By: Dan Marcus (Special to ITCFILMS/ITCCOMICS)
To preface this review, I want to state I love film with every iota of my being. When I watch a film, I always go in with an open mind. I always want to like a film. I never go in wanting to dislike a film. However, I try to be critical with every film that I see. I don’t give any movie a pass. As a filmmaker myself, I understand wholeheartedly how much effort goes into making any film. Which is why I always try to appraise a film with as much care, thought and consideration that goes into making them. I just wanted to get that out of the way.
With that said, on October 20th I wrote an editorial explaining why I thought making Thor: Ragnarok a comedy was a mistake. I outlined that making Ragnarok a comedy was more of a Marvel problem. The studio has a tendency to be leaning more toward comedy as of late, which is baffling since Infinity War (hopefully) promises to be one of their darkest entries yet.
I received some criticism for writing that piece before the film opened. However, upon seeing the film proper, I can safely say my article was pretty much dead on the money. I say this as someone that while never considered themselves a huge Thor fan, greatly appreciated the first Thor film directed by Kenneth Branaugh. It seemed to balance a light-hearted, jovial tone with some well-earned emotional beats that resonated. The less said about Thor: The Dark World, the better.
For some reason, Marvel decided to respond to the critically derided and tonally uneven Thor: The Dark World (which has 66% on RottenTomatoes and 3.9 average rating) with Thor: Ragnarok, a film that trades in an uneven tone with a tone that is decidedly comedic. The biggest problem with Ragnarok is that it is indeed a comedy. The film feels like a giant missed opportunity, with so many moments that could have provided for great drama or tragedy and instead are undercut by comedy almost every chance the film gets.
Even if we’re ignoring the fact the first act is mostly exposition, director Taika Waititi and the film’s writers (Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost) squander dramatic potential with disconcerting ease. One of the film’s first missteps is the handling of the Warriors Three, or in this film the Warriors Two as Sif is for some reason absent from this film. Hela, played by Cate Blanchett, kills Volstagg and Fandral without any fanfare. While that was a bold choice – and does strengthen Hela as a villain – that move is almost immediately made ineffective since none of our main characters, such as Thor, react to their deaths.
In the first Thor (and even in The Dark World), the Warriors Three play big parts in Thor’s life. He grew up with them. He fought with them. He loved them. For them to be discarded so easily without a single reaction from Thor completely undercuts the story’s decision to eliminate them from the narrative. All it would have taken would be a simple moment where Thor quietly reacts to their deaths, further realizing how awful Hela truly is. I thought at first that Hela would kill Odin, cementing her place as a true villain, but even Odin dies willingly.
In regards to Hela, while Cate Blanchett gives the villainess her all she doesn’t have a lot to work with. While she does quickly take over Asgard, it feels like she doesn’t really have much to do for most of the narrative. It doesn’t help that she’s separated from Thor for a majority of the story, giving Hela not much to do besides gloat and twist her evil mustache. At least in the first Thor, Loki visited Thor to torture him emotionally and lie to him about Odin’s death. Thor and Hela have a brief interaction in the beginning and then don’t meet or interact again until the end. It feels like an odd choice creatively speaking.
The film’s biggest problem, however, is the overabundance of comedy. As I said in my editorial published October 20th, I fail to see why Thor: Ragnarok was made to be a comedy. As a matter of fact, Ragnarok feels more like a Guardians of the Galaxy film and less like an actual Thor film. This is a film where Odin dies, Thor loses two members of the Warriors Three, loses an eye and literally watches as Ragnarok completely destroys his home. It should be the darkest of the Thor films, but somehow is the lightest and funniest.
I’m not against comedy. I think Spider-Man: Homecoming was the perfect example of a film where the tone was totally appropriate for the character. However, what made Homecoming so great is that it knew when to take itself seriously. One of the most memorable scenes from that film is when Michael Keaton’s Toomes is driving Peter and Michelle to the Homecoming dance. It’s the most tense scene in the film. There’s no superhero costumes, no visual effects, and no action stunt work. It’s merely a couple of actors acting the hell out of an intense scene. And you know what? It’s not punctured by a joke or witty one-liner. Everyone plays it straight.
