Thoughts on ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

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Past entries:
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
Thor
Captain America: The First Avenger

The Avengers
Iron Man 3
Thor: The Dark World
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Ant-Man
Captain America: Civil War
Doctor Strange
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Spider-Man: Homecoming

During the events of Captain America: Civil War, with most of the Avengers battling each other, there were two major names missing. Ross actually uses the fact as evidence of the Avengers’ irresponsibility: “Do you know where Thor and Banner are now?”

Ragnarok is more or less about the answer to that question.

We find Thor in the fiery realm of Muspelheim, imprisoned by Surtur the fire demon, who boasts that Ragnarok is at hand. Thor escapes and slays Surtur by summoning his hammer and returns to Asgard for the first time in years, where he quickly unmasks Loki (who has replaced Odin) and forces him to show him where Odin is. They find him with a little help from Doctor Strange, but only just in time to see him die. Odin’s death releases his eldest daughter, Hela, the goddess of death, who quickly defeats both Thor and Loki, destroying Mjolnir, and leaving them both on Sikar, the garbage planet where lost things accumulate under the control of the eccentrically evil Grand Master. Thor is forced to participate in the gladiatorial arena, where he finds the Hulk has been reigning for two years as champion.

Meanwhile, on Asgard, Hela quickly kills the entire Asgardian army and takes the throne, planning to conquer the whole universe with her army of zombies, only first she needs the Bifrost Sword, which Heimdall has stolen. Now Thor has to find a way both to return to Asgard and to destroy the seemingly invincible Hela.

The best way to describe Ragnarok is that it’s a Thor film from and for people who didn’t like the other Thor films.

Well, I liked the other Thor films, so…

It’s kind of tricky to review this one. I have many, many problems with it, but they’re mostly conceptual, relating to “why was this choice made in the first place?” rather than “this is inconsistent or stupid or illogical.” Taken simply on its own merits, the film more or less holds together fine as a quirky sci-fi-fantasy adventure. But taken in context of the franchise as a whole, it’s kind of infuriating.

Simply put, I don’t like the whole premise. I don’t like the conception of Hela. I don’t like Mjolnir being destroyed. I don’t like Asgard being destroyed. I don’t like killing off Odin, especially in such a lazy fashion. I don’t like unceremoniously killing off the Warriors Three (Sif is nowhere to be seen, which is probably a blessing). I don’t like them dealing with Loki’s conquest of Asgard in two minutes. I don’t like them casually mentioning that Jane dumped Thor. I don’t particularly like Valkyrie very much. I don’t like the change in aesthetic and tone.

I just don’t like this film.

I’m fully aware that all of that is more or less subjective, so I’ll try to back it up, but if at the end of the day you don’t agree with me I’ll have no cause to complain. This is going to be a rather different kind of review from the others, where I tried to focus on storytelling mechanics, writing, and so on, sprinkled through with subjective impressions. This one’s mostly going to be complaining about the fundamental ideas of the story.

Let’s start with just the overall tone at play here. In place of the fantasy landscapes of the previous two Thor adventures – icy Jotunheim, lush Vanaheim, the ash-strewn dark world, and so on – here it’s mostly set on the garbage planet Sakaar, which is crazy, dirty technology seemingly inspired more by dystopian or even post-apocalyptic fiction (reminds me a lot of Mad Max or some other ‘80s sci-fi flicks, and especially of the trash planet in the original Transformers: the Movie). The grandiose, would-be Shakespearean dialogue is replaced with slang and quips. Thor and Loki wield guns and get involved in spaceship battles. Thor’s comedic side has been dialed way up and he suffers any number of pratfalls, slapstick humiliations, and the like while tossing out lines like “You’re just the worst.”

In short, they’ve essentially turned Thor into an offshoot of Guardians of the Galaxy, complete with a pop-music soundtrack. And I really don’t like that decision. Whatever the flaws with the earlier Thor films, they at least had their own particular aesthetic and tone, which made them feel fresh and different from the rest of the MCU. Now that’s basically been stripped away, or is stripped away over the course of the film, and it becomes just another wacky space adventure.

I find this disappointing both because it changes something unique in the franchise to something common and because it shuts off so many potential storylines so abruptly. Essentially everything to do with Asgard, the Nine Realms, and Norse Mythology is more or less off the table. No siege of Asgard, no Baldur, no Enchantress, no Jormungandr, all the high-fantasy elements of the franchise are now gone, leaving us only with another comedic space-opera. For the sake of this one film they’ve effectively closed off an entire section of the Marvel universe; it’s a little like how Iron Man 3 abruptly decided it would end the Iron Man story entirely, only this time it’s done in a far more complete and irreversible manner (though thankfully this film is nowhere near as bad as that one).

