I know I’m two weeks late. I’ve been busy. I swear. With like, life stuff. And work stuff. You know, it’s hard to write impressive screeds about the underlying queer subtext between Loki and The Grandmaster when you gained an extra 10 pounds and your job wants you to iterate on the latest round of radio commercials. Listen, it’s been a whole ass two weeks!
And to be fair, Disney freezing the LA Times out due to their great reporting on Disney’s questionable business dealings in Anaheim put a short wrench in my plans. We’re an indie platform here, but it felt imperative that we at least fancy the idea of not reviewing Disney films until they got their act together. Luckily, our greater critic brethren and sistren closed ranks and Disney reversed the blackout quicker than Pookie’s relapsing. All that said…
Taika Waititi’s redemption of the Thor franchise, Thor: Ragnarok, is a jolly good time. Taking a page from the core of Marvel’s “great action set-pieces, bright lights, and light humor will make you pay $20 for every one of our bazillion movies” ethos, Ragnarok is a reboot and a sequel all in one. Thor and The Dark World played in varied thematic spaces, from “play Thor as a fish out of water” to “Thor’s world is bordering on high fantasy noir, maybe, idk. We need a sequel dood.” And besides introducing the lord of thunder and forwarding the grander MCU narrative toward Age of Ultron, neither film really made a mark on most people’s minds. To be fair and put this in context: there have been 12 MCU movies since the first Thor. But besides the two Avengers jaunts we’ve had in that time, Thor’s own world has kind of been an afterthought, lost to us until the upcoming Infinity War.
Ragnarok takes full advantage of this, instead of rushing to catch up to the rest of his be-spandex’d friends. It’s been stated elsewhere, but this “meanwhile, in space” approach lightens the narrative load on Ragnarok while also letting the movie truly live and not get bogged down in exposition. Thor’s in space now! Forget about those pesky dark elves and Natalie Portman!
Granted, there are plenty of references and cameos. But the film inverts its reach, creating a self-contained caper and homecoming narrative that lets Waititi flex Thor’s capacity as a fully-realized character. Sure, he’s still a gotdamn bonehead. But he’s also a wayward son whose mantle of responsibility includes reckoning with the colonial sins of his father. This mirrors the family dramas present in the Avengers films, the Guardians Of The Galaxy films, and Spider-Man: Homecoming (among the many). But it works here precisely because Thor’s world—potentially more than any other—is built off of real familial ties, with (arguably) real consequences. Leaning heavily into the Norse narratives of yore, Ragnarok pitches the eponymous event as a family spat first, and world-ending event second. Add in Valkyrie’s PTSD, Hulk’s identity issues and Korg’s revolution, and you end up with a rollicking story that ends with Thor leading his people to some new (old) places. This Guardians of the Galaxy model—kicking up comedy, hiring directors with indie success, and playing around in space with tangible family drama overtones—needs one more iteration to be an official trope in my book. But it works and Marvel seems to recognize that fully.
It’s also something that Taika Waititi fully takes advantage of. Moreso than any other canonical MCU film, Ragnarok is being hailed as this comedic rollercoaster, a pinnacle of what make Marvel films fun. But why? And how?
In an interview with Vulture, Waititi sheds some light:
“Jesse David Fox: These scenes get cut because they don’t contribute to the point of the movie, which in a lot of Marvel movies is this hero arc, and the fighting, and so on. The goal isn’t comedy. They essentially just put jokes at the ends of scenes, a little quip. But here, the point is specifically the opposite.
Taika Waititi: Yeah, this is the opposite. That really is in the approach to shooting the scene. A good example is how the weapon scene was written in the script: There was one joke at the end of the scene exactly how you’re describing. It was like, exposition, exposition, exposition, exposition, and then Thor goes off to do the fight, and Korg says, “Good luck. I know you can win. I’ve got a lot of faith in you,” or whatever, and then he turns to his mates and goes, “I don’t think he’s gonna win.”
That is typical of Hollywood comedies — well, these bigger studio movies in general — when they wanna put a joke in, but you can tell the joke was written a year ago in an office, when people didn’t even know who was cast or where it was gonna be shot. They hadn’t seen the props or the room that it was gonna be shot in, and it’s exactly this one quip that some smart-ass in a conference room came up with and everyone was like, “Aw, yeah, that’s gonna be great,” and then they just left it at that and never thought about it again, and never tried to think deeper about what might be funny. Our way of doing it is, we’ll have that as a suggestion, but we know we’re gonna find something that’s 50 times funnier on the day, so I tell people to come with ideas. Chris is funny, so the stuff with us messing with these weapons was funny. I wanna put the longer version of that scene out.”
Rather than string action sequences along with canned comedic moments in generic action tentpole fashion, Waititi treats Ragnarok as any other film he’s done, and mines it for everything it’s worth. And it shows. We laugh not because we’re waiting for the next fight, but because we know the jokes will keep going. This reformation of the Marvel template is dope because it also gave space to flesh Thor out. Even in jokes, Waititi is building pathos, as the interviewer notes, even a simple joke about Thor losing his hammer is actually connected to the undercurrent of grieving that Thor hasn’t had time to do over Odin’s passing.
