05 November 2017

First Impressions: THOR: Ragnarok

Deep breath.

That's for me, not necessarily you, dear reader. I was heavily anticipating this film, and let me say off the bat that I was disappointed. That seems to lean contrary to current popular opinion, but it must be said. I'm pretty deep into MCU lore at this point to add to my nerdy comic knowledge, and I'm not dismissive based on superhero fatigue or blockbuster fatigue or destruction porn or anything else. I want to spend some time with this getting at the heart of story and when moments and plot developments are earned and when they're cheapened. I want to talk about post modernism vs. sincerity. And most of all, I want to talk about how easy it would be to come up with a porno called THOR: Ragnacock. SPOILERS forever.

So, let's back up. There's a reason why I always call these things "First Impressions" instead of reviews or critiques or whatever. I like these as collections of my brain-things immediately after first seeing a flick in the theaters. I never give any rating or even a recommendation, because I fundamentally believe that movies and art in general are too subjective to assign an arbitrary rating to. My feelings are also generally too complicated to distill to a simple thumbs up or down. There are good things and bad things with every film and it's important to establish that personal critical eye for yourself. Just saying that a film is 8 out of 10 or 4 stars out of 5 or whatever cheapens and accelerates a judgment process which is convenient at the expense of being accurate, nuanced, and personal.

I can't believe I just called my impressions nuanced. Ya'll remember Hairy Pothead and the Breastly Swallows, Fart Poo (2011)? In my THOR: Ragnarok (2017) preview I talked about 2017 being a great year for superhero films. Uncanny, even. Advanced reviews had called Ragnarok the best of the lot, and I thought, damn, maybe Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) ends up being the worst one a lot that included Logan (2017), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), and Wonder Woman (2017). Nah, Ragnarok is definitely at the bottom. It's a fun movie for sure, but leaving the theater I felt so hollow.

Logan was ruined for me by the stupid doppelganger enemy that could have been so much more, but it angers me that it worked so extremely well thematically. Wonder Woman wasn't groundbreaking in anyway except in its underlying feminist message, which somehow in itself is revolutionary. However it's an extremely well-crafted, executed, and most importantly, satisfying film. I still think that Guardians Vol 2's character work surpasses the original, but what makes that film work more is how sincere it is.

What I think hinders both Homecoming and Ragnarok is this issue of sincerity. I've been ruminating on this more and more ever since watching this video essay about David Foster Wallace's views on the subject. It's not like post modern works are bad or lesser, in fact some of the shows listed here like Arrested Development and South Park are amongst my favourites ever. But there is something to be said for sincerity. Despite Guardians' constant pop culture references through its tracklist and its characters' detached attitudes, there are stakes and heart here, particularly developed in the sequel, that far surpass any Marvel film. It's less battling each other because the plot demands it and more battling each other because of a sequence of events and character interactions that lead them there.

Starring Raiden!
Ragnarok is by design contrary to this, often explicitly. Let me ask you this, why does Thor end up on Sakaar? Because he falls out of the bifrost, and supposedly everything that falls into the abyss is pulled there through wormholes. It's not a crazy stretch to think that Hulk ended up there the same way, by apparently flying his stolen quinjet...into outer space...outside of Earth...and into a nearby wormhole. I can buy Thor's arrival there, but Hulk's arrival and subsequent meeting with Thor stinks of something else: 1) because Hulk disappeared and we need him back for Infinity War (2018) and 2) because fans wanted to see these guys team up. Quick note - as I predicted, this movie would have been so fucking more fantastic if we didn't know Hulk was coming. He's set up so well.

I begin with this specific criticism because it's emblematic of what Ragnarok is all about. It forces everything for the sake of being cool. Very little is earned. Also as I predicted, most of Thor's supporting cast, particularly its humans are cast aside with extremely little thought. In its own way this is liberating - as if saying "Yeah, his relationship with Jane Foster was already totally forced and clichĂ©, and Natalie Portman doesn't want to do this anyway, so fuck it." Definitely fuck Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard, too. What hurts a little more, though, is how quickly the film dispenses with Thor's Asgardian friends.

Now, the Warriors Three and Sif were never really interesting characters (although they arguably are in the comics. At least that asshole Volstagg), but Fandral and Volstagg are literally killed instantly with hardly a line to utter beforehand. I got the feeling that Tadanobu Asano, who played Hogan, must have just had a better agent that got him an actual meaningful and prolonged death scene. This is all over this film. Idris Elba is a solid star now. His character gets to live. Why isn't Mark Ruffalo in this more? Well, probably because he didn't have the time to spend on it. It feels like no one is committed.

