Damn Marvel, you were so, so close with this one.
I went into Thor: Ragnarok with severely lowered expectations, which is always a good thing. A friend of mine whose opinion I trust had warned me not to get my hopes up as the movie went too far and too crazy with all the jokes and goofiness. This was a concern I had once all of the glowing “funniest movie of all time” reviews started pouring in. I have been burned before with deluges of positive reviews – they make me nervous now. I always seem to find myself on the opposite side of public opinion.
So I had resigned myself to writing this new Thor off as a goofy and failed neon-coloured joke-fest. Still, hope springs eternal and I found myself heading to the theatre anyway (as always). I’m glad I found my courage, though. Thor: Ragnarok is fantastic.
I mightily declare that T:R is the first MCU movie to actually, truly, give me the exact same feeling of reading a comic book. Taika Waititi really is to be commended for finding that perfect balance of cinematic realism and comic book insanity. It is NOT easy.
Several movies have come close before – I remember the thrill I felt upon first seeing the Goblin gliding into Times Square in the first of the Raimi Spider-man movies. That sent a shiver of “real comic book feeling” right up my spine. That feeling didn’t endure for the entire film, however. You still ended up feeling like you were watching a “movie.”
The same went with all of the rest of the following comic book movies, with the MCU films getting closer and more successful with every release. The Avengers blew my mind. That definitely felt like a comic book come to life…mostly. Same with Winter Soldier and Civil War and parts of Doctor Strange (the Ditko shot of Dormammu’s realm). All of these films were still heavily rooted in the “realism” of the MCU, however. They still felt like “movie” versions of a comic book.
Not Thor: Ragnarok. This film felt fully released from the constraints of the “real world.” Yeah sure, there were a few scenes set on earth in NYC, but I’m telling you, having Thor go to meet Dr. Strange at his Bleeker St. sanctorum – there really isn’t anything more perfect when it comes to paying off the “shared universe” motif that Marvel established oh those many, many years ago. The quick “pop in” to Dr. Strange’s place, or Curt Conners’ lab, or the Baxter Building was always the perfect way to set up a story.
So yeah, the opening of Thor: Ragnarok felt perfect – the amazing “fuck you, real-life physics” battle with Surtur finally gave us a Thor who fights like he does in the pages of the comics. Thor’s powers in all of his previous appearances have been slightly muted and restrained. Not this time: we get a full-on depiction of Thor vs. the Underworld that pushes the boundaries of MCU realism and it fucking rocks – literally.
I can’t quite put my finger on it, but somehow Led Zeppelin contributes to the feeling of perfect comic book realization. Maybe because the music is from the same decade that arguably represented the peak of pure, unadulterated comic book story-telling.
Whatever the reason, the music helps make this opening battle a hundred times better than the climax of Dark World. What a great way to start a movie – feels like an amazing and epic splash page come to life.
The great thing about this action-packed “in medias res” opening is that it perfectly mimics the feeling of jumping into a comic book that begins right from where the cliffhanger in the last issue left off. No ‘typical movie” ramping up to the good stuff here. This is something that the comics, the Bonds and Indiana Jones know all about. Taika and the writers really did their homework.
Everything following also works wonderfully to pull you along as if breathlessly turning pages to reveal the story, barely taking the time to read the dialogue. The pacing and distribution of the set pieces felt more spot on than what has come before, imo, and even though I wouldn’t claim they evaded the dreaded Marvel “sameness” entirely, I did feel a new wind behind their sails. Guardians of the Galaxy also freed itself from the verisimilitude of earth and the MCU, bit for some reason that film felt more “Star Wars-y” than “comic book-y” to me. Perhaps because the characters just aren’t as iconic as those in Ragnarok.
The Marvel of the movies is certainly confident and relaxed enough now to loosen up and try new things, even if they are only small things like subtle tweaks to the God of Thunder’s demeanour. Small changes in direction still feel like a massive shift when we’ve had so much of the same for so long. Too bad their TV/Netflix division is a bit of a mess (but more on that in an upcoming post).
Anyway, once the story takes us to Sakaar, and we are free of any earthly restraints, the film really takes off. All of the 80’s day-glo art direction certainly helps evoke the primary coloured world of the traditional comic book. I could go on and on: the Hulk vs. Thor gladiatorial battle was a longtime comic book fan’s dream made true (Avengers was a tease); the scope and hugeness of the sets; the wealth of great characters totally reflected the range of ensemble players you normally find in the pages of a comic; and the cross-cutting between multiple battles at the end felt exactly like glancing from one panel to the next.
All of the easter eggs were smart and subtle enough not to annoy (Bi-Beast!). The big changes to Valkyrie didn’t bother me as she is basically just an entirely new character. Even Jeff Goldblum’s over-the-top Grandmaster, who is nothing like his comic book counterpart, fit the bill nicely. This version of the classic Marvel character wasn’t very “cosmic,” but Goldblum’s eccentricity certainly is.
