Thor: Ragnarok: A Conversation: Lebeau and Daffy Stardust: Groovy
This weekend has brought us the 17th installment in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe with the third movie starring the God of Thunder, Thor: Ragnarok. Join this spacey duck and your gracious host as we catch up on the big new release and what it means for what we can expect going forward.
*Spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok after the jump*
Daffy Stardust: Due to difficulties with rights to many of their most popular characters (Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four) belonging to other studios, Marvel kicked off its connected movie franchises by introducing us to the important members of their Avengers team, including Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor. Many people argued at the time (and since) that this constituted Marvel betting big on the “B” team of heroes. I would argue that it would be more accurate to say “A-minus.” After all, each of these characters was not just part of the team, but had his own long-running solo book ever since the early days of the comic books giant in the mid 1960s.
Considering how quickly they appear to be burning through some of the core stories and concepts of the source material though, Marvel seems to be playing both ends of this game. Yes, Thor now has a third “solo” movie to his name, but one that has been sold in part on the presence of a returning Hulk who would have been considered one of the company’s “A” list characters just a decade ago. He has been pretty quickly relegated to guest star status, though, even as other characters are being introduced and even promoted over him. We’re also getting relatively well-known characters that are being used up at what I consider to be an unreasonable rate.
What is supposed to be unshakable, however, is the Marvel brand and what it represents in genre action entertainment. Unfortunately, I’m not sure we aren’t seeing a general leveling-off, and Thor: Ragnarok didn’t do much to set my mind at ease. How did you feel about the Marvel brand coming out of your screening, Lebeau?
Lebeau: The Marvel brand is strong. I just wrote an article ranking all sixteen of the previous releases in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and my takeaway from the exercise was that the best and worst movies weren’t separated by all that much. Even the weaker entries (Thor: Dark World, The Incredible Hulk) are still watchable enough if you’re a fan. And the best (Captain America: Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy) are fine entertainment but they don’t ever aspire to be anything more than that.
I believe Marvel is consistent because early on with the first Iron Man, they found a winning formula and they haven’t deviated from it. With each movie, they mix in some different genre elements. The Guardians added space opera, Winter Soldier paid homage to the paranoid thrillers of the seventies, Homecoming was John Hughes in spandex. But the core remains the same. Flawed, relate-able heroes face a threat in a light-hearted (often comic) adventure. Audiences pay their money and they know what they are going to get. Marvel changes up the formula just enough that it hasn’t gotten overly repetitive… yet.
There are some signs that fatigue may set in at some point in the future. Marvel has sworn off telling origin stories for a while which is probably a good call. Dr. Strange was supposed to be the last one and it hewed a little too close to the first Iron Man movie. I would like to see Marvel try some new things as we move into “Phase Four” of their grand experiment. Frankly, I think they are going to have to. If not for creative reasons than for practical ones.
You mentioned that the Hulk has become a supporting player. That’s not a creative choice on Marvel’s choice. Universal still owns the rights to make solo Hulk movies. The Incredible Hulk was a joint venture. Marvel can use the character, but if they want to make a movie in which Hulk is the main character, they have to cut Universal in on the action. So instead, we’re going to see the Hulk’s story play out as subplots in other characters’ movies or team-ups like the Avengers movies.
Everything we have seen so far has been building towards the big showdown with Thanos which is coming up in Infinity War and the untitled fourth Avengers movie. From a story-telling standpoint, it’s going to be hard to raise the stakes after that. But from a practical standpoint, Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans have both expressed interest in retiring. I will be curious to see how Marvel handles things once we reach that point.
For now, we’ve got Thor: Ragnarok to enjoy. I took the wife and kids to see this one despite the fact they hadn’t seen any of the previous sixteen installments. On the car ride to the theater, I gave them a quick recap of who the main characters were and what was the deal with Asgard. That was all they needed and I’m not sure they even needed that. The girls aren’t fans of superheroes, but they do like funny movies. And Ragnarok is one of the funniest movies of the year.
