Did you know Thor: Ragnarok came out last week? Well it did. And despite being the stereotypical nerd who stays at home and never socializes I even went and saw it. With friends and everything. Now me being me two things held true: I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and I have nitpicky things I want to talk about. Since the movie was generally good we will start with the bad things so we can end on a positive note:
SPOILER WARNING: Just gonna spoil everything in this movie.
Things I didn’t particularly like:
Random Hela decisions. First of all, the Norse goddess of death is named Hel. Never in the history of anything has she been referred to as Hela. Apparently this was not an MCU decision, it was a Marvel Comics decision. That doesn’t make it less dumb. Also the whole battle-mode setup. It’s never explained what this is, how it works, or why it might be important. Without those things it’s just a dumb gimmick for no reason that wastes time. It really doesn’t help that in battle mode they did a little makeup thing under Cate Blanchett’s eyes which gave her a permanent squint and was generally not a good look for the character. The whole get up would have been far superior without that; I was constantly distracted with wondering whether she was supposed to be doing everything with her eyes closed.
The writing decision to kill off every single one of Thor’s male buddies within 5 minutes of Hela’s entrance. These men are supposed to be terrific, deadly warriors in their own right – that is why they’re good enough to go with Thor on his adventures to begin with – but all three died pretty unceremoniously. Heck, Zachary Levi didn’t even get a line before he died and only Hogun (yes, I had to look up the character’s name, too) actually put up any kind of a fight. And…uh…where was Sif? I guess they couldn’t kill her because they needed her for later stuff, but she just wasn’t around at all which was weird. Beyond that, no one ever mentions, considers, or mourns these fellows ever again after these opening scenes. Back in the first movie they fought incredibly bravely to help Thor after his father had cast him out of Asgard. In the second movie they fought valiantly once again in order to help Thor defeat the Dark Elves. But despite this movie improving on almost everything from the first two movies it demoted these stalwart fellows into mere red shirts to be smited in order to impress upon the audience how deadly Hela was.
The re-defined Hulk/Banner relationship. In every movie up until now Hulk could best be described as Banner with homicidal rage and little to no self control. In this movie Hulk has his own personality and Banner acts as if this has always been true, despite going so far in The Avengers to start a sentence as Banner and end it as Hulk. There was also not nearly enough time spent on how Hulk managed to take control from Bruce, why he did it, or any kind of indication about where the character(s) will be going from here. Heck, Bruce worried that if he transformed again he might not be able to return but that plot thread was completely ignored once the final battle was completed. I honestly can’t remember if he managed to transform back into Bruce but if he didn’t everyone was weirdly OK with it. In other words, it didn’t really affect the plot. He still Hulked out when he needed to and no one worried about it after that.
By far the biggest problem with the movie, though, was that it completely wasted a Karl Urban appearance. Karl is easily one of the more underrated actors in Hollywood and Marvel managed to land him in what should have been a fairly interesting role as the viewpoint character to show us what Hela was up to. Traditionally this role would have been one of three types of characters: The good guy who is pretending to go along with the villain in order to find out their weakness, the bad guy who hams it all up and just loves being evil (which is what his expression seemed to indicate in posters), and the good guy who was never that good and never wanted to be quite that bad and dies a heroic death of atonement at the end.
It appears that they were going for the last choice there, but they forgot to ever really put Skurge in a position where he had to make a choice. Or honestly any act at all. He mostly stood around and waited for the next thing to happen. As the description I gave above would indicate this character will usually be a nominal member of team good. He or she will feel underappreciated and then something will happen to exacerbate that feeling. The character will then join team bad, do a bit of evil to people he or she feels have wronged or ignored him or her but will eventually want to draw a line. Usually at this point the character finally resists and dies giving the heroes a chance to escape/resist and save the day.
This script jumped straight from a braggart trying to woo some ladies with his illusory power and intelligence to joining the bad guy without hesitation, despite no additional impetus to do so. Then it jumps again the point where the character worries that things are going too far and just hangs out there for a while without much happening. Finally it jumped from there to the point where the character is asked to decide whether they truly want to be evil. This moment is further under cut by the fact that the character doesn’t ultimately make a decision, a distraction allows him to put it off. Later we see him leading the enemy force against refugees and then attempt a cowardly disguise to join them when it looks like his team might lose. Finally he attempts to complete the redemption arc by sacrificing himself but this, too, is undercut by multiple problems.
The thing about the redemption arc is that you have to believe there’s some good in the character and the only sign we’ve seen of any good has been Urban emoting for everything he is worth that he is really, really uncomfortable with the situation he is in. Also, despite having ranged weapons and everyone who needed to be evacuated already on the ship that he needs to defend he leaps off of it to ensure that he dies in the attempt. Finally, the heroes completely ignore him and even the villain only gives him a cursory glance of contempt before flinging one of her magic stone spears at him and there is the weirdest, most awkward cut to the spear in his chest and he dies without uttering a word or being noticed by the heroes, still.
This is one of those situations like I described in a previous article where going with the established trope would have been better than avoiding it. Whenever they did a close up of Urban’s face you could nearly smell the frustration and indecision of Skurge, but they never gave him an outlet to act those things. It’s glaringly obvious that the problems lay entirely in the writing and direction. There was never a sense of momentum in any particular direction for Skurge – he was never good, evil, cowardly, or brave – he just followed Hela around and waited to die. It’s a damn shame because they could have given that role to a much worse actor and it wouldn’t have made any difference except to prevent me from getting my hopes up.
