When choosing which movie to see last weekend there wasn’t really a debate. Above the cinema, and on every other bus in town, was the drab and unsettling poster for Justice League, DC’s Avengers, their first full line-up movie. I think it’s safe to say I’ve been more lenient to the DC movies than most of the reviewers I follow, but I still had absolutely no desire to see another DC outing.
The alternative was Thor: Ragnarok, the follow up to Thor: The Dark World, which is arguably near the bottom of Marvel’s film hierarchy, and God knows which number it holds in Marvels cinematic universe timeline. I should have Marvel fatigue, but I happily paid to visit this franchise yet again, knowing exactly what I was going to get, instead of giving DC the benefit of the doubt.
Setting aside the why and the how of my Marvel-tolerance, can Thor: Ragnarok be a better sequel than the first?
The review below contains mild spoilers
We open with Thor giving his best Deadpool impression, funny in the moment, but still a worrying sign of things to come. Thor has come to stop Ragnarok, the Norse Armageddon. The rest of the film is basically in quest format: Together with Loki, Hulk, and a Valkyrie, he must reach the goddess of death, Hel, and stop her from taking the throne of Asgard.
The first Thor film is not highly regarded in the Marvel universe, but for me it holds a special place. It’s a well structured film: It has a very tangible goal, villain and personal stakes. Most importantly it takes itself seriously, but also has humour that stays within the movie’s own reality. It’s an old trope – a story about a rich kid who must learn humility and what strength and courage really mean.
Ragnarok takes up this thread and continues it. In many ways it is the true sequel to Thor, so we can all forget The Dark World ever existed. Thor, a (slightly) more humble hero, must now learn that his strength comes from within, and he can be more than just a hammer-wielding fighter. Not a lesson I thought Thor needed to learn, really, but the lesson is layered with daddy/brother issues, and focuses on Thor finally accepting that he is ready for the throne at last. It’s a good end to a trilogy that began with his failed coronation.
When Thor is explored as a deep character it makes this part of the Marvel universe feel very Shakespearean, not least because of Kenneth Branagh’s directing of the first one. Tom Hiddleston could play Loki in his sleep, and his every eye-twitch makes the fan-girl in me giggle, so I recuse myself on that topic. Cate Blanchett adds dramatic flair as Hel, making it even more like Hamlet-in-space. The film could have used more family drama in my opinion. I would have loved to see Hel trying to get Loki to help her get the throne, and him giving a “been there, done that” response.
It’s a shame that so much of the humour in the film is so dependent on that modern meta-aesthetic we see in Marvel movies. I won’t deny I laughed a lot throughout the film, but all those awkward pauses and rock-paper-scissor jokes bring down the re-watchability of the film. Meta-humour is an easy way to get the audience on your side. “See, we all think this is silly!” But it also puts a gap between me and the characters. In Guardians of the Galaxy the humour works much better because all the characters are assholes to some extent, and Peter Quill is an 80s kid who is explaining his jokes to aliens. It works on an in-movie level. Rock-paper-scissors does not work from a rock-monster on the other side of the galaxy, even though we laugh at the moment.
I’m not surprised Marvel decided to add more of that irreverent tone to the Thor character, and to get this type of humour into “this side” of the MCU. But it’s a bit sad they didn’t wait until they were all together for Infinity Wars, because having that clash between Quill’s modern awkwardness, Stark’s snarkiness and Thor’s confused but lovable goofiness would have been marvelous. Instead we get a Thor that’s ready for the modern commentary already.
I realise I’ve spent a lot of words complaining about an aspect of the film I enjoyed during the viewing. I suppose that shows what little there is to say about the rest of the film. It plays out without many surprises, and the best scenes are the ones that focus on the characters and their genuine interactions. For a fan of the Asgard-part of the MCU the film has a lot to offer. A lot of fun Loki, great banter, a real emotional center in Thor, and a heartfelt albeit traditional “search inside yourself for the strength to win” story. No doubt this will fuel the Loki fanfictioneers for years to come.
What the film lacks is a real sense of time and scale. The first Thor film brought us into space for the first time in the MCU and Asgard just looked fantastic. It still does, but Hel’s ambitions seem small when she’s busy terrorizing a huddled little group of Asgardians. Sakaar was a cool place, but often looked like the discards from The Fifth Element‘s concept art instead of a place where all the trash in the galaxy ends up.
In the end, maybe the bad stuff weighs about as much as the good, but for me the thing that tips it over to a mid-range Marvel film is that it is contained within itself. Apart from the end-credit scene there is only one line and a glimpse of the infinity stones. It is an adventure that feels like one film, not a series. It’s a fun adventure with personal stakes, much like the first Thor film. That is how Marvel is going to keep Marvel-fatigue to a minimum for me. Sure, I love the team-ups as much as anyone, but the one thing DC really needs to learn isn’t humour or a lighter aesthetic, it’s to let the movies just be one movie.
Dice roll: 4