***Spoiler warning: I’m going to spoil the hell out of this movie.***
Ever since the Jotunheim scene early in the original Thor, I have lamented the fact that with the exception of that scene, Marvel has not seemed to know what to do do with the God of Thunder. He never seemed as powerful as he ought to be and never seemed to know what to do with Mjolnir except hit things.
So what I have hoped for in Thor: Ragnarok has been a movie that let Thor be the God of Thunder. And from the moment that I first heard Robert Plant’s unearthly “Immigrant Song” howl deep under Muspelheim, I knew that whatever else I’d have to say about Ragnarok, I’d at least be able to say that it finally gave us Thor as he should have been all along. This movie does for Odinson what Captain America: Winter Soldier did for Cap: it shows us what a badass Thor really is.
There are other things to love about this movie, too. Visually it’s by far the most interesting entry in the MCU to date. From the opening shots in Muspelheim it feels like art from a silver age comic that has come alive on the big screen; the visual vocabulary created by Jack Kirby and others in the 1960s is everywhere on display.
And also like Winter Soldier before it, Ragnarok makes some of the boldest storytelling choices that we’ve seen in the MCU. Many of Marvel’s critics complain about the “Marvel Formula,” and in some ways this movie defies that formula––or at least it deploys the formula in a way that feels fresh. Before I saw the movie, I had a hard time believing that Marvel would go as far as destroying Asgard––but they did it. And though I wasn’t at all surprised when it happened, I was thrilled when Hela took out Thor’s eye. The deaths of the Warriors Three is also a surprisingly bold move (though I am sad to see them go). All this underscores that true to its title, Ragnarok is a story with real consequences for the future.
Moreover, Ragnarok’s action scenes are some of the best in any Marvel movie. The fight between Hulk and Thor in the arena is as thrilling as it ought to be, and if you know your comics, you’ll agree that it ends exactly as it ought to end. Though he doesn’t get to use it very long before it’s destroyed, Thor finally seems to know what to do with Mjolnir, and even without it he kicks ass as he’s never kicked it before. The fight between Hela and the Asgard army is beautifully choreographed, and it’s one of the few times since the elevator scene in Winter Soldier when I’ve seen a single fighter take down a number of foes and found it believable.
The acting is mostly serviceable. Hemsworth and Hiddleston both shine in their respective parts. Cate Blanchett is absolutely stunning as Hela. Visually, it’s as if she walked right off of a Jack Kirby page, and though she’s mostly a one-note villain, she’s one of the most menacing that Marvel has ever produced. Unsurprisingly, Anthony Hopkins is deeply affecting as the aged and dying Odin (though his screentime is short). Tessa Thompson is fine as the hard-drinking and disaffected Valkyrie (though I’m disappointed to say that I found the character to be a little forgettable). Meanwhile, Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster is . . . Jeff Goldblum. You decide whether or not that’s a good thing.
But while there is a lot that I can say for this movie, I also have some serious complains. For a movie that mostly hits all the right beats, Ragnarok is sometimes disappointing––and occasionally infuriating. Sitting through all the times when this movie purposely undercuts itself with dumb jokes, it was tempting for me to say that Marvel and Disney executives watched public and critical reactions to the moody Batman v Superman and learned all the wrong lessons: People don’t want superhero movies that take themselves seriously! They want jokes! Lots! Of! Jokes! We can’t risk letting them think that we take any of this stuff seriously! So we have to make sure that there’s a joke after every scene that might come across as “dark” or “gritty”!
Now to be fair, Ragnarok isn’t the MCU’s first offender where this problem is concerned. The Guardians of the Galaxy movies both rely heavily on incongruous humor––jokes made funnier by their placement after “serious” moments. Doctor Strange does this occasionally, too. But it feels especially offensive in a movie about the Norse apocalypse.
Perhaps the worst of these jokes comes as Thor and the refugees are watching Asgard being destroyed. Yes, the movie goes to great pains to show that Asgard is a people, not a place––but the destruction of the Realm Eternal ought to be more meaningful than an easy joke. It’s as if some studio executive was constantly looking over the screenwriters’ shoulders saying, “Okay, you just wrote a sad scene, so throw a joke in there to make sure that the audience doesn’t take it seriously!”
I might be able to resign myself to the fact that Marvel’s primary means of getting laughs is incongruous juxtaposition, but there are two jokes in Ragnarok that I’m not sure I’ll be able to forgive. The first is Loki’s parody of his “death” scene in Thor: The Dark World. Few scenes in The Dark World worked very well, and the play that Loki has put on as he lounges around disguised as Odin manages to make fun of two of them. As the actors portray Loki’s death, a choir sings a theme from Frigga’s funeral scene in The Dark World. That theme probably gets used at Loki’s “death” scene, too (I can’t remember for sure), but it’s most memorable as the theme of Frigga’s funeral. This bothers me so much because even after several years and several movies, I still look back at Frigga’s death and funeral as one of the most moving sequences from the entire MCU. Whether or not it’s what the filmmakers set out to do, Ragnarok comes across as if it’s telling us, For goodness sake, don’t take that stuff seriously, either!
Later, during Thor’s fight with the Hulk in the Grandmaster’s arena, there’s a moment that satirizes Black Widow calming the Hulk in Age of Ultron, and while I was okay with Thor constantly telling Hulk, “The sun’s getting real low,” the scene in the arena takes the joke about three or four beats too far.
And speaking of the Hulk, I’m not in love with the way that the movie depicts him, either. In The Avengers, Whedon made the Hulk truly menacing and still managed to give him some humorous moments, but in Ragnarok, Waititi makes him a big baby and a buffoon.
In other words, it’s one thing for Ragnarok to poke fun at itself, but it’s another thing for it to be a parody of the MCU as a whole. It seems to me that the entire franchise is in trouble if all it has left is self-mockery.
Now that’s a lot of criticism of the humor, but not all the humor is bad. The Kronan Korg (played by Waititi himself) is often hilarious, and there are some humorous moments involving Loki that work well, too.
So I left the theater last night with a grin on my face, thrilled that Marvel has finally given us a Thor who is worthy of the name. I was thrilled at Blanchett’s menacing Hela. I was thrilled at the movie’s bold visual tone and the bold directions that it takes. I was thrilled about the future that it promises for the MCU––Thor as king; perhaps Asgard floating over Broxton, Oklahoma; perhaps Hela as consort and partner to Thanos.
But the further I get from Ragnarok, the more it worries me. I hope that it isn’t a sign that the MCU is descending into self-mockery and an endless string of incongruous humor. Whedon, the Russos, and others have built a shared universe that is surprisingly true to life: it’s a beautiful blend of seriousness, death, heroism, absurdity, and––yes––humor. But Ragnarok, for everything that it does right, does its best to undercut anything serious about itself or the movies that came before it.
(Postscript: I might also add that Ragnarok makes the MCU’s language problem even more of a problem. But at this point, I have resigned myself to the fact that we’re just going to have to live with it.)