When the powers that be first set about creating the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it seemed like a fatally ambitious idea. It’s probably hard to recall, what with society’s collective 90-day memory span, but back in 2007 the very idea of a “Marvel Cinematic Universe” sounded like the stupidest thing in the history of everything.
It seems unthinkable now, but the entire world (myself included) kicked back and prepared to laugh at the epic failure to come.
Okay, I was wrong. But can you blame me? The Avengers? That was a comic I never bothered to read in my childhood because it was full of losers like Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk and…I don’t know…wasn’t there a girl with no powers and some dude who fights evil with a pair of salad tongs or something?
All are names that as a child I gave approximately zero shits about. Iron Man? A terrifying drunk who is literally a walking deus ex machina. Captain America? An irritating nerd whose sense of humor is decades out of date. Thor? He talks like Oscar Wilde’s gently homophobic cousin, yet is armed with the world’s most conspicuous phallic symbol. Don’t even get me started on Hulk, whose most interesting quality is the location of the mysterious Big-n-Tall store that never runs out of distressed purple chinos.
Prior to the MCU, the only Halloween costume more shameful than Hawkeye might have been anything involving grease paint, Jar-Jar Binks, or perhaps the mighty Brown Power Ranger.
Complicating things further was the fact that Marvel intended to release solo films for each character before teaming them up. Imagine my excitement at the prospect of five full length cinematic films based on the discount bin of super heroes! Superhero movies were fine but this pretentiously named “Cinematic Universe” was a train wreck waiting to happen.
As we all know, it worked out pretty well. And quietly tucked away in there somewhere was Thor (2011), the story of a heavily muscled Australian’s awkward romance with a mildly interested Natalie Portman. Thor: The Dark World (2013), left me similarly flat with its dreary, obtuse interpretation of Norse mythology.
At the time, I often wondered how both Thor and Hulk had managed to appear in two thoroughly mediocre solo films apiece, while Black Widow was (and to date, still has been) left to circle the runway. Whatever the logic, the ManCentric Universe has powered forward since then, churning out at least two remarkably similar films each year. Each dutifully racks up ever more staggering box office, despite creatively being stuck in a deeper rut than the last two seasons of Gilligan’s Island.
I held out hope for Thor: Ragnarok after learning that promising newcomer Taika Waititi (What We do in the Shadows) had received the assignment. He didn’t seem a natural fit for the MCU’s rotating door of guest directors until plans were announced for Ragnarok to be somewhat more lighthearted than what we were used to.
They did not lie. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) begins his third film imprisoned in what looks like Marilyn Manson’s basement, forced to endure several minutes of tedious monologue from a talking man-goat who is also on fire. Their very silly conversation not only sets the tone for the film, but makes Thor aware of a mortal threat to his people. With Odin unavailable, he and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) are forced to team up and battle Hela (Kate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death.
Obviously, her big plan is to take over the universe, blah blah blah. A clever blend of action and comedy ensues.
What, do I not sound especially enthusiastic? Maybe it’s because each MCU film is forced to serve a wider narrative, often at its own expense. This has resulted in a string of movies that aren’t really about anything, involving an increasing number of characters who, on paper, are largely indistinguishable from one other. What does all this mean?
Well, the reason I still buy physical copies of films at all is because the ones I know I’ll want to revisit deserve to be physically owned. I want the bonus disc extras, I want the director’s commentary and I want the tactile and emotional delight of being able to hold something I value in my own two hands.
There just aren’t many Marvel movies that do that for me, and they’ve made about six thousand of them. But where previous installments of Thor came and went like lightly salted tofu, Ragnarok is as brash and cavalier as a bacon cheeseburger made of donuts served with cocaine infused onion rings. Translated, that means the inciting issues of the story are merely the foundation and not the only goddamn thing holding it together.
Which makes it an unfortunate time to overcompensate for the series’ historical lack of humor.
Ragnarok seems designed to further the development of Thor as a character and resolve some issues with Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), last seen disappearing into thin air. Thor finds him, but there’s some serious problems with the old Hulkster that only the God of Thunder can solve. So between Thor’s family of Shakespearean actors in capes and Bruce Banner’s constant struggle to avoid tearing the heads off everyone in sight, that’s a lot of baggage.
Lightening the tone was certainly a good call, and Ragnarok is therefore considerably less self-serious than most of the Avengers series.
Sadly the self referential wisecracks come at almost Roger Moore speed and sharpness, which I found more than a little distracting. You can have too much of a good thing, and you’ll likely decide within the first ten minutes how well it sits with you. Despite this, I have to give Ragnarok credit for forging its own identity in a crowded field where as I’ve said, everything looks pretty much the same.
Getting back to Thor, he finds himself without his famous hammer and stranded on a planet covered with colorful piles of junk. While in the capital city (which looks like a Star Wars set whose color palette was chosen by a nine year old girl) he’s taken captive by a former ally (Tessa Thompson) and thrown into a gladiator pit. There he’s forced to fight the Hulk for the amusement of the planet’s ruler – a glib, sexually depraved maniac known as the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum).
So yes, there’s some strategically muted adult humor in Ragnarok. Probably because Jeff Goldblum is in it, and he is a sexy man who demands sexy dialogue. While you’re likely to find the Grandmaster entertaining, he’ll probably require a few minutes of adjustment. Almost everything about Ragnarok will, and while not all of it works for me I can’t say enough how glad I am to finally see some signs of new energy in the Marvel wheelhouse.
Yeah, the level of camp was a bit much but at least it doesn’t feel as forced as it often does with the Guardians.
And a special bonus – the phat electronic soundtrack (by Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo) is almost its own character, and there’s some effective use of popular rock music that should piss me off but instead is absolutely all kinds of badass. I won’t spoil it except to say that once you’ve seen the climactic battle scene near the end of this film, you will finally understand what my dreams are like…every night of the week.
Look at it this way: With a any movie you have to weigh the weaknesses against the strengths and decide whether the film achieves its goals. With most Marvel flicks it either just evens out, or barely tips toward “acceptable”. Ragnarok is a welcome change for the better, and for that it earns a place in my actual, physical collection.
Finally, a Thor movie I can get behind!
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Jack?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."