In its first twenty or so minutes, Ragnarok is all about loss, so it's bizarre that we feel none of it. Where the cynical post modern interpretation fails is where it's hard to care about all these big losses when it's coated in jokes and quips. Anthony Hopkins' Odin relatively unceremoniously passes away into golden space dust, providing the inciting incident for Big Bad Hela to appear. Loki and Thor, though, have hardly time to grieve, nor does the movie seem to really care. None of this loss feels painful. After Thor loses his hammer, rock monster Korg laments that it sounds like he's lost a loved one, which Thor acquiesces to, although we hardly see his pain or grieving for either it or his father.

And this is where I'm torn, because the overall structure of these losses is perfect screenwriting. The opening scene with Muspelheim Demon Surtur is a brilliant demonstration of Thor in his fighting prime, using his hammer in more and more compelling ways, with a camera that zooms, pans, and follows Mjolner like the character it is. It's a beautiful set-up for the Hammer's destruction four scenes later. These are clear stakes, but it's also oddly rushed, as if it needs to keep moving and get to Thor vs. Hulk as fast as it can.

There are other wonderfully subversive moments there. Loki-as-Odin's staged homage to himself is a great creative way to summarize the events of THOR: The Dark World (2013), handy and necessary because no one say that fucking movie. Direct sequels always seem to have a tough time with this - Marvel seems to have largely not cared because everyone sees their stuff, but this revealed character and served as exposition. It's awesome.

Let's spend some time on the characters. Hulk speaks a lot here for the first time, and it's revealed that Banner has been in Hulk mode since the end of Age of Ultron (2015). That's a wild reveal, but his characterization is also so inconsistent. He goes from unreasonable savage beast in the Gladiator Arena to big dude chilling in the hot tub in an instant. It doesn't have any progression. Again, and this happens over and over, it's unearned. Thor and Hulk's reconciliation is unearned because there wasn't actually any reason for a tiff to begin with. It functions for the sake of the plot rather than the sake of the characters. Why were Thor and Hulk sharing a room, anyway? They were there for at least a day! It's infuriating. And wait - is Mark Ruffalo permanently the Hulk now? He didn't change back at the end of the movie! Oh no!

While we're on the subject of gladiators, we might as well refer to another point in my preview that I was worried about - that this film is trying to be way too many things at once. There is a solid intergalactic gladiator Planet Hulk film in here that somehow comes across as even less developed than its comic counterpart. This is again due to lack of build-up. When Hulk fought Silver Surfer at the apex of Comic Book Planet Hulk it was after many many fights and developing relationships with his eventual revolutionary buddies. Thor is just thrown in here. We actually only see ONE Gladiator match. What the hell, Taika?!

It reminds me of the also-forced Replicant Revolution in Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Totally shoe-horned and undeveloped. Why even bring it up? It's as if these films think we've seen this trope far too often (which is definitely true), but instead of subverting or lampshading the trope, it's replaced with absence, which leaves the audience feeling hollow and unfulfilled. I'm not saying it should have just followed the trope, but why even bring that up as an issue? When Thor tries to play up Korg's revolution as a distraction so he can escape...nothing happens. It's clear that Loki just had the codes to the Grandmaster's orgy ship, and even despite Loki's trickery, they just steal it and escape. How much better in every way would actually co-opting a meaningful revolution to serve Thor's own selfish ends be? He's becoming Loki. He's letting one doomed people down so he can go to his own people (who at this point, I may add, have tried and failed at the same thing). Look at the real world implications of conning the masses to serve your own ends. That's an every day thing thanks to Russian hackers now. This pushes characterization so much further than just a space battle escape to the Devil's Anus.

That's it. Right there. "Devil's Anus." Haha, that's a funny name. Funny name will cover up the fact that it's a lame and played out escape scene. Orgy ship has no guns. That's a funny concept. It'll cover up the lack of cleverness in the plot structure. Don't get me wrong, a lot of the jokes land, and they're great, but it lacks substance, which ultimately renders it meaningless. This shit is so disappointing after What We Do in the Shadows (2014) was full of post modern interpretations of horror tropes that had fucking consequence and meaning towards its characters.

I'm getting too depressed and angry at this film. Let's talk about some good things, because there's a lot of great things and it's mostly Tessa Thompson and Cate Blanchett. Thompson is an incredible revelation as Valkyrie. She's a strong independent female character, which is totally rare in Marvel's world. She does some flirty flirty with Hulk / Banner, and even has a really brief moment with Thor, but not making her into a love interest, especially with the absence of Natalie Portman was an amazing move. Now, Blade Runner 2049 is fresh in my mind, but it's like Sylvia Hoeks' Luv again. Hey - an actual badass action heroine with star potential. Let's go! Tessa has been great in a lot of underseen shit, from Dear White People (2014) to Creed (2015), but this has got to be it. If this girl can't be a star after this, there's no justice anywhere. I kept watching her hold her own against Jeff Goldblum, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hiddleston, and Mark Ruffalo and sat there amazed. She's confident, fierce, vulnerable, and empathetic. Also a mean drunk. She's awesome.

