Why do people like comic book movies?
If that question seems broad, that’s by design. You can’t give me a definitive answer, and not only because different people like things for different reasons. The overall designation of “comic book movies” covers so many different types of films at this point that it’s impossible to lump them all in together. It just doesn’t make any sense.
Case in point: Marvel’s latest release, Thor Ragnarok. The film falls right into the larger continuity known by fans as the MCU (for Marvel Cinematic Universe), and it also satisfies narrative threads laid down in the first two films in the Thor series. It is very much a “comic book movie,” but it is a clear case of a filmmaker bringing their voice to something in a way that is satisfying way beyond the basic requirements of the genre. You can try to lump films as different as Batman Begins, Blade II, and Thor Ragnarok into one category, but why? They’re all so different, and the strongest thing any of these films can do is push against the conventions of what people expect, because that expands the potential of what these films can be. Every time you see a “comic book movie” that pushes more into comedy or mystery or family drama or whatever, taking the time to pay due respect to that side of things as well as the superhero or fantastical elements, then that’s good and healthy because the next time someone can go even further.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Iron Man for Marvel. That film proved that a certain attitude, a certain fealty to the source material, and a certain amount of world-building would all work as the foundations for something bigger, something that might actually work on screen the way the comics always worked together on the page. The second most important film for the company would have to be The Avengers, which proved that their grand plan of crossover movies that connected to form a bigger picture could actually work and pay off both creatively and commercially. If there is a third most important film, I would argue that it’s Guardians Of The Galaxy. The entire time that film was in production, I argued with my editor at HitFix, Greg Ellwood, who had zero faith that audiences would show up for a movie about a low-rent Han Solo ripoff, a talking raccoon, and a walking tree. And while I was adamant that it would work, and even more so after I visited the set in London, he simply didn’t buy it. Who can blame him? It was a much weirder corner of the Marvel universe, and it didn’t immediately look like everything else the studio had released.
But that’s what was so beautiful and risky and impressive about it. They hired James Gunn, and James Gunn believed so completely that Guardians could be a movie, and that it had to look and sound a certain way, and despite the weird roadmap of Gunn’s career before that point, they had enough faith to back his big strange vision, and it worked better than the studio could have ever dared to hope. In doing so, they have once again evolved the template for the studio, and for the first time, it really does feel like filmmakers have finally found a place where their voices are allowed to shine while still working in the house style in some important ways.
Taika Waititi has been slowly and steadily building one hell of a filmography in his own particular pond, with both What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt For The Wilderpeople standing out in their respective years of release. He’s got a wicked sense of humor, and I think he loves the absurd. He loves ridiculous people. He loves people who are knowingly, openly weird. He also loves earnestness and knows that it can be hilarious. He finds odd, surprising, sweet grace notes in his films, and he clearly adores his actors. Whoever had the idea of putting him together with what could easily have been the grimmest of the Marvel films, given the subject matter, should probably get a big fat Christmas bonus this year, because Waititi absolutely knocked Thor Ragnarok out of the park.
I like both of the Thor movies, but I think they both also have major flaws. The first film was stiff, a little too blunt with the storytelling, but it did a nice job of establishing how magic fit into the Marvel universe. By treating Asgard as a science-fiction locale, it made it feel like it wasn’t a huge jump from what had already been introduced, and the chemistry between Tom Hiddleston’s Loki and Chris Hemsworth’s Thor was so good that the weaknesses in the storytelling weren’t as big a deal. The fish-out-of-water thing worked thematically, but it also felt like a huge cheat in order to keep the budget down. That final showdown appears to take place in a town that is about one block wide. Thor The Dark World certainly had a larger sense of scale, but it was frustrating as storytelling. More than almost any other Marvel film, this one feels like a chapter, not a movie, a placeholder to keep the Thor franchise on track. The one thing it did that I really liked was the ending, where Loki managed to take Asgard, disguising himself as Odin, who he made sure was absent. By making everyone think he was dead, Loki won a fairly decisive victory, and for several years now, that plot thread’s been hanging out there, Loki in power, Thor totally unaware.
Wisely, this new film dispatches with unneeded plot threads in an almost off-hand way, like when someone on the streets of New York tells Thor they’re sorry that Jane Foster broke up with him. “I broke up with her,” he protests, convincing absolutely no one, and then we’re on to the next thing, and that’s fine. Honestly, the girlfriend stuff is the least memorable part of the Thor films, and that’s because they just didn’t give Jane enough of a reason to be in the films. She’s instrumental in the first film, but in the second film, she feels like she’s been downgraded to “plot device,” and it’s a waste of someone as talented as Natalie Portman. Waititi and screenwriters Eric Pearson and Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost have built one of the most efficient and focused Marvel films in a while, focusing on the dreams that were introduced (poorly) in Avengers Age Of Ultron. As the film opens, Thor finds himself chained and hanging upside down in… well, Hell. Sitting there on a throne, ready to head to Asgard to begin Ragnarok, is Surtur, a giant demon being made of flame.
