The Ragnarok Will Be Televised
- OnScreen Chief Film Critic
After reading Greg’s hot take about Thor: Ragnarok, I felt compelled to respond. It’s a slightly awkward position to be in, feeling the need to “defend” something that has drawn near-universal praise, but this aggression will not stand, man. Also, I wanted to title this “Dr. StrangeThor: Or Why I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Ragnarok” but it’s a little too wordy for a URL.
According to Greg, Thor: Ragnarok crosses the line in the franchise from being an action movie with elements of comedy into a full on parody of Marvel movies. This is a troubling shift for Marvel and potentially portends Marvel’s own Ragnarok, which is the end of the MCU as we know it because the jokes undermine the stakes and undermine the story, making the overall product more disposable. This is concern trolling disguised as a hot take (really a lukewarm take given how much Greg soft pedals it all by saying, “But I actually really liked it!”). In his excitement to Stephen A. this thing, Greg has fallen into what he accused Taika Waititi of doing: missing the forest for the trees. Greg seems to have missed that what he sees as a potential Ragnarok for Marvel has already been happening for a few movies now.
Let me first start by saying that while I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and you can read my review here (shameless plug, I know), I’m not going to claim that it’s the best Marvel movie ever. That’s clearly recency bias. For me, The Avengers is the best top to bottom Marvel movie so far, but Thor: Ragnarok is close behind along with several others. But this movie is tons of fun.
There is a clear progression in the timeline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe laid out by Marvel delineating the MCU in Phase One, Phase Two, and Phase Three categories and building upon the previous phase. This expansion has also led to a diversification of the superhero template they’re working with. There were elements of this in the first Thor movie, as Greg rightly points out, giving it some Shakespearean touches of royal family drama. It’s most overtly seen, though, beginning with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which was a 70s conspiracy thriller. Guardians of the Galaxy was a pure sci-fi action adventure. Ant-Man was a heist movie. Spider-Man: Homecoming was channeling the John Hughes high school movies of the 80s. Also, those last three films were noticeably funnier than previous Marvel movies. I mean, Brian Fantana is Ant-Man and Andy Dwyer from Parks & Rec is the Star-Lord.
Thor: Ragnarok is another diversification of that template, making what is essentially an 80s action comedy. What are some of its influences? I’ve read that Flash Gordon was a heavy influence (something I can’t speak directly to as Flash Gordon is a cinematic blind spot for me). But another 80s movie that I see as a pretty clear influence on Thor: Ragnarok is John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China. There’s definitely a bit of Jack Burton in Hemsworth’s Thor in this entry, with a lot of the comedy undercutting the character without undermining him. It takes a good actor to pull that off, and I think Hemsworth does just that.
Since Greg referenced National Lampoon’s Family Vacation in a YouTube clip, I don’t feel so bad going back to the 90s for my reference point here. One of my favorite shows still to this day is The X-Files. Did fans of that show say, “How can we take the larger alien conspiracy story arc seriously with episodes like ‘Jose Chung’s From Outer Space’ and ‘Bad Blood’ thrown in there?” Of course not! Do those episodes betray the essence of the Mulder and Scully just because they are more overtly comedic? Shut your mouth! Was the show undermined by the comedic episodes? (No, it was undermined by not knowing how to effectively wrap up the alien conspiracy, actually.) Some of those episodes are the most beloved episodes of the series. It’s ok blend levity with stakes, and mess with the balance. We’ve seen what happens without it in DC’s Justice League. Is it any surprise that Wonder Woman succeeds because it pulls in some of the elements that made Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor successful origin stories?
*minor spoilers ahead*
A lot of the humor of Thor was that Thor was of the “unintentional comedy” variety of a fish out of water, but you can’t go back to that well. With Ragnarok, Thor is a more self-aware character and the comedy and, yes, the drama, comes from that. I saw it a second time Sunday night. In some ways, it works better on a second viewing. The family drama is still there, this time expanded to include Hela. There’s heart to the relationship between Thor and Loki, particularly in the elevator scene where Thor tells Loki that he thought the world of him and always wanted him by his side, but Loki chose to be something else. The scene where Thor throws rocks at Loki’s holographic projection of himself is rewarded at the end of the movie when he is actually standing in front of Thor when Thor assumes he’s just another projection.
I would say that there’s no denying that Thor: Ragnarok subverts the genre and the expectations for a Thor movie. The question I would have is “To what end?” I guess I see more at work in some areas here than Greg does. Thor is stripped of his hammer and his home by the movie, similar to how Tony Stark is without his Iron Man suit for most of Iron Man 3. As Odin notes, he’s not Thor, the God of the Hammer, he’s Thor, the God of Thunder. And the “Asgard is not a place, it’s a people” really worked for me. As someone who grew up in Christian faith and believes “the church is not a building, the church is people,” that line makes sense.
We got excited in 2008 when The Dark Knight transcended the superhero genre and worked not just as a superhero movie but a compelling crime drama as well. It showed that superhero movies had the potential to be something more than just origin stories and big fights, and what had been associated with superhero movies to that point. DC thought everything had to be dark and brooding after that. Fox mostly stayed in its lane with their X-Men universe, with Logan being their first real departure from their own formula. Funny enough, it looks like the MCU is the only one that has taken the proper lesson from The Dark Knight in realizing that superhero movies can be not just something else but almost anything else. There is no indication that Marvel will take the wrong lesson from their own success here, given their sustained success with other properties within the MCU.
What Greg sees as a Ragnarok event for Marvel is really something that has already been regular practice for MCU movies for a few years now. I guess one way to approach Thor: Ragnarok is as the beginning of the end, but I think that’s the DC mindset (Never go full DC). Another way to look at it is as an evolution. It’s entirely possible that Marvel may lose its way in the sprawling scope of the MCU, but it won’t be because they made an action comedy. Greg has his three mottos in life, well, I’ve got at least one motto too, and it’s what Ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like this.
*I write movie reviews regularly here on OnStage Blog, and unlike SOME people on this site, I don’t talk about Fight Club. Follow me on Twitter @kenjones81, where @Grege333 and I mix it up about movies and sports fairly regularly.