Monday, November 6, 2017

Forcing Humor Undermines Thor: Ragnarok

The Good: Hela and Heimdall have interesting arcs, One or two performance moments
The Bad: Forced humor, Simplistic plot, Obvious plot reversals, Light on character development, Special effects are surprisingly mediocre
The Basics: Thor: Ragnarok takes a surprisingly serious premise for a fantasy/action movie and undermines almost all of it with forced attempts at humor that often fall flat.

There is no real purpose in an American reviewer reviewing a Marvel Cinematic Universe film anymore. By the time a Marvel Studios film is released in the United States, it has been out in theaters in other countries for at least two weeks and die-hard fans who want spoilers have a tendency to look up the foreign press reviews while American reviewers are embargoed from publishing their reviews. So, when Thor: Ragnarok was released in theaters in the United States, I did not rush right out to see it. Instead, I waited for the first surge crowd to dissipate and then I saw the film a few days later. All of this in spite of me being generally psyched about Thor: Ragnarok from the latest preview trailers.

It was not long into Thor: Ragnarok, though, that I became certain that the best moments of the film had been put into the film's trailer. The big reveal of the Hulk was certainly gutted by the preview trailers, but what surprised me most was how much of the film's sense of menace was undermined by the near-constant attempts at humor. Ironically, the film's funniest moment was virtually buried by the reaction to the joke prior to it (in the full theater I was in, I found myself as the only one laughing when Tom Hiddleston's reaction shot - which was, admittedly, entirely dependent upon viewer's seeing The Avengers - at a key moment was focused on for too brief a moment after one of Chris Hemsworth's well-spoiled lines).

Thor: Ragnarok is a conceptual failure and one suspects after the hype for the film dies down, more and more fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be able to admit that the film is a painfully forced bridge movie. Despite the constant menace to Asgard, most of Thor: Ragnarok is actually about reconciling the final moments of Thor: The Dark World (reviewed here!) and re-integrating The Hulk and Thor into the narrative after the events of The Avengers: Age Of Ultron (reviewed here!). And to accomplish those rather simple goals, Thor meanders through his own film making dull jokes while the compelling original elements of Thor: Ragnarok are largely neglected.

The concept of Ragnarok is the end of the world, which in Thor: Ragnarok is supposed to come in the form of Surtur. So, in one of the few remarkably sensible plot points for Thor: Ragnarok, the first thing Thor does is kill Surtur and steal his magical helm so he cannot fulfill the prophecy of Ragnarok and destroy Asgard. Unfortunately, the menace of Ragnarok hangs over Asgard, but is quickly swept aside by a bevy of jokes that fall flat.

Thor, who had figured out how to prevent the prophesied end of Asgard had also already figured out that Odin had been replaced by Loki. But, alas, the big emotional moment of Thor somehow realizing that Loki is both still alive and has weakened Asgard's place in the Nine Realms through his decadence is not actually in Thor: Ragnarok. Thor and Loki take a brief trip to Earth where they search for Odin who promptly dies (or dies enough so that Asgard is now helpless).

And helpless Asgard is to the first-born of Odin, Hela: the Godess Of Death. Hela makes an excellent entrance, announcing herself to Thor and Loki and enlisting arguably the worst, most dimwitted d-rate sidekick villain of all time in the form of Scourge (poor Karl Urban!). Hela then immediately begins a campaign to take over Asgard and at this point, Thor: Ragnarok makes its fatal narrative divergence. Hela inadvertently knocks Thor and Loki out of Asgard by shoving them out of the Einstein-Rosenberg Bridge teleport. When that happens, Thor and Loki go on a grand comedic adventure and Hela and Heimdall are left holding the bag on the vastly more interesting and compelling Ragnarok plot.

Hela is an instantly intriguing villain and Cate Blanchett does the best she can with the material she is given for the firstborn of Odin. Hela reveals that Odin built Asgard on genocide and conquest, with Hela herself as Odin's executioner. The idea that something grand had some truly sinister origins is a distinctly American idea, yet the U.S. gets Thor: Ragnarok after most of the rest of the world. And in Thor: Ragnarok, the horror of how Odin built his empire is not given time within the narrative for reflection or emotional consequences for the characters. Instead, when Thor gets around to trying to stop Hela, he does so without any reflection on how his father betrayed him by not telling him the truth and/or making a philosophical argument to Hela that Odin evolved beyond his need for violence and conquest. Sadly, Thor: Ragnarok is all fisticuffs and little philosophy, which is truly disappointing because the inherent conflict between Hela and Heimdall is a compelling one.

Heimdall spends Thor: Ragnarok as a fugitive. He creates an underground railroad intended to save as many of the Asgardians as he possibly can from being murdered by Hela and her army of the undead. Heimdall does what he can to avoid direct conflict with Hela - despite the fact that the Asgardians are being hunted because of him and his theft of the sword that unlocks the bifrost - and instead concerns himself with actually trying to save Asgard. Heimdall is, easily, the smartest character in Thor: Ragnarok as he attempts to get people out of the way of the Goddess Of Death as opposed to *snicker* trying to find a way to kill her.

Seriously, when Thor comes back to Asgard and starts hacking and stabbing at Hela, the sequence is about as ridiculous as Wonder Woman trying to subdue the god of war by fighting him physically in Wonder Woman (reviewed here!). The Goddess Of Death cannot, logically, be killed by . . . well, death. Death empowers the Goddess Of Death; her demise would have to come from a nontraditional means, much like the only way to defeat a God Of War would be through creating a lasting peace.

So, while Thor: Ragnarok has the seeds of a great, truly epic, story of the destruction of Asgard and the attempt to save its people, Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost and Taika Waititi instead send Thor and Loki into a comedic adventure on an alien world where they are reunited with the Hulk, meet the last surviving Valyrie (which is an elite fighting order, not an individual character) and meander their way back to Asgard. In the previous Thor films, the humor worked by contrast. Thor encountered humans who had very different views on the world compared to the arrogant God and humor resulted. In Thor: Ragnarok, Thor just runs around making jokes. And he plays them off an often humorless Loki and Bruce Banner, arguably the least funny character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

By the time Thor gets around to trying to interface with the true menace of Ragnarok on Asgard, Thor is a buffoon who is impossible to empathize with who hardly seems up to the task of fighting for his homeland. And given that Thor has lost his hammer and been granted super lightning powers by the time he has to take on Hela, the character the viewer has seen for four prior films is virtually unrecognizable.

For other Marvel Cinematic Universe works, please check out my reviews of:
"Havoc In The Hidden Land" - Inhumans
Spider-Man: Homecoming
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. - Season 4
Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phase 1 - Avengers Assemble


For other film reviews, please visit my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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