While Ragnarok has moments of emotional resonance, most of them don’t land. And if they do, they are quickly interuppted by a joke. Take, for example, any meaningful moment between Thor and Banner. Or, more to the point, a wonderful scene where Thor talks with Loki that is then immediately followed up with the “Help me” gag. It’s as if Waititi felt the need to interject comedy into nearly every scene of the film. If you don’t believe that, read Dan Kois’ profile on Waititi in The New York Times where he cuts out dialogue from a scene because it’s “not funny”, shaving the scene in half to focus on the humor instead. I wanted to be emotionally moved by anything that happened in Ragnarok, but I simply wasn’t. When Thor approaches the Destroyer in the first Thor without his powers, I was genuinely moved. And when his powers returned to him, it was heroic, uplifting and (no lie) nearly moved me to tears. I wanted something along those lines in Ragnarok, but for me I was never personally moved or affected by anything that happened in the film.
I’m not saying a Thor comedy wouldn’t work, but I’m saying it was a weird and poor decision to make Thor: Ragnarok one. There’s a lot of stuff that happens in this film, yet at the same time I felt like not much happened at all. I will give the film some credit, though. There are some genuine moments of brilliant characterization. Thor has a pretty decent arc, finally ascending to the throne after three films of build-up. Valkyrie isn’t given much to do, but her arc works even if it feels perfunctory. Loki seems like he might be a good guy now and even a non-essential character such as Skurge has a moment of redemption. I also loved how the ending featured our heroes basically succumbing to the villain in order to defeat her, which was something creatively I’m not sure I’ve seen before – at least not in a Marvel film. (I also give Marvel and Waititi credit for reprising some musical motifs, such as Brian Tyler’s Age of Ultron theme when appropriate and Patrick Doyle’s stirring Thor theme at the end of the film. That was perfect.)
Thor: Ragnarok isn’t terrible. It’s genuinely funny, however it remains to be seen if those jokes will hold up in subsequent viewings. The film does have some great characterization and some clever ideas. However, the film could have been so much more if Marvel simply didn’t try to shoehorn in as much comedy as much as possible. I usually applaud Marvel on their choice in directors – Jon Favreau, the Russo Brothers, James Gunn, et al were all brilliant choices. Taika Waititi is a brilliant director, but I think he was wrong for this film. It feels more like Guardians (and not in a good way) or Beastmaster more than a Thor film. Heck, I think Waititi would make one hell of a Masters of the Universefilm. I just think he was wrong for Thor.
I might be too hard on this film. I have a feeling overall though it’s going to be pretty forgettable. It feels especially pedestrian in the wake of 2017’s superhero films which have all been pretty spectacular. Logan was a defining achievement, one of the great films of the year. Wonder Woman was just wonderfully astonishing. Spider-Man: Homecoming was a breathe of fresh air for the Spider-Man character that was desperately needed. Thor: Ragnarok was fun… but it wasn’t much else. I guarantee you people are going to be talking about Logan, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming for a while. I’m not sure if the same can be said for Thor: Ragnarok, especially with Justice Leaguearound the corner.
If anything, Thor: Ragnarok feels like a great companion piece to Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2. While I would argue Ragnarok is vastly superior to Volume 2, it still feels like a film uncomfortably burdened with an overabundance of comedy. It feels as if Ragnarokis desperately trying to be like Guardians, no different than Loki trying desperately to live up to the perfect, spotless image of his brother Thor. Except Loki did enough to distinguish himself from Thor – well, he was a dick – and Ragnarok feels like it wants to cozy up to Guardians a bit too much.
Also, on a final note: For anyone that thinks I’m pro-DC over Marvel, I’m the same person who didn’t like Man of Steel or the Theatrical Cut of Batman v Superman. I thought Suicide Squad was laughably bad. However, I absolutely loved Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I thought Guardians of the Galaxy was brilliant and I loved this year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. Even though it is not Marvel Studios, Logan is my third favorite film of the year so far. So I would hardly say I’m biased. I just genuinely didn’t like Thor: Ragnarok.
Maybe I’ll warm up to the film upon future viewings. I’m not in any rush to see Ragnarokagain, but perhaps time will make the heart grow fonder. I’d be very curious to see how the film holds up now that I know all of the comedic one-liners. I really wanted to like Thor: Ragnarok and I wish I liked it more. However, I know my opinion will matter zilch in the grand scheme of things. The audience I saw the film with roared with laughter throughout the film and clapped at the end. Based on the reviews and early box office buzz, Thor: Ragnarok is going to be another hit for the studio.
It sounds like, once again, Marvel will have the last laugh.