By Preston Wilder
Here’s the best (by far) of the three Thor movies (so far), a crowd-pleasing action comedy that deserves all the millions it’ll make – yet, at this stage, I can no longer love Thor: Ragnarok unconditionally. I’ve sat through too many of these things. I’m no longer pure. Faced with another Marvel product – and another Marvel hit, almost certainly – my psyche tends to splinter into two personalities whom I’ll call, in superhero style, Fanboy and Critic Man.
FANBOY: So many positives here. First, the obvious: the script is funny. The characters have grown, notably Loki (Tom Hiddleston) whose deviousness and mendacity are now officially part of his and Thor’s love-hate sibling relationship. Jeff Goldblum is back, and where has he been? – he looks like he’s having the time of his life, with his cat-that-swallowed-the-canary grin and glorious air of permanent distractedness. The action climax is visually striking, staged around an Asgardian tableau of sky, bridge and chasm. The closing credits feature sleek modernist lines and killer music. Not to mention the audacity of a Thor film that deprives Thor of his one recognisable prop – his famous hammer – and gets away with it.
CRITIC MAN: All this is true – but also irrelevant. There’s no point trying to view this film in isolation. It doesn’t exist in isolation – it’s part of a corporate strategy that makes every film subordinate to the bigger picture (the ‘MCU’, or Marvel Cinematic Universe), and seduces the audience into settling in for the long haul. You mention the credits, but look on the internet: nobody’s talking about the credits per se, they’re talking about the mid-credits scene ‘teasing’ next year’s Avengers: Infinity War. Marvel have done away with closure and dramatic unity; they’ve turned each film into a delivery system for the next in the franchise – a cog in the machine, a link in the chain. It’s the ultimate in factory filmmaking.
FANBOY: Look at the actual film, though! Wasn’t Taika Waititi an inspired choice to direct? His New Zealand comedies – What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople – were zany and bold but essentially loveable; he brings the same sensibility here and also voices Korg, a failed revolutionary and good-natured rock monster. (I’m not dangerous unless you’re made of scissors, quips this stone-faced comedian; “Just a little rock-paper-scissors joke there,” he adds helpfully.) Waititi is also an actor, and seems to have brought out the comic energy in his excellent cast; even Cate Blanchett gets a laugh-out-loud moment.
CRITIC MAN: All this might’ve seemed impressive five years ago – but really, all it shows is that Marvel (like any well-run company) keep an eye on the market. Comedy isn’t a new ingredient here. The wacky space creatures, like Korg and his sidekick Miek, are straight out of Guardians of the Galaxy; the constant self-deprecation – like Thor repeatedly interrupting Surtur’s pompous speech about a “great prophecy”, or setting up a big superhero moment that doesn’t come off (“Wait, I didn’t time that right”) – is extremely Deadpool. As for the actors: yes, the cast is excellent, but what do we gain by having people like Cate Blanchett and Mark Ruffalo in this kind of movie? All it means is that Blanchett spent a month playing Hela the Goddess of Death last year, and was therefore too busy to make some other film where she might’ve done more than just flare her nostrils.
FANBOY: I’m afraid I deserve the last word here. Thor: Ragnarok may be product, but being part of a larger, MCU-like tapestry cuts both ways. Some filmmakers may feel crushed and constrained – but it’s equally possible to feel liberated, free to try things out, secure in the knowledge that the MCU acts as a safety net. This one belongs in the second category, highly inventive and light on its feet. Thor is hilarious, playing with his hammer as he talks, posing for a selfie with his Earth fans, fuming about being billed as the Lord (not God) of Thunder – a vain alpha male, both buffoonish and supremely confident. (It’s surely not too fanciful to see the bit where his hammer gets broken by a woman as a symbolic castration, and his subsequent hammer-less journey as a quest to becoming a smarter, less macho man.) The plot is banal, as usual, but the film keeps coming up with delicious detail – Thor and Loki’s story turned into a stage play for Asgardian audiences (Loki is played by Matt Damon), or a quick bit of world-building on a planet with clouds shaped like jellyfish.
The inner debate goes on, finding no resolution. Is it annoying that Thor: Ragnarok is part of a wider ‘universe’? For comic-book agnostics like myself, the answer is yes; it feels like a scam to have sat through Doctor Strange last year just so Benedict Cumberbatch can appear for 10 minutes in this one, prompting a nod of recognition and not much else. Still, people want what they want – and any new Marvel is obviously critic-proof. “You can’t stop Ragnarok,” sneers the evil Surtur; “Why fight it?”. He has a point.
DIRECTED BY Taika Waititi
STARRING Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum
COMIC BOOK ACTION COMEDY
US 2017 130 mins