On that subject, there’s the whole character of Hela. She’s not a bad villainess; she has personality and gets quite a few laughs (again, they’re trying to be like Guardians, so the film is very much a comedy), but her concept is all wrong. This isn’t what a death goddess should be like, these aren’t the goals she ought to have. She’s just an evil queen who wants to rule everything and is effectively invincible: how dull! A death goddess shouldn’t want to conquer the universe, because every living thing already belongs to her, or will soon enough. She ought to be the shadowy ruler of the realm of the dead (as she is in the myths and, I believe, the comics), not a blade-tossing one-woman-army. Again, it’s more or less fine as it stands, but the fundamental concept seems so tired and superficial compared to what might have been done.

Moreover, if they had kept Hela in line with being a queen of the dead, then we might have had Enchantress as the villainess, which, I think, would have been much preferable (not to mention fit better with having Skurge as a supporting villain). She could have beaten Loki at his own game and brought magic to bear against both Thor and Loki, forcing them to work together while being a more manipulative, conniving bad guy instead of just a boringly invulnerable powerhouse. Hela could have been involved as someone they had to deal with as part of the plot, but now I’m just describing a completely different story, one that actually would fit with the mythological aesthetic, and that’s not what we got.

Again, having Thor figure out Loki’s deception the moment he arrives on Asgard is painfully disappointing, and kind of stupid; is Loki really not clever or cunning enough to at least act like Odin? He did a pretty good job at the end of Dark World. Did nobody else ever question why Odin has suddenly changed his personality completely and begun building giant statues to his treasonous adopted son? Again it’s the Iron Man 3, Spider-Man: Homecoming problem of sacrificing a potentially dramatic and interesting storyline for the sake of a couple cheap jokes.

Doctor Strange’s cameo is one of the better parts of the film, though he proves so capable and charismatic as to almost completely overwhelm the main cast, making me think that had he been more involved the film would have been over almost at once (which, come to think of it, is another issue: I really shouldn’t have the impression that the goddess of death would have been no match for a human sorcerer if only anyone had thought to bring him along).

Odin’s death, again, is very abrupt and ill-set up: we’re never given any real reason for it other than “it’s my time.” That said, I do like how his final words are “I love you, my sons,” and how the scene takes something of the form of a funeral, with the bickering siblings meeting after the passing of their father.

Then there’s the destruction of Mjolnir, which kind of sums up the whole film; it doesn’t contradict anything, and you can’t really call it an objective problem…but one, it does seem lazy and unimaginative to just arbitrarily say that Hela can do that, and two, you shouldn’t do that. You should not just destroy Thor’s hammer at the end of the first act with a sudden burst of power from your new villainess. If you’re going to take such a drastic step as to destroy the hammer, you really need to set it up and make it worth something.

It’s not bad, exactly, but it’s wrong. It’s not how this sort of story ought to go. It doesn’t add anything, it only (quite literally) takes it away. Moreover, it wasn’t necessary; you could easily have separated Thor from his hammer some other way (just off the top of my head, we see that Hela once wielded it herself, so what if she just took it and used it against him? Wouldn’t that have been much more interesting?). Now a major element of this hero is just gone because you, the writer, wanted this particular story.

So, in a way this film kind of reminds me of the Star Wars sequels, but with a crucial difference. Upon reading the opening crawl for The Force Awakens and discovering the premise, there is immediately a sense that “it really doesn’t matter what happens in this story, because this premise is all wrong.” Now, the Star Wars sequels are terrible films on top of being ill-conceived. Ragnarok, on the other hand, is more like a competent film built on a terribly conceived premise. I really don’t like the foundational ideas of this film at all, and I think they were a huge mistake. But I will say, the edifice erected upon these ideas can be very entertaining.

I laugh at a lot of the jokes, especially the scenes involving Jeff Goldblum as the Grand Master, who is a riot (“Why are you handing me the melt stick? He interrupted me; that’s not a capital offense!”). Again, Doctor Strange’s cameo is great, especially his direct method of subduing Loki (“I have been falling for thirty minutes!”) and the way he keeps teleporting Thor around his mansion, at one point accidentally bringing a bookshelf with them. Both Thor and Loki’s reactions upon meeting the Hulk again are great, and director Taika Waititi as a genial rock-monster gladiator named Korg gets quite a few laughs. Again, the film is basically a comedy, and while I don’t like the decision to make it one, it is at least a decent comedy (which is to say, the jokes land much more reliably than they do in Homecoming, for instance).

There’s the new character of Valkyrie, a drunken survivor of the Valkyries, an elite squadron of all-female warriors who were massacred by Hela in agest past (we’ll address the questions this raises later). She’s okay; gets a few laughs and some cool action scenes, her belligerence sometimes gets irritating, and she kind of feels like an unnecessary replacement for Sif, but there’s nothing really wrong with her. Her friendship with the Hulk and subsequently wondering where she’s met Banner before are charming enough (and continue the ‘beauty and the beast’ motif).

