Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok is out on Blu-ray today, which seems like a good time to revisit this fall release with a few thoughts on the film. After two viewings and time for reflection in between, it’s finally somewhat easier to position a critical response to the November blockbuster from Marvel Studios than it was at the time of release, but an ultimate sense of ambiguity remains. Yes, it was fun, yes I left the theater feeling oddly disappointed–both are true.

Director Taika Waititi made no secret in the press leadup to the release that he’s not a huge fan of superhero films, nor does he take them very seriously, and thus had to be persuaded there was a way to make the Marvel Universe resonate with his own directorial aesthetic. If you aren’t familiar with his work, the New Zealander is best known for his HBO series Flight of the Conchords and indie vampire doc-parody What We Do In the Shadows. Idiosyncratic, chatty, and ironically detached humor dominates these previous outings, and is notably present in Ragnarok as well, in a screenplay penned by MCU veterans Eric Pearson (Agent Carter), Craig Kyle (multiple Marvel animated credits), and Christopher L. Yost (Thor: Dark World, multiple Marvel Animated credits). Waititi is not credited with a pass at the screenplay, and I don’t know that he took one, but this project ultimately speaks in cadences familiar to Conchords fans, especially through CG character Korg, who literally speaks in Waititi’s own voice.

The success of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy installments in the Marvel franchise so far have spawned many imitations outside the verse, with everything from low-budget television series, to rival DC’s films attempting to package themselves with some of the Guardians hallmarks of irreverent misfits and retro nostalgia, but lightning remains tough to capture in the proverbial bottle. Indeed, the Guardians magic remains elusive to such comers, including to this same-verse installment, whose trailer made the shriek and thrum of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” ubiquitous in public places this fall, also heavily featuring retro graphics and the saturated color palette of 70’s rock album colors.

But what exactly does Guardians have, that Ragnarok does not? It’s not the humor–the jokes come quickly and near-continuously in Ragnarok, as do the sight-gags, and the actors appear relaxed and to be enjoying themselves, especially the inimitable Jeff Goldblum (here playing Space Jeff Goldblum, with formidable eyeliner). Nor is it the gently-undermined swag of the heroes–Valkyrie (the iconic Tessa Thompson) alone provides that in spades. The action sequences are fun and visually splashy, and Ragnarok also shares the Guardians joy in big-screen spectacle.

Guardians may have had the advantage, in establishing an entirely new corner of the verse, whereas Ragnarok needed to integrate into larger storylines and character sets, in the world of the Avengers. It does so with an odd lack of specificity or fluency at times: Thor’s intro scene with Surtur is written in cadences that sound like they were written for RDJ’s Tony Stark, and Dr. Strange seems to have leveled up already to a degree of power that is an exponential leap from where we last saw him.

But ultimately, the gap can be described in one word that most critics refuse to acknowledge in the genre anyway: heart. (Or in the parlance of contemporary fandom, “feels”.) I was left with an inescapable sense that Waititi didn’t respect/register the emotional strength of the original material, that these are characters the fans feel deeply about. Even beyond the sense that Thor’s early monologue is a little off, it seems all Asgardians have lapsed out of their cadences of speech already established in the MCU, and for fans of Asgard’s long print legacy, it felt like beyond a brutal slap in the face for the Warriors Three to be slaughtered with such speed and disinterest. May we ask: Where was Sif? While it’s fairly common knowledge that Jamie Alexander had other commitments that precluded her joining the production, it was downright bizarre that Sif’s absence wasn’t explained at all, like it would be totally normal for her to be unreachable on a spa day while Asgard fell. The MCU is a re-imaginging of the print universe, certainly, but it’s at its greatest strengths when it draws on the more enduring aspects of the verse mythology, and trust this reader: the print Asgard stuff is pretty darn great. Indeed, one of the things that can be pretty darn great about it is really unusual and complex female characters, and even beyond the absence of Sif, two more of these characters got disappointingly short shrift: Hela and Valkyrie.

Let’s start with Hela: In print, she’s not Odin’s daughter, she’s the ruler of the afterlife (well, an Asgardian afterlife, the verse is a little crowded with options) and magnificently regal and alien. She has no time or interest for the mortal plane, but she owns you when you’re dead, and if you try to cheat her of that (Anyone? Loki? Looking at you, Loki.) she is not happy. She is open to bargains, especially if the overall balance of the universe is threatened in some way, but she maintains an iron grip over her domain. To see her transformed into a more generic villain was a deep disappointment.

Next, Valkyrie. It was exciting news when Tessa Thompson was cast, because I really thought she could handle the complexity and fierceness of Val well. While I really enjoyed her performance in Ragnarok, and that character was named Valkyrie, the character bore almost no resemblance to the print character of the same name. And that’s a loss for MCU fans. In our current era of storytelling, where memory, identity, technology, consciousness, and trauma are fertile topics in series like Westworld, Altered Carbon, Dollhouse, etc, etc, Valkyrie is one of the earlier genre exemplars exploring these issues at a character level. As first presented, her consciousness a sort of abstraction made manifest in a host human body (an institutionalized human psychiatric patient named Barbara), Valkyrie lives her life dealing with the moral and emotional consequences of needing a body that she knows does not belong to her, to survive. Later retcons reveal she’s a historical figure, not just an abstraction, but she’s still tooling around in a body that isn’t hers (though eventually she does get her original body back). It’s heavy, fascinating stuff, and many shades of grey. No, it probably couldn’t have been introduced in the space this movie had to give this character, but why not have made the character simply another Asgardian valkyrie, problem solved?

Ultimately, with regards to the issue of heart, while Thor and Loki’s big brotherly moment in Dark World is sent up here for laughs, the relationship between the brothers is an engine for real emotional intensity, and would have been well-served by more depth of interaction in this film. Their parents are dead, their home is gone, and to see what family can (and cannot) be in moments of profound crisis such as those, with a little more (dare I say) gravitas, needn’t derail the overall drive of the film.

Speaking of that lost home though, let’s get back to “Immigrant Song” for a moment. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t seem by chance that a song of that title made the trailer/film, even beyond the Norse mythology shout-outs in the lyrics. The lesson of the film is that a people are defined by their community, not geographical place, and that Asgard is its people, not the world where it was. The Asgardian people are last seen setting out to find a new home, becoming a community of aspiring immigrants, and at a time when so much domestic rhetoric is devoted to closing borders, building walls, and turning away those who have lost everything, this message should be received loud and clear. Ultimately, I found it the most redeeming part of the film’s overall arc, giving it a larger purpose beyond its many little moments of fun.

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