Things I liked a fair bit
Jeff Goldblum. One of the friends I saw this movie with noted that studios have stopped writing characters for Goldblum, they just give him a script and tell him to be himself. It’s a beautiful thing every time and this movie was no exception. It worked primarily because this movie was much more of a comedy than previous entries in the MCU, more on that in a minute.
The 80’s aesthetic. It was done surprisingly faithfully but also without being insulting, derivative, or devolving into pure 80’s cheese. The movie is a bit corny – as would be any movie that wants to be funny as badly as this one does – but it’s a modern kind of corny that does not grate or draw attention to itself like it would have had the movie gone full 80’s. The music was terrific and especially good in that it included a couple tracks from the inspirational decade but was primarily brand new synthesizer work – an homage rather than a strict replication. This allowed it to differentiate itself from Guardians of the Galaxy which is made almost entirely of pop hits from the same time period.
Cate Blanchett, aside from her eye problem with the makeup, was delightful as Hela. One of the more interesting Marvel movie villains – which reminds me, I should definitely do a definitive ranking of those at some point. Her motives were delightfully straight-forward and she pursued them with a zeal and glee that made her a joy to watch.
The fight scenes. There was so, so, so, so much CGI in every fight scene. But it all looked great. The visual spectacle of Hela decimating the Asgardian army/guard/whatever was terrific even as it was devastating to someone who hates even red shirt deaths as much as I do. Watching Hulk and Thor go all out against each other was likewise terrific; in retrospect they actually had a very long fight scene, as such things go, but it didn’t feel overly long at all. The only miss was how confused and quick the moments between Hulk and Fenrir were. Fenrir is a pretty big part of Norse mythology and I would have liked to see him have a greater, scarier role in the movie. As it was when Hulk started to fight him it felt a bit awkward because the cuts and acting led one to believe everyone was terrified of this wolf but up to that point he had literally done nothing except be a giant dog.
The humor. I’ve actually seen quite a few people complaining about this, but I think this was a good thing. The first two Thor movies took themselves entirely too seriously at times considering the clumsy bro-god they feature. This movie allowed Chris Hemsworth’s interpretation of the mythological hero to shine much more than in the previous entries. Some people seem to think that the Marvel movies are getting to be too funny but I’m not entirely clear as to why they think that or why it’s supposed to be a bad thing even if it’s true. The only two Marvel movies I would classify as “nearly a comedy” would be Thor: Ragnarok and The Antman. The other movies all have good comedic moments but not nearly to the same degree as those two movies. This was the seventeenth movie in the MCU and that leaves only two comedic endeavors. I think the library can stand that ratio. Neither movie was a dumb comedy in the vein of Will Farrell or Adam Sandler, either. They’re smart, snappy action comedies that move quickly and do lots of good things.
The interconnectedness of the MCU as shown in this movie. I had someone complain about this a little bit, too, but I think this movie did the interconnectedness of the MCU in nearly the perfect way. Frequently for the stand-alone movies everyone asks, “Why didn’t anyone contact the rest of the Avengers?” this movie solves this problem particularly well by never allowing Thor a chance to contact them once it becomes apparent that he’s dealing with a deadly situation. We also got a direct tie-in to Age of Ultron in discovering Hulk’s whereabouts following that movie – admittedly they could have done better with this, as noted earlier – as well as a brief appearance by Dr. Strange that made sense, didn’t overstay it’s welcome, and made sure at least one Avenger knows he’s around and should be contacted when the next movie comes along.
In other words there was enough of the rest of the MCU to this movie to make sure the people paying attention could still feel connected but not so much that the people who weren’t would really feel all that left out. This was basically the promise of the MCU from the start – that it would feel like the comics with crossovers and team-ups being possibilities all the time. It remains unfortunate that this hasn’t extended to the various TV and Netflix series in the same degree, but it’s great to see them continue to follow through at the movie level.
Valkyrie and Tessa Thompson. I’d never heard of Tessa Thompson before seeing this movie but she and the character were both absolutely brilliant. Every single moment she was on screen was terrific – she frequently stole scenes without even chewing up any of the scenery, an astonishing feat – and I really can’t say enough about the actress or the writing for her character. If there is anything I’m more excited for in the future of the MCU than to see her doing more of her thing, I can’t imagine what it is.
The visuals used in depicting Valkyrie’s back story. It was a small thing in a short scene that didn’t tell the audience much they didn’t already know but great things are always built on small things. They were very reminiscent of classical art of valkyries and they looked absolutely terrific. Great decision married to great execution.
Still, the award for “Best Moment of the Movie IMHO” has to go to Hulk running past everyone to fight Surtur after Loki sets him loose on Asgard. I laughed and laughed and laughed even as I wondered if he’d actually succeed in defeating Surtur before the fiery being could destroy Asgard and force them to come up with another plan. Fortunately Thor was able to get his attention, but I chuckled over the bit all through the credit and out of the theater.
Thor: Ragnarok was a terrific movie and a great feature-length MCU debut for director Taika Waititi – who also voiced the loveable rock gladiator, Korg. I am almost as excited for any more work he does in the MCU as I am to see more of Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie. He managed to bring us easily the most enjoyable Thor film to date and despite that being a low bar he aimed high and mostly reached his goal. For the first time in the MCU I enjoyed a movie so much I think I’d be willing to see it in theaters a second time.