So now let me get to the one element of the movie that truly failed me: the goddamned lame-O Executioner. Now, this has nothing to do with Urban’s performance, but rather with the ridiculous writing of the character. Verily, the guy felt like he was a character from another time and another movie that got sucked through one of those devil anuses to suddenly land in Asgard. I mean, was he pushing a mop at one point?! Did I see that or not? They have brooms and mops on Asgard? I get that you’re going for a joke here, but that seems to be a joke over a rainbow bridge too far.
Every one of his lines and actions made me pause the movie in my mind for a second: “wait, did he just say his father was a stone mason? Asgard is a realm thousands of years beyond our reckoning and they still have actual stone masons and clean the floors with dollar store mops? Uuuummmm…
Then we get to this, the character’s defining moment in both the comics and the film:
Now I KNOW this particular moment of redemption has precedence in the comics, and I get that the director is being faithful here – but did he have to choose this particular instance to get all loyal and authentic? If you’re judging this panel by “the awesome absurdity and anything goes wack-a-doo of comic books” then this whole “Asgardians invade Hell with machine guns” story from the comics is sheer, fantastic four-colour fun.
If you’re judging by logic, however…
At the time, I thought Asgardians using machine guns in Hell was stupid. I still do. Punisher aside, guns in comics just aren’t cool. The MCU has never been beholden to every single detail from the comics, so I was really disappointed to see this play out in Ragnarok. Never mind that anyone who read the Thor comics in question knew exactly what was gonna happen at the end as soon as he showed off the guns at the very beginning of the damn movie!
Taika Waititi and/or the writers obviously played fast and loose with so much of the source material, but I guess this particular image was just way too hard to resist. Too bad. This machine gun moment was the only time in the whole entire movie where I stopped smiling.
I STOPPED SMILING, TAIKA!
Writing a glowing, positive review? Feels weird, man. I’ve been crossing franchises off of my list so fast and so often I now just automatically expect to be disappointed. Though the MCU has been flailing a bit of late, I’ve still been enjoying what they’re laying down, unlike f**king f**ktards DC/Warner Brothers and their putrid brand of horrid Snyderized Affleck/CGI shyte-fests. So to find that I really enjoyed this movie thrilled me to no end.
But you can’t take out goddamned ASGARDIAN ZOMBIES RESSURECTED BY HELA HERSELF WITH F**KING MACHINE GUNS FROM PRIMITIVE AS F**K MIDGARD! Asgardian dish rags should be bullet-proof, never mind their f**king armour. Even an Asgardian mop should be the equivalent of a pile-driver on earth – especially the way Kirby would have drawn one.
So yeah, you get your slightly jokey and homage-y “hint-at-the-beginning-payoff-at-the-end” climatic moment (does every Marvel film have to have this?), but at the expense of MY F**KING ENJOYMENT OF LIFE!
Why Waititi? Why?!
I forgave your Korg, who was only marginally funny because of your charming kiwi accent. I forgave Goldblum not being blue (your excuse for not painting Goldblum was total bullshit by the way). I forgave Thor putting Surtur’s horned crown in Odin’s vault where it would literally be kept five metres away from the eternal flame – the one thing the crown must never touch (gee, writers, why would he do that, I wonder?).
But this?! This I do not forgive! The fact that the movie was almost perfect just makes this lapse in judgement all the more glaring and repulsive.
Instead of a mop you should have given the Executioner his damn axe right from the start. Instead of a snivelling coward you should have given us a real threat. A real threat can still be comedic relief, ya know.
The Executioner of the comics was always kinda lame, but at least he could stand toe-to-toe with Thor once in awhile. This guy in Ragnarok? He’s just Karl Urban cosplaying with a couple of guns. What’s cool about that? He never does anything really villainous, either, so his arc is kinda flat. He’s more like Rolf from The Sound of Music than the Executioner. Maybe one of his “trophies” should have been the helmet he wore in Judge Dredd.
I gotta say, though, to walk out of a movie without any real complaints is a feeling I thought I’d never have again. Maybe my lowered expectations are to thank for this miraculous boon, but maybe – just maybe – Marvel can be counted on to keep on keepin’ on. Let’s hope.
Finally, as always when it comes to the Mighty Thor in the MCU, I have to request that Marvel finally give us his original boots. Please. It’s time. They are too iconic not to use at lest once. I really thought with Ragnarok and all of its day-glo Sakaar colour schemes and bizarro 80’s costume design we’d finally get them with this movie. Alas.
Look, the wraps don’t have to be bright yellow. They could be a faded orange-y brown leather. You could even invert the colours, I don’t care. But give us the goddamn black ‘n yellow boots for the love of Odin!!!!
I will have to properly re-evaluate my feelings upon my second viewing, but for now I rate this cinematic endeavour 4.5 Fin Fang Fooms out of Five!
I AM FERGUS THE JUSTIFIER!