By Travis Trombley
Taika Waititi’s Ragnarok combines these two Thors, rebooting the “Lord of Thunder” character to allow Chris Hemsworth - largely at his own urging - the flexibility to play an overconfident oaf, which he did so well in Ghostbusters, while maintaining a degree of self-seriousness for the sake of narrative momentum (e.g., he’s driven by a deep seated compassion for his people).
The resultant film is a confused but wholly entertaining blockbuster, the end-of-the-world stakes and potential political commentary undercut by a focus on foibles.
Following the film’s release, I saw a few articles praising the film for it’s postcolonial sensibilities, marking it as a middle finger to the alt-right. As much as I wish these interpretations bore weight, Waititi certainly prioritized undercutting the traditional grandioseness of superhero blockbusters at the cost of thematic depth, for better or worse.
Plenty have commented on how well the film works as an action-comedy, and rightly so; here’s how I think it stumbled as an installment of modern mythology.
The conclusion of Thor: Ragnarok is conceptually the most interesting part of the film, and it makes me wish both that the two hours that preceded it had worked a little harder to earn that ending and that Avengers: Infinity War wouldn’t directly follow it.
I’ll explain the former wish first. When the credits roll, Thor is seated in a captain’s seat of a large spaceship - he’s facing a large window, looking into the cosmos, and his people behind him match his gaze. The mise en scene itself here is distinct; rather than a throned king facing his subjects, leader and followers both face forward. Metaphorically, they all look to the future, as the Asgardians have officially become a nomad people seeking a new home. Thor becomes more Moses and less King David. Their new position is the result of Thor deciding to intentionally unleash Ragnarok - the destruction of Asgard the place - in order to defeat his evil sister Hela and save Asgard the people.
Hela, the film’s sword-hurling big-bad, sought only to rule Asgard the place. The image of Thor facing the future with his people is foiled against that of Hela seated at the throne of Asgard with no people before here, just an empty hall - after killing the soldiers, the people of Asgard fled into hiding.
Both of their powers, Odin tells Thor, “come from Asgard,” but it’s Thor to whom Odin reveals that Asgard is a people, not a place, so Thor saves the former at the cost of the latter in a rather inventive twist. However, as is often the case with Marvel, it’s a twist half-earned - totally sensical and even thought-provoking, but shallow in execution.
And this is where we start to see the blockbuster economy at play. For a film that’s about respecting and saving this group of people, it spends tragically little time with them (instead we hang out on inter-dimensional dumping ground of Sakaar for the lengthy middle act). We see Heimdall steal the Bifrost Sword and rescue a handful of folks by escorting them out of the city to hide them away in a secret bunker, but the people themselves do...nothing. A few take up arms at the film’s end, sure, but by then the gesture is so upstaged by god-mode Thor that it seems moot. It’s typical of the toxic individualism in the superhero mythology - it’s up to the lone heroes to save the helpless, often faceless masses.
As a point of contrast, the simple bedtime story of exposition and a training montage in Wonder Woman made me care way more about the Amazons when the Germans showed up and starting shooting than I did about any Asgardian. For the people to carry narrative weight (i.e. for their protection to merit believable tension), they need to be treated like people, not plot devices.
And that brings us to another major theme of the film: reconciling with the past. One of the best scenes in the film consists of Hela destroying a mural of Odin making peace with enemies and providing assistance to those in need to reveal a darker mural beneath it: one depicting a more violently crowned Odin surrounded by sword-wielding warriors and accompanied by “his spear” Hela. Before deciding to become a “benevolent king” dedicated to protecting the nine realms, he was a conqueror - a raider. “Typical Odin, proud of what he has, but ashamed of how he got it,” Hela says as she destroys the historical revision.
The idea of a nation dealing with a less than ideal past could resonate powerfully in the current political climate. Given the ramifications of western colonialism and, specifically, the ongoing conflicts owed to the United States’ history of slavery and grave mistreatment of Native Americans, the idea that a superhero-king could lead the way in recognizing the fault’s in his country’s past in order to deal with them and become something new could be incredibly powerful. Thus my second wish - that Infinity War doesn’t interrupt the nomadic experience of the Asgardians so they can experience this journey.
Unfortunately, here too the blockbuster economy diminishes drastically the potential impact of this thematic thread.
The disconnect becomes distracting, to a degree, in regards to Odin, specifically. The newly-revealed history plants a healthy dose of ambiguity into Odin’s already rather inconsistent character, but since Thor isn’t privy to these revelations, his “ghost dad” scenes leave us questioning, “Wait, didn’t we just learn that Odin was kind of a jerk? Why is he providing the sagely advice?” This could have paid off well enough had we eventually been provided insight into what caused Odin to shift from conqueror to peace-maker, but, ya know...kablooey!
Additionally, since Hela and Thor don’t really get a chance to debate leadership and history face-to-face, Thor’s character arc get’s reduced to Odin imparting advice from beyond the grave. After Thor gets beat up by his big sister again in the third act, he has a talk with ghost daddy Odin, who - albeit with one of the film’s best lines (“Are you Thor, god of hammers?”) - essentially hands Thor the secret to the film. Thor doesn’t earn or discover it on his own (contrary to the parenting style that served as the premise of the entire first film).
The result: Thor just sort of realizes that he can go Super Asgardian (a troubling trope of this year's superhero installments). Sure, he admits that the Asgardian throne isn’t an ideal one, but here he references past decisions (like his choice to leave Asgard at the end of Thor: The Dark World), not a current revelation, as it would relate to Hela.
If anything, Loki’s character arc would have benefitted from both more time with Odin and a more sensical Odin narrative. Both characters have less-than-stellar pasts as conquerors with which they must cope, and since much of Loki’s arc in Ragnarok entails grappling with his selfish nature, some fatherly advice regarding redemption could have gone a long way to explaining Loki’s eventual change of heart.
Additionally, Banner’s transition from the Hulk state is reduced to guilt at hearing a playback of Natasha’s message from Age of Ultron, but his decision to go Hulk again at the end despite the risk that the transformation could be permanent seems unconnected.
This movie shares much with this summer’s Wonder Woman title. Both follow a character who believes their power largely rests in a physical object, and upon the destruction of that object embraces their internal kick-assery. Both rely on stylized depictions of the past (Wonder Woman motion comics and Thor’s pulsating ceiling frescoes). Both feature an angry god with previously unknown familial ties to the protagonist as the primary villain. Both crescendo in a CGI spectacle full of lightning and exaggerated movement.
While Ragnarok pulled off the final act slugfest much more impressively than the CGI bore that is Diana’s bout with Ares, Wonder Woman - while not perfect either - succeeds on a character and thematic level that Ragnarok nods at but doesn’t fully earn. And maybe that’s okay. Thor is charming and hilarious. There's a rocket propelled dragon in the first ten minutes, and it's awesome. I’d watch an entire spin-off of Korg, the rocky revolutionary with the greatest lines in the film (played by Waititi, too). Jeff Goldblum is….well, he’s Jeff Goldblum. But I can’t help but think this film, particularly with its heavy gesturing towards colonialism, could have made viewers think as well as laugh with just a little more work
I'm sure there's more to be said on this topic, so please leave a comment in the comments below. Please. I'm lonely...