Cate Blanchett's Hela may be one of the greatest Marvel villains ever. She's campy and insane and incredibly dangerous. Even though her power of...generating knives of...any size I guess, seems lame, damn she kills a lot of fools with that. It was jarring hearing the calm and measured voice of Galadriel speaking such campy insane villainous lines, but I loved every minute of it. Her character's background and motivation could have definitely been more developed, and it's another issue that the film doesn't seem to want to care about the ramifications of Odin's sins in even a way that The Winter Soldier (2014) did with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s past, but what are you going to do. This is how THOR: Ragnarok works. She's a delight every time she's on screen, and for a trilogy largely about two feuding brothers it's something to behold that two women are by far the most compelling people on screen.

This perfectly timed trailer moment isn't actually
in the film.
Speaking of that other brother, Hiddleston is definitely sleepwalking through Loki at this point. He looked really jacked, probably because he's moved towards macho lead in things like King Kong: Skull Island (2017) rather than greasy worms like Loki. His hair also had a sincere Tommy Wisseau vibe, which is not great. He had a lot of serviceable scenes, and his Get Help banter with Thor is priceless, but generally his schemes seemed much less charismatic and clever than they had in the past.

There's a lot more cast here. Karl Urban as Skurge actually has the most character development out of anyone, although who cares. It's impressive that apparently his death scene is ripped straight from the comics, but I ended up not caring. It's still amazing that two Lord of the Rings actors are in here, even if his character doesn't end up doing much but look like he's regretting all of his life choices.

Benedict Cumberbatch's Doctor Strange is here for no fucking reason at all. This is again a neat missed opportunity where his magic could square off with Loki. Nope, just played for laughs as Loki falls for thirty minutes. It cheapens the subsequent Odin death scene with its abject goofiness. Now, on the note of the good doctor, one thing I really liked about Doctor Strange (2016) was how the film's climax hinged on his cleverness in exploiting a loophole to solve the day, not his brute strength or citywide destruction. Ragnarok has some of that in the sense that in order to save the day, Thor and Loki must initiate the apocalypse that have ostensibly attempting to prevent for the entire movie. There is some nice jazz about a country being its people, not its land or whatever, but it mostly felt like a cop out deus ex machina more than anything else.

On that note, we should talk about Thor. Not Chris Hemsworth because whatever, but Thor himself. He loses his hammer, hair, and eyeball in this film, but this movie also really knows how to cut him lose. "Immigrant Song" plays twice, and serves as a leitmotif for him at his most badass. It's also fun to note that no other pop song is used - Led Zeppelin totally monopolized the song budget (one other quick budget note - 2017 Marvel-making-money Asgard looked so much better than 2011 we-don't-know-if-THOR-will-work Asgard). His lightning channeling was amazing and just a delight. I don't know why he needed a Ghost Odin every time, though. Those scenes were the closest I came to calling this a really good movie.

Finally we have Jeff Goldblum as....Jeff Goldblum. This is the most Goldbum role ever. He's nuts and largely fantastic. Again again, though - his character has no consequence, that is, unless you stay to watch the end credits scene, which doesn't even wrap things up, ending things on a pretty soft joke ("Let's call this revolt a tie") and hard cut. He's a really compelling villain because he's weird and eccentric and kind of sinister without necessarily trying to be. It's on the opposite side of the spectrum as Hela, who is all about death and wanton destruction. The Grandmaster just wants to have a game with his people, and is more too idiosyncratic to care than overtly evil.

On the technical side, I noticed some surprisingly sloppy green screen, notably from the decision to move the jaw-dropping trailer moment where Cate Blanchett melts Mjolner from Asgard to Norway. That really took my brain out of the moment, but also makes me wonder what the hell script revisions this thing went through where an entire location could be changed like that. I mean, that's crucially Hela's first appearance! Immediately after that, they're beamed to Asgard and the movie's plot starts. How the hell could that scene have ever been on Asgard? What other movie is out there?

Despite all this non-stop complaining, I should admit that I wasn't totally disappointed with Ragnarok. It looks really fresh and is legitimately funny, even if it doesn't come close to Guardians or Deadpool (2016) levels. It's fun to spend time with these characters and be a little looser than previous Thor outings. It's easily the best Thor movie and scores points above a lot of other cookie-cutter Marvel movies. At the end of the day, though, despite its glossy coat, it ends up being an okay 2017 superhero movie, and not a great one.

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