undoubtedly be entertained. It’s funny, it looks good, and while lengthy for what it is, it certainly isn’t tedious. It’s a very good effort from a director who I have enjoyed previously, and on those terms, I can’t but recommend it. But, if you are of the same persuasion as me, and appreciate a ratio of comedy to drama that favours the later, then you will be left feeling a just a little bit cold by Ragnarok, a sensation that will increase the more you think about it, and the more you realise that there is a missed opportunity. Now, roll on Justice League, and we’ll see if the other extreme – at least if it’s still Zach Snyder’s movie in tone and content – is any better.
I forgot where I put Mjolnir. Then it came to me.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).