I am interested to hear about your concerns, but first, admit it, this is a fun movie.
Daffy Stardust: I was definitely entertained enough to have made it worth my while and the price of admission considering my interest in the Marvel brand overall. There were a couple of excellent performances in the movie, some impressive special effects, a final battle that really delivered, and enough laughs to support the experience effectively. My concerns are related to what didn’t work for me despite the movie’s strengths. There are two primary criticisms I would offer.
The first is that while there are plenty of good moments of humor over the running time of the film, there were also plenty of attempts at humor that either fell flat for me, or slowed the momentum of the movie, or both. The stakes in Thor: Ragnarok are very high, and while the jokes that did work were very welcome, those that didn’t soured the tone where they appeared. This was part of director Taika Waititi’s approach to filming, and the cast clearly enjoyed the process. He promised that he would protect them in the edit if one of their improvisations didn’t work and they appear to be satisfied that he did. While I don’t think any of the cast should be worried that they came off badly at all, I’m not convinced that the edit was particularly strong. Improvisational humor is a real talent that actual comedians work their entire careers to perfect, and if it’s not done well it can feel paper thin, as it did in my opinion at times in Thor: Ragnarok.
Dicey editing not only shows up on the small scale with some jokes that don’t land, but also structurally with the utter failure of the film to apply the appropriate weight to world-shattering moments or to develop at least one character’s arc as fully as was necessary. Within about a ten minute span, Odin appears to die, Hela shatters Mjolnir, and then the Warriors Three are all killed. All of this happens rather unceremoniously, and while I get that it can be argued that that was the point, the way that the film presents these moments lingers so little that it left me feeling like it had no idea of the weight of the things that had just happened. Not that it was laying down these blows to shell-shock Thor and the audience, but because the film actually had no idea what it was doing. The flippant humorous dialogue (especially in the moments when it wasn’t actually funny) did nothing to disabuse me of this notion. Thor actually appears to be more upset by having his hair cut than anything else. If he had seemed at all devastated by the events he experienced in Scandinavia, his relatively easy capture on Sakaar would have made a ton of sense. Instead, he just seems a little inconvenienced, which is only natural considering what he goes through on Sakaar. If he didn’t have lines later on actually saying he was bothered by those previous events, we really wouldn’t have much idea how he felt about them. Maybe the problem is with Hemsworth’s acting?
There is one other problem I have with the script that I have referenced already, but we should cover that later. Am I the only one who found the tone and execution spotty at times? Remember that I did enjoy myself, but I’m always hoping for even more.
Lebeau: Yep, you’re the only one. Seriously, I took a poll. 😉
Comedy is obviously subjective. It would appear I laughed a lot more than you did. While not every joke landed for me, the great majority of them did. While I didn’t laugh out loud at every joke, mostly I was amused. At no point did I think the tone was soured by a gag that missed its mark. Mindy was laughing her head off and the audience was responsive to the jokes as a whole. I remember at one point thinking, we’re approaching sixties Batman levels of silliness here. I think that might put off a certain kind of fan.
Which is partially my reaction to the world-shaking events you referenced. I actually think the movie knew exactly what it was doing. Ragnarok, despite its end-of-the-world plot, is first and foremost a comedy. You’re not supposed to be upset about Odin dying. And really, could that “death” have been less final? He turned into golden dust and continued communicating with his son for the rest of the movie. After the movie, my youngest told me she was sad when Thor’s dad died. I told her that I have lost count of how many times Marvel has killed Odin. He always comes back eventually.
In fact, killing Asgardians is a staple of the comic books. All of these characters have been killed and resurrected countless times. I was mildly surprised to see the Warriors Three killed off, but I wasn’t upset about it. I can’t even name them. This was done because the characters weren’t needed for this or any future movies, so might as well use their deaths to raise the stakes a little. They can all be brought back easily if Marvel wants to do so. Asgardians are immortal after all. If you are a die-hard Thor fan, I can see how casually killing off these characters might be upsetting. But for the movie they made, I had no problem with it whatsoever.