Right away, what’s clear is that Waititi has found a way to respect the reality of the world while also savoring the absurdity of the world. That’s tricky because if you take it too seriously, your jokes won’t land, and if you take it too lightly, none of the stakes feel important. Chris Hemsworth is no longer a secret weapon when it comes to comedy. He’s good in Vacation, even if I didn’t like the film, and he is one of the most consistently hilarious parts of Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters, contributing some truly left-field humor to the mix. He’s always enjoyed the comedy in the movies where he’s played Thor, whether in his solo films or in the Avengers movies, but from the very beginning of this one, he is next-level funny. It is no secret that Tom Hiddleston is also back, and he gives Loki some new dimensions this time. Hemsworth and Hiddleston have so much fun together that you don’t really need anyone else in the mix.
But, oh, Tessa Thompson.
When Thor ends up on Sakaar, a planet on the other side of the galaxy, he is discovered by Valkyrie (Thompson), who he learns is an exile from Asgard. She swaggers into the film in her first scene, and from that moment until the film ends, she’s onscreen almost continuously, and she is amazing. She moves like someone who is used to violence, someone who has been so good at fighting for so long that it’s just muscle memory at this point. She hardly has to think about what she’s doing. Even when she’s shit-faced drunk, which is pretty much the entire film, she’s an amazing force to be reckoned with. Thompson carries herself like she’s been making superhero films her entire life. We also meet Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster, the ruler of Sakaar. He’s the one who created the gladiator games that he wants Thor to play in, but Thor doesn’t want any part of it. Goldblum is exactly as delightfully weird as you think he’s going to be, and he looks like he’s having a wonderful time, all the way up to the very last second of running time. He’s got a soft spot for Valkyrie, and small wonder. Considering she sells Thor within a few minutes of finding him, it’s interesting to see how her arc plays out. She gets the emotional side of things right, the physical side, and it’s delightful to see that she’s not here just to be Thor’s new girlfriend. She is a warrior, and when she finally takes up arms, she does it for herself, and she does it in a way that makes it clear that she is no mere sidekick. She has terrific fun playing off Goldblum, she has great chemistry with Hemsworth and Hiddleston, and she has a great relationship with the Hulk.
Oh, man, do I love the Hulk. Since The Avengers, Marvel’s track record with Big Green has been impeccable. Mark Ruffalo is great as Bruce Banner, but he does not get enough credit for how great he is as the Hulk. There have been some changes by the time we see him show up in this film, and it’s interesting to see how they’re drawing from some ideas from Planet Hulk, a light sprinkling of some of what they’ve been doing in The Totally Awesome Hulk, and how they’ve carefully picked up the threads from the various movies Hulk has shown up in so far. Waititi has enormous fun with the dynamic between Thor and Hulk, as well as Loki’s well-earned fear of the Hulk. He also brings in Doctor Strange for an extended sequence that is an absolute riot, and it sets up a new relationship that I hope we get to see more of in future films.
If it seems like I’ve been tiptoeing around the plot, it’s because the actual story of the film is well-built and deserves to unfold for the audience as they watch. It’s interesting to see how far Marvel went to digitally alter sequences and settings and characters in the trailers in order to preserve some mystery about how things work. One of the few things they did not mislead you about is the use of “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin, and I have to admit… watching a bunch of insane superhero mayhem explode while that song plays in the absolute state of the art theatrical sound is about as pop as my pop culture’s likely to get this year, and I like it.
I’ll simply say about Cate Blanchett that she is just as dedicated here as she is in things like Carol or Blue Jasmine. She wouldn’t know how to show up for a paycheck if she tried. She positively snarls her way through her role as Hela, and she is terrific, both gorgeous and grotesque. As Skurge, the new keeper of the Bifrost in the absence of Heimdall, Karl Urban is outstanding. He may get overshadowed by Tessa Thompson because of screen time, but he makes the most of every scene. From his slimy introduction to his final stand, Skurge is an intriguing new character, and yet it doesn’t feel like he’s more than the movie can handle. There’s plenty of room for everyone to shine, including Waititi himself as the voice of Korg, a giant rock gladiator on Sakaar, and Idris Elba, who finally seems to have something to do as Heimdall.
Mark Mothersbaugh’s written one of the most fun scores from any Marvel film so far, and I cannot say enough good about the work by Javier Aguirresarobe. He’s a great photographer, and when he’s got something like Blue Jasmine or A Better Life or The Road to shoot, he is able to bring real sensitivity to his work. Even on the most mainstream of mainstream films he’s shot, like Goosebumps or The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, he’s got a sense of the florid and overheated, and that’s perfect for this hyper-candy-colored world. The production design by Dan Hennah and Ra Vincent is huge and expressive and gorgeous, and it is richly detailed no matter where you look.
It’s amazing that they’ve been able to continually breathe new life into the overall plan that Marvel has for these characters, but when you see just how confident, vibrant, and clever this film is, one thing about Taika Waititi is evident: he is 100% worthy, and the power of Thor is his. No doubt about it.
Running time: 130 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic