Thor: Ragnarok marks the 17th major release in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That's 17 times fans have flocked to theaters to check in on this franchise and indulge in the bizarre mixture of nostalgia for the heroes of our childhood and the spectacle of modern filmmaking. But as I left the theater this time I had some nagging thoughts that I couldn't shake. Thor: Ragnarok wasn't BAD by any stretch of the imagination (definitely had more satisfying moments than Thor: The Dark World), but why couldn't I enjoy it as much as other Phase Three tent poles like Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2?
Let's GET INTO IT.
The first act of this movie almost gave me whiplash. BOOM. Thor's fighting Surtur. BOOM. He's back in Asgard and the revelation that Loki had usurped the throne takes 40 seconds. BOOM. Now we're at Doctor Stran- BOOM Odin's actually dea- BOOM Hela arrives to- BOOM Thor is in a garbage plan- BOOM the Warriors Three get STABBED A BUNCH TO DEATH. There's enough happening in the first 20 minutes of this movie that other franchises would only get around to by the third film in a quadrilogy. Within the narrative that's been built up so far, this is a devastating melodrama about the twilight of the gods, our once glistening hero brought into the depths of despair as he finds himself orphaned, directionless, and all his friends have left him or been (if you astutely recall) brutally stabbed to death. But also this is a comedy. This is a comedy directed by a comedic director with quite possibly more explicit jokes and gags than any other Marvel movie ever made. It's all hard to digest when these characters that I've learned to empathize with over the course of 6 years go through so much loss, and then it's brushed aside in service of pratfalls and snarky one liners? By the end of the movie I finally fell into Waititi's rhythm, but that first act is a DOOZY.
Cate Blanchett is a great actress and carries more menace and personality than most of the mediocre threats that the MCU has drummed up, but she still didn't manage to be a GOOD villain. Her vague stated goal to conquer the universe is a little lacking in details...
From what I can gather from the movie her plan seems to be:
Step 1: Spend 500,000 years waiting for the exact moment for your Dad to die.
Step 2: Get to Asgard, passively absorb its "energy" to grow in power.
Step 3: See that said power manifests exclusively as "ability to throw increasingly large pointy things"Step 4: Get army of spooky zombie jobbers for other characters to stomp
Step 5: Open up the dimensional gate and use pointyness to conquer the known reality
Even tossing aside the physical stakes for this movie, the emotional stakes are also wonky. Hiddleston's Loki emerged as a fan favorite because he had an established history within the narrative. The family drama that drove the first movie and showcased how Loki was at once sympathetic yet untrustworthy and made him compelling to watch. In theory, this should also be the case for Blanchett's Hela, but her connections are rattled off as vague allusions to "Father" or just SHOTS OF A CONVENIENT EXPOSITORY MURAL. Yes, these are concise and efficient ways to get information across, but there's no real payoff or resolution. In the end she feels more like an obstacle than a character.
Not saying that Chris Hemsworth isn't funny. He's charming. Affable. Does a good job playing a dumb jock archetype. But Thor isn't a dumb jock, he's THOR. Privileged, confident, and embodying the nobility and grand appetites of heroes of yore. That's how he has existed in decades of comics and 5 MCU movies, but Hemsworth did a Paul Feig movie and now he wants to be "ripped Seth Rogen". There's some really amazing laughs in here. Taika Waititi's performance as the soft-spoken Korg the Kronan is fantastic and Jeff Goldblum is in complete control of his absurd energy as the kibbitz-y Grandmaster. So the rest of the cast tends to fall short in terms of getting laughs. Even the scenes between Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo feels like a level 2 improv troupe rather than what was supposed to be the "funniest" Marvel movie. The bizarre throwaway gag about Loki and the snake was the highlight of Hemsworth's comedic performance.