Now for the Hulk himself, he’s been given a character change almost as much as Thor, though to better effect; he’s considerably more chatty this time around, even having a full-on heart-to-heart with Thor at one point. It makes sense, in context, as we learn that the Hulk’s been in charge for two whole years now, so that he’d naturally become more articulate. Turns out he rather likes being a gladiatorial champion, thinking that everyone hates him on Earth, and Thor has to try to convince him to help him take on Hela. This doesn’t really get much of a pay-off, as the film is too busy playing the material for comedy to give the situation the development it ought to have. The same for Banner’s subsequent horror upon realizing that he’s been the Hulk for two years and that this might mean that the Hulk is taking over permanently. It’s an interesting and potentially horrifying idea, but, again, it’s mostly just played for laughs and there’s not much weight to Banner’s late-game decision to trigger the Hulk anyway.

Their big fight, however, is extremely satisfying, especially since one of my few complaints about the original Avengers was that the Thor vs. Hulk fight in that one was much too short. Here they’re both given full scope to their power, and it’s a ton of fun to watch them slugging each other around the arena. The action scenes in general are about as good as you’d expect at this point; we get Hulk fighting the giant wolf, Fenrir, Thor and Valkyrie tearing apart pursuing spaceships with their bare hands, the climactic battle against Hela’s zombie hoards, and so on. Nothing apart from the Hulk fight really stood out to me as a great MCU battle, however.

Among the other positives is the development with Thor and Loki’s relationship, neatly symbolized by Loki’s habit of projecting an illusion of himself to speak with Thor, and Thor throwing things at him. There’s a very good scene in an elevator where Thor tells Loki that he sincerely thinks it’s best if, once this is over, they never see each other again, and Loki looks actually surprised and uncomfortable at the idea, as though the notion of finally having his resentment actually satisfied makes him realize how empty it is. Loki doesn’t exactly redeem himself here, but he does at least make some progress in that direction, resulting in a great image where he shows up out of the fog in his trademark helmet, but for once as a sign of hope rather than impending danger. I also like how, when Loki yet again tries to act the wounded victim, Thor starts listing off some of his crimes, then finishes with, “Is that enough, or would you like me to go back further than the last two days?” Their final scene together is almost perfect, ending in the surprisingly sweet line, “I’m here.”

But moving on to some genuine plot holes; what is the history of the Valkyries and how does that fit in with the rest of the storyline? It’s said they were massacred when Hela tried to escape her imprisonment; so, how was Hela re-captured then? And if Thor knows about the Valkyries, to the point of fanboying over them (which is completely out of character for him, but why bother at this point), how is it that he doesn’t know about Hela? I won’t even point out that the first Thor suggested that Asgard didn’t have female warriors as a matter of course, because, again, why bother? What, really, is the point of Skurge’s character here? He’s the incompetent new keeper of the Bifrost, then ends up working for Hela out of fear, then sacrifices himself for the people at the end, but…okay, what’s the point? What does that add (and where was he keeping his twin machine guns at the climax)? The rest of the cast is barely aware of him, and if it wasn’t for the one complication near the end (which easily could have been cut), he would be pretty much  completely extraneous (much as I like Karl Urban as an actor).

When Hela arrives at Asgard, she gives a tiredly standard revisionist history of the place, revealing that Odin conquered the Nine Realms (here taken as dominions of Asgard rather than regions of the universe, which…they do know that the Nine Realms includes Earth right?) in bloody and militaristic conquest before having a change of heart and banishing her, complete with covering the dark and violent ceiling paintings with a literal false façade. Again, that doesn’t fit with what we learned of Asgard in the previous two films, and it’s once again a fairly tired and dull development. We’ve seen that sort of ‘revelation’ a thousand times before (including done much better in Winter Soldier).

And I know I’m in the minority here, but frankly I’d much rather have the old ‘Thor’ supporting cast back. I’d much rather have Jane and Darcy and Selvig, and Lady Sif and the Warriors Three than Valkyrie and Skurge and the rest.

That pretty much sums up my view of Ragnarok: I can’t call it a bad film, and it’s entertaining enough going down, but I don’t like it. The whole premise and conception of the film seems all wrong to me, sacrificing tons of potential storylines and characters for the sake of a mish-mash of a fairly standard story. It’s like they took a bunch of elements from the comics, but rather than shaping them into a meaningful whole they just dumped them onto the screen and did whatever came to mind. The execution is generally pretty strong, if uneven, but it’s the execution of a failed premise, so it can never be particularly satisfying.

1 thought on “Thoughts on ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

  1. I liked it…as far as the pulp scifi-type worldbuilding and pulp scifi-type characters (Valkyrie, in her drunken-but-cute and badass mercenary role, definitely counts), and some of the humor landed on target. Also, I liked the fact that it attempted to raise the scope and the stakes from “eh, powers,” to “THOR, ODIN’S SON, PROTECTOR OF MANDKIND, RIDE TO MEET YOUR FATE.” Mostly, I like that it had its own idea and it tried pretty hard to pull it off. If it had succeeded, it would rank up there with Star Wars.
    As it is…I say 3.5/5.
    (Oh, and Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston are always a win. 😉 )

    Like

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