As for Hemsworth, I’m constantly impressed by his charisma and comic timing. But then, we have already established that the jokes worked better for me. The movie is just two sinks shy of being self-parody. I thought Hemsworth (and the rest of the cast for that matter) walked that line expertly. I’ll forgive a lot when I’m laughing and I laughed consistently from start to finish. At no point did I take anything in the movie any more seriously than I would take, say, the ghosts in Ghostbusters. I consider Thor 3 the funniest comedy I have seen all year. The fact that it also had some good superhero action is a bonus.
I’m actually trying to figure out which character’s arc you found unsatisfying. Was it Valkyrie? Lay it on me!
Daffy Stardust: See, if I’m not supposed to take the deaths of established characters seriously then I’m not sure why I’m watching. Yes, Marvel has consistently thumbed its nose at death by bringing back characters with ridiculous regularity both in the comics and in the movies, but I don’t think that’s a point in their favor or something I should be asked to get used to. If the deaths themselves are presented as humorous, such as in a situation in which characters are immediately popping back into existence, then fine, but don’t ask me to not care one moment and then ask me to be invested later on. The stakes attached to the final battle were much more involving for me and pointed out to me what the rest of the movie should have been just a little more like.
I didn’t look at Thor: Ragnarok as a comedy, but as a grand action adventure that thought it was funnier than it really was. Yes, there were a number of times I laughed out loud, but there were other times that I judged the movie and even the characters for not taking their situations more seriously. There was a carelessness to it that sometimes rubbed me the wrong way…and I’ve never been a particular fan of either the Thor comics or movies.
The character whose arc I felt was very incomplete was that of the Executioner. He was presented merely as an opportunist who simply lacked the backbone or ethics to stand up to Hela at first, but gradually decided she was taking things too far. I’m not sure what part of slaughtering maybe one hundred of his countrymen he found acceptable, but I guess he drew the line at doing it himself? This is a character who was a constant villain in both Thor and Avengers books for decades before finally redeeming himself. What we completely skipped was any scene in which we witnessed him being in any way ruthless. Without that, his faltering in service of Hela and turn against her loses its impact. Without it, she seems stupid to ever trust him and elevate him the way she did in the first place. Did Hela ever seem like a stupid character whose hubris would be her downfall? Was it really? No. Thor simply figured out a way to have someone else do his work for him. It was the one weak spot in what was otherwise a wonderful performance by the consistently amazing Cate Blanchett. She and Jeff Goldblum both impressed.
Lebeau: Blanchett and Goldblum were clearly having a lot of fun. I actually differ with you on Hela’s intellect. To hear her tell it, Odin used her as a weapon to build his kingdom and then imprisoned her indefinitely when she had served her purpose. At no point did she strike me as a great thinker. There wasn’t a single obstacle she overcame through cunning. Her success stemmed from her incredible powers. As you pointed out, she immediately misjudged the Executioner and really all of Asgard. Once she took over the royal palace, she spent most of her time going through the stuff without giving any thought to the rebellion that was forming.
If you are arguing that the Executioner’s decades-long arc in the comics is more interesting than his handling as a secondary villain in Thor 3, I won’t disagree. We had a similar conversation about the truncation of the Bucky Barnes arc in the Captain America movies. I think it’s understandable given the limitations of a film franchise – even one as far-reaching as the MCU. These actors are not likely to be playing these parts ten years from now. Unless you’re looking to invest a lot of time in the Executioner, I thought this version was fine. I was just happy to see Karl Urban.
Personally, I’m not a huge Thor fan either. I find I prefer him in a team setting as one of the Big Guns on the Avengers more than I enjoy his solo stories. All the “thees” and “thous” make for some tough reading when everyone talks in faux Shakespearean. I have read some of the source material that this movie was based on. A lot of the material comes from Planet Hulk which took place simultaneously with the comics version of Civil War. Thor wasn’t in either story because he was dead at the time (see earlier point). In fact, Tony replaced him with a robot and… no, nevermind that. The Civil War comic was trash.