This provides much more impact than an action-sequence based path, as seen in Civil War. In the final movement of the film, we’re supposed to feel for Tony as he struggles between being lied to by Captain America and knowing that the only reason he knows the truth of his parent’s deaths is because Zemo wants the Avengers to fall apart. Linked by various fighting sequences, we’re supposed to feel like “holy shit, Tony’s dealing with a lot.” And yet, we don’t, really. Because we know ultimately that this spat has consequences that are self-contained; Tony will most likely be rejoining the Avengers in Infinity War. And thus, this action is more about spectacle than deep character growth.
In contrast, Ragnarok’s joke-a-palooza admits that the entire situation we’re watching is ridiculous–Vikings in space and giant green men and people who can’t die and Idris Elba can see everything, everywhere, all the time!–and invites us to enjoy the levity and gravity of the smaller moments in between. This often means using jokes as a medium by which story and growth are built; moments that we can enjoy *and* recognize before moving onto the next movement of the film. In a climate where nobody–especially Adam–feels like MCU films say anything of consequence, of course this feels like a breath of fresh air. And, coupled with the fact that Thor was one of the most criminally under-utilized characters in the Avengers, well, it kinda is.
On another note: it feels almost fitting that a native director (word to the Maori folks and New Zealand) would tell this comedic but dark tale of colonialism coming to bite a leader’s empire in the ass. Twice over, mind you. If Odin is the benevolent patriarch hiding his bloody past, The Grandmaster is the emperor of excess, playing with semantics (the fighters aren’t slaves, they’re prisoners with jobs!) to veil his violent gladiator enterprise. Together, they present two sides of violent patriarchal structures that masquerade as “good for everybody.” They both invest(ed) in violent means to gain wealth and notoriety and often leave huge messes to be cleaned up by those with the will, or the numbers. In either case, they serve as delicious critiques of benevolent monarchies, in between the cacophony of jokes that Ragnarok offers.
They may slip over some, but it’s important to call out, as it makes Thor’s place in this world all the more complicated. And it’s also not necessarily new. The Winter Soldier played with the idea of by questioning the purpose and efficacy, and even the security of The Deep State a la S.H.I.E.LD. And Age of Ultron wrestled with the issue of Sokovia and the threat of American imperialism. One can only surmise that Black Panther will further this conversation, that many of us gleefully project onto these films for the sake of a good take. But there are those who have have written at length about the Ultimate Marvel Conundrum, of the films masquerading as parables of meaning and substance, but actually playing entirely in vague notions and surface-level understandings. And while I agree, and have agreed, to a point, I think films like Ragnarok do circumvent the linearity of that narrative.
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To say that Marvel movies don’t really say anything is not a hot take. Honestly, we’re talking about stories being pushed out by Disney, the original mastermind of syrupy, conventional and easily brandable content. Do we really expect there to be some killer, insightful critique of violent masculinity or imperialism as it pertains to poor countries? Are we really going to stomach a deep critique of American nationalism as an offshoot of jingoist, bordering on fascist pride? Will there ever be a truly feminist narrative that doesn’t include heeled boots (seriously, why the fuck do you need heels as a superhero? They’re completely useless in battle.) Part of this is an issue of genre, of course: many superhero narratives are literally built on justifying violence and superiority complexes in order to speak power to nationalism and various forms of vigilante justice, while re-enforcing “traditional” gender and sexual stereotypes to the point of canonization. There’s nothing that says “fuck yeah, 1776!” like a blonde, blue-eyed guy in red, white and blue beating people up in the name of libertarian senses of freedom.
That said, once we accept that this sandbox of stories is corporatized, monetized and digitized for our consumption, we can admit that there are inklings of hope and–better yet–diversity within some of these films. Guardians of The Galaxy proved we could have space adventures and also care about a character without having to get too bogged down in name brand recognition or an adherence to a pretty templatized way of doing Marvel stories. Ragnarok proves that you can have multiple things going on without it feeling entirely diluted by the GRANDER NARRATIVE THAT LEADS INTO INFINITY WAR. And, on some level, I have faith that Coogler’s take with Black Panther will have its own batch of issues to discuss and present in similar fashion.
The question then really is: will this model succeed, or will Feige and DisneyMavelEveryThingCorp simply absorb and harvest it into their grander plans for the MCU? Will indie voices then just be another trope? Allowed to fiddle, as Waititi does, within very strict limits? Or, will this be a continued variable. A delightful mutagen in the MCU genome that creates new and exciting oddballs and heroes, allowing for less uniform stories and insights?
Only time, and money, will tell. In the meantime, let’s not get so bullish that we forget to enjoy these serialized spandex adventures.
Dap owns Timberland boots and is committed to loving black women, eating good food and diversifying media as he sees fit and while he can. He can be found yelling into the abyss and being snarky on the following: IG | Twitter