Thursday, November 16, 2017
THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, sociological*
Don't call this film a "Twilight of the Gods;" it's more like a "twilight of the THOR franchise."
Thor's brother Loki may be adopted, but it's the God of Thunder who has always been the "red-headed step-child" in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as I pointed out in my reviews of THOR and THOR: THE DARK WORLD. I explicitly stated that I didn't hold the movie-makers to the high standards of Lee and Kirby (not the hierarchy one usually encounters in film / comics comparisons, but one I find valid). But RAGNAROK makes clear that. whereas the film-makers made some effort to formulate movie-mythologies for Iron Man and Captain America, the only effort they could make for the thunder-god was the effort it took to milk a cash-cow.
I went into RAGNAROK with cautious optimism. Though I'd read no full reviews, I'd heard good comments on the film's humor, and whatever the failings of the MCU, humor has usually been one of its strong points. But in this film, the comic elements become so overbearing as to usurp those of adventure. Moreover, whereas most MCU films have had some sense that "less is more," RAGNAROK merely proves that "more is too much."
The tone is quickly set by an opening "teaser-sequence." As part of an espionage mission, Thor lets himself get caught in the realm of the fire-demon Surtur, In comics Surtur has sometimes assumed the role of a "Big Bad," but here he's very close to being a "throwaway villain," like Batroc in WINTER SOLDIER, and only Surtur's role at the climax of RAGNAROK makes him slightly more of a significant presence. The teaser owes its basic concept to a similar sequence in 2012's AVENGERS, wherein the Black Widow lets herself be captured as a means of interrogating her captors, But the RAGNAROK script ruins any potential suspense with its over-reliance on goofiness, which quality scarcely ever lets up for the remainder of the movie. The teaser is capped by an "almost failed rescue" caused by an inattentive contact man, which goes back to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and which has certainly gotten long in the tooth these days.
Chris Hemsworth's "surfer dude" version of Thor is the only virtue of this dull sequence, but it's telling that as soon as he gets back to Asgard, the script wastes no time bringing him back into contact with his shifty brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). It's hard to blame the scripters much on this score, since the Hemsworth-Hiddleston chemistry remains solid. An earlier plot-thread, in which Loki bundled Odin off to Earth in order to take over Asgard, is disposed of by having the brothers seek out their lost parent on Earth, though this simple plot-action is needlessly extended with a time-wasting guest-appearance of Doctor Strange. No sooner do Thor and Loki find Odin than, tempus fugit, Odin reveals that he's about to die. The writers and director rush through this revelation as quickly as possible in order to announce that Odin's death will unleash a new menace on the cosmos.
In Norse mythology and in Marvel's THOR comics, Hela is called a "goddess of death" because she reigns over a domain of deceased souls. RAGNAROK's Hela ( a slumming Cate Blanchett) is sometimes called a "death-goddess," but this seems to be a synonym for "Badass Who Kills a Lot of People." Hela is Odin's first offspring, and it's loosely established that long before Thor or Loki existed, she helped Odin conquer the Nine Worlds. At some point Odin became sick of all the bloody killing-- a development that serves only to bring him into line with the original depiction of the ruler in the first film-- but Hela wanted to keep on killing, just because she liked it so much. So he exiled her, and somehow kept everyone else in Immortal Asgard from remembering her existence. However, once Odin dies, Hela pops up and tries to kill both of her brothers, since they're rivals for the rulership of Asgard. Hela's attack results indirectly in the two gods getting flung elsewhere. The evil goddess goes on to easily bend Asgard to her will, and to create an army of zombie warriors.
Thor and Loki both end up on the planet Skaar, whose other name in Marvel continuity is "Planet Hulk." Skaar is an entirely stereotypical "gladiator world," which exists for no reason but to pit alien fighters against one another. Loki gets separated from the thunder god, which is to Loki's benefit, since for the next twenty minutes Thor gets captured and subdued by the high-tech of a cynical warrior-woman, who in turn sells Thor to Skaar's nutty ruler, the grandstanding Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, reprising his usual quirky character-type). Before Thor goes into battle against his first opponent, the hero learns that the woman who sold him is a Valkyrie of Asgsard-- indeed, she's a take on Marvel's "Valkyrie" character, though I don't think the script ever gives her a formal name. It also comes out that she, unlike the rest of Asgard, remembers Hela because she was the only surviving member of a force that sought to master Hela. (Why did the Valkyries need to fight Hela at all, if Odin had the power to exile her? Who knows?) In any case, she's a shallow, badly conceived and poorly acted character.
Inevitably, Thor comes to grips with the Grandmaster's champion, the Incredible Hulk, whose appearance on Skaar was set up at the end of the second AVENGERS movie. The battle of the two titans is one of the film's best aspects, and their subsequent dialogue might have proved a lot funnier had it nor been preceded by tons of juvenile pratfalls. The film spins its wheels for another thirty minutes trying to figure out how Thor can get back to Asgard in the company of Hulk, Loki and Valkyrie when none of them want to leave Skaar. An earlier film might have had the hero inspire the others with his tenacity and courage. Perhaps the political climate presumably wouldn't allow Thor to "mansplain" things to the recalcitrant warrior-woman. Finally, the hero-team makes it back to Asgard, where they find that they can't oppose Hela-- who is belatedly said to draw her energy from Asgard somehow-- so the only way to triumph is to bring about "Ragnarok." The script makes a minimal effort to give this development "deep meaning," by emphasizing the necessity of Thor saving his people rather than his realm. However, given the MCU's rash tendency to annihilate prominent mainstays of Marvel continuity-- most chimerically, the destruction of SHIELD in WINTER SOLDIER-- I suspect the film-makers merely wanted a big scene to cap what looks like the last of the THOR films.
I saw the film with an audience that laughed at all the jokes, so I'm in a distinct minority regarding my "less is more" conviction. I imagine that actor Hemsworth liked the emphasis on comedy, since he'd probably like to get other roles than that of thunder-god, and I wish him well on that. But for me the main virtue of THOR RAGNAROK is that it exposed viewers to the superlative designs of Jack Kirby for both Hela and the minor character of The Executioner-- even if neither character was anything special.