Anyway, Tony Stark and Reed Richards were the masterminds behind the whole Superhero Registration thing. They were motivated by a battle that ended in civilian casualties. So naturally, they decided that their first step should be to deal with the one-man wrecking machine that was the Hulk. They put him on a ship and blasted him off into space. He was supposed to land on a lush, uninhabited planet. But none of Tony’s plans ever work out, so instead he landed on Sakaar where he had Conan-like adventures. He started as a gladiator and eventually became a king. He even took a queen, but after she died in an explosion, Hulk and his army returned to earth to get revenge on Tony and Reed.
While Hulk was a gladiator, he did fight a familiar figure from his home-world. But it was the Silver Surfer.
It’s harder to nail down which Thor stories influenced the movie. I read an interview with Waititi in which he said that they looked at the ongoing God of Thunder series in which Thor does lose an eye and replace his father as king of Asgard. I also remember a big Marvel event from several years ago called Ragnorak in which Odin dies, Asgard is destroyed and Thor moves everyone to New Asgard on Earth. That’s pretty close to what happened in the movie although Hela was not the villain and it crossed over into something like 50 other books.
Waititi also said he wanted to throw out the source material and both previous movies to create a new identity for the Thor series. He doesn’t seem to take any of this stuff very seriously which I expect will ruffle some feathers. It would ruffle mine if I didn’t have such a good time watching the movie. I think our differing opinions stem from the way we view the movie. During the first scene when Thor had to interrupt his speech every 10 seconds because he was spinning, I decided that this movie was a comedy first and an adventure a very distant second. Viewed that way, I thought this was one of the most successful Marvel movies yet. That hinges on finding the jokes funny of course.
Having seen the movie only once, I’m putting Thor 3 somewhere in the lower half of my top five I think. It may slip to sixth or seventh place once I have had a chance to revisit it if the jokes don’t hold up. I’m guessing you would rate it lower than that?
Daffy Stardust: If we were supposed to take the lesson that Hela was careless or not particularly sharp I feel like they should have emphasized the point a little better. The idea that all she is is a force for destruction and therefore completely disinterested in actual rule would have been an interesting angle, but we didn’t really get that either, even though the story of how her relationship with Odin went would have dovetailed nicely into it. Her downfall had everything to do with Surtur being released and nothing to do with her own personality shortcomings.
If I was given a chance to do some re-shoots and editing I think I could fix the problems I’ve got with the movie without adding more than a single minute to the running time. Of course I’m sure some audiences would miss the flippancy that bothered me.
Based on my one experience seeing the movie, I would probably rank Thor: Ragnarok at about ninth or tenth, definitely behind Ant-Man, but maybe in front of the second Guardians of the Galaxy. Obviously, I’m going into each of these movies hoping it will be my number one favorite, and I had high expectations this time around. Maybe Black Panther or the Infinity War movies will really knock my socks off.
Lebeau: I’m looking at Black Panther as the next mid-level Marvel movie. I’m fully expecting something on par with Ant-Man or Doctor Strange. Infinity War is likely to suffer the same problems as Age of Ultron and Civil War. I am sure I will like all of these movies, but I don’t think I will need to pack a spare pair of socks. Hopefully I will be pleasantly surprised. Hey, they will probably be better than Justice League and that movie has all my favorite characters in it.
It sounds like I enjoyed Guardians Vol 2 more than you did which probably isn’t that surprising given our split on Thor 3. Both of these sequels relied heavily on their comedic elements sometimes to the detriment of the story they were telling. That didn’t bother me much with either movie because I had a blast watching them both. But I certainly can’t fault anyone for feeling otherwise.
Let’s throw this one out to the readers. Did you guys enjoy Thor’s silly cosmic adventures or did the jokey tone get in the way? Let us know what you thought of the movie in the comments.