In the movie there is a surprisingly important weapon that factors more into the plot than Mjolnir, the Rainbow Bridge, and the Tesseract COMBINED. It's these tiny silver discs with a blue LED that are used to subjugate the warriors on Sakaar. Valkyrie is seen using one to incapacitate Thor and the little buzzer does an incredibly good job incapacitating the God of Thunder even at the height of his power. The weapon appears to be common and easy to use even by laypeople. In fact, it seems heavily implied that for Valkyrie these things are a common tool for her trade as a "slave/fighter/wrangler". What I'm trying to say is that if any one of our heroes chucked those at Hela like a fistful of sci-fi MacGuffin nickels, the entire plot would have been resolved in like 2 minutes tops.
So much of this movie was done in service of presenting Thor's new status quo before Infinity War Part 1 dropped, and then the rest was working around the real world actors' schedules and conflicts. I understand that movies are products made by real human beings and compromises need to be made but I still couldn't help but notice the absence of Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings, the very attractive brunette actresses whose weird mix of onscreen presence and religious backgrounds made them uniquely socially acceptable crushes during my teen years. Probably wasn't worth its own entry, just a grossly personal look into my upbringing. But with the way this sequel kind of shrugs off the established tone of the previous movies I guess it wasn't as important for Kat Dennings to run around in a hoodie going "mew-mew" anymore.
One of the things I've noticed as superhero movies continue to fill theaters is the way that studios have been picking out scenes and imagery from classic comicbook stories without bothering to actually adapt classic comics stories. There's a word for this in comics, a term for when an artist steals another artist's panel or layout as a cheap shortcut rather than coming up with something new, it's called "swiping". Even the best creators were known to swipe in a crunch, why reinvent the wheel, after all. Now the swiping happens on the silver screen (last year's Batman V. Superman swiped from The Dark Knight Returns and The Death of Superman for example). Thor: Ragnarok swipes from Walt Simonson's legendary run on The Mighty Thor in the 1980s, specifically his landmark issue #362 (which tops many lists and google results as the greatest single Thor comic of all time).
But the story of Thor: Ragnarok isn't the story that Simonson told back then. The characterization, the buildup, the circumstances, all the meaning behind having a goofy-looking goatee man fire dual M-16s at viking zombies are stripped away and we get this hyper-abridged version meant to please the fans, but in the end add to the disjointed tonal weirdness of the movie. Then there's the setting of Sakaar and the presence of Gladiator Hulk, which were integral to the beloved 2006 story Planet Hulk by Greg Pak, a year-long epic that breathed new life into the character after a decade of aimlessness. All of these swipes and allusions to great visual storytelling achievements made me wish I had been watching ACTUAL adaptations of these stories, instead of the mishmash product I was watching in the theater.
Valkyrie is a bisexual alcoholic with PTSD. That's her character. The plucky young fight grrrrl is in practice an aging veteran with so many souls to honor that she shut down inside. Asgard is a colonial superpower built on the bloodshed of countless obliterated civilizations, and Thor chooses to burn the entire country to the ground rather than continue to benefit from its cruel history. Loki kinda sorta murdered his dad and everybody forgives him rather quickly as soon as its necessary for the plot. Sorry to keep harping on this but this is WEIRD stuff to cover in a comedy. There's even a planet-wide workers' revolt that's played off for laughs. Not sure if this is symbolic depth that they snuck past the studio suits, or just the kind of overanalysis that drives 99% tumblr fandom. But once every few minutes I couldn't help but sit up and think "oh wait, are we going there with this"? The answer was always "nah".
Miek is a giant bug. He has KNIVES FOR HANDS. Miek is onscreen for about 3 minutes total throughout the film. A steadfast friend of Korg the Kronan. He does not speak, he is relatively ineffective in battle, and has very little to do with the comics version of his character BUT at one point he does a goofy roundhouse kick to prove how tough he is and I laughed super hard and I'm not sure why. I say release the director's cut with more MIEK scenes, let him become the new dumb meme that redditors use to prove they're above memes, make Miek such a pervasive and overused nerd joke that months from now people will complain about all the Miek fanboys and how they ruined Miek. All praise Miek, the BUG with KNIVES for HANDS.