Thor: Ragnarok and the Marvel Problem

Marvel’s latest popcorn-muncher, Thor: Asgardian Rhapsody, premiered this month to critical acclaim, serving audiences a god’s portion of colourful, lighthearted, and (barring a few ‘edgy’ words) family-friendly entertainment and proceeding to earn Disney somewhere in the vicinity of ninety-two zillion dollars.

I wrote that paragraph at the end of October in complete confidence it would prove itself to be true – not because I’m some kind of absurdly intelligent Sherlock-figure who can determine the outcome of any given scenario courtesy of a supercomputer brain coupled with increasingly lazy writing – but because Disney is at the top of its A-game in regards to its Marvel properties and has yet to truly fail.

With something like seventeen bloody installments of the MCU in the can, Disney has all but mastered a formula for bona fide theatrical enjoyability combined with a guaranteed financial return that largely consists of making everything look and feel like Guardians of the Galaxy, and after a glance at their future release schedule it’s evident they’re only gaining momentum. Strap on your seat belts, kids, because we’re going to get nine Marvel movies a year until we’re all rotting in the ground.

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Merry Christmas, @$$holes!

Now that it’s nearly December, I can at last say I’ve seen Thor 3 and am now looking back on my opening paragraph from the comforts of my snooty-sized ‘better-than-you’ armchair with a satisfied grin, because this movie was indeed highly enjoyable – massively flawed and occasionally frustrating, but on the whole enjoyable.

Which brings me to my biggest problem with all these Marvel movies – while most of them are indeed enjoyable, they’re also fundamentally dumb.

EDIT: Okay, they aren’t all dumb. Like the rest of the world I loved the first Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy, and unlike people who cleave to the comic books I thoroughly enjoyed Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, because it had the cajones to be slightly different.

While I certainly enjoyed watching Thor 3 (admittedly enough to get dragged to it twice), I’m hesitant to call it ‘good,’ though it certainly felt good on account of its implementation of all the tried-and-true Marvel hallmarks: a lighthearted tone, a vibrant colour palette, an ensemble of fun characters, whimsical set-pieces, wacky action sequences, and hilarious dialogue.

On the strength of these elements Marvel movies seem to get a pass from Joe and Jane Viewer and even from most critics as well. However, if we peel back these distracting garnishments and objectively examine the bare narratives they conceal, we find a grandiose series of paint-by-numbers productions with all the same strokes, streaks, and smudges arranged in nigh identical symmetry across their canvases.

Now, every film has some flaws (except for Goodfellas and Ghostbusters – you know damn well which one I mean), but Marvel’s offerings tend to get bogged down by the same assortment of flaws.

How does Thor: Ragtime Gal stack against them? Let’s find out together.

THE COOKIE-CUTTER SUPERHERO PLOT

Marvel didn’t invent the formulaic superhero plot, but it has certainly embraced it. As a rule, these plots tend to follow the same set of beats with little deviation – man gets powers, man hones powers, man fights bad guy, man signs on for eight sequels, and fin. The better stories involve man learning something about himself or the world along the way in a little element that most films call ‘Char-AC-ter Dev-el-OP-ment.’

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For instance, Spider-Man doesn’t just sling webs and defeat the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, he learns that power comes with responsibility and accepts both at great personal cost. In addition, Tony Stark doesn’t just jet around in his ozone-depleting robo-suit in his titular origin story, he devotes himself to a greater ideal and discovers his humanity, ironically through becoming less human.

Conversely, Thor doesn’t just punch an evil fire demon in Thor 3, he also punches his evil sister (how progressive!) and that’s about it. From the vague recollections I hold from the first Thor, there was at least some ‘lesson’ in the mix about humility (or something) in Thor’s four-day banishment to Earth. This time around there’s little going on thematically save for some ham-fisted message about Asgard being its people, not its location – which admittedly may be greatest allegory Christianity’s slipped into a blockbuster since RoboCop. The cataclysmic Ragnarok alluded to in the title gets shuffled to the back of the deck to accommodate gladiatorial hijinks and intergalactic shenanigans, and even then it feels tacked on mostly as a lead-in to the upcoming third Avengers.

In this sense Thor: Rock the Casbah is little more than an incremental adventure, albeit a fun one, where the set-pieces and action pad out a script without much to say. I mark this category with a fat, red ‘X’ and press on.

ORIGIN STORIES ARE SOOO LAST MILLENNIUM

As an aside, Marvel finally seems to have clued in that origin stories are tedious, overly-familiar affairs that peaked somewhere around 2005, though it took the off-kilter deliveries of both Ant-Man and Doctor Strange for the studio to course-correct. Having their heroes already established in Spider-Man: Homecoming and the forthcoming Malcolm X biopic certainly bodes well for Marvel’s creative direction, because aside from the first Iron Man their origin tales have accomplished little beyond getting their heroes suited up for some contractually-obligated sequels and crossover events.

I realize Thor: Raggedy Andy isn’t an origin story, but it may as well have been because I don’t remember the first two Thor movies any more than I remember the outcome of any of my office Christmas parties. Here I scrawl a giant ‘not applicable’ across the page, down a shot of Jameson, and stumbled onward.

DISTRACT ‘EM WITH A JOKE

Marvel movies and I have quite a bit in common in that we constantly crack wise to distract people from the fact that we have nothing serious to say.

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And on THAT bombshell…

In light of how comical these movies have become, it’s almost easy to forget that the first Iron Man is predominantly a drama – there’s humour there, to be sure, but it’s relatively grounded and used appropriately in service to a serious story. I feel that both Joss Whedon and Guardians of the Galaxy were the catalysts for these movies becoming full-blown comedies, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, if we’re going to get served the same repackaged plot nine times a year, it might as well be fun and not take itself so seriously. The problem here is that a significant portion of these movies’ success now hinges on their humour. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. II’s laugh factor (not to mention its sheer pathos) mostly redeemed its scattershot narrative, even if it fell short of the more rhythmic flow of its predecessor. On the other hand, Doctor Strange’s jokes felt completely forced and consistently fell flat, ultimately failing to distract me from the fact that it was a tired reskin of Iron Man.

Here Thor: Rockapalooza at least hit a home run. Maybe it’s the fact that the Thor series has finally loosened up a bit, or maybe it’s Kiwi director Taika Waititi’s quirky Flight of the Conchords-esque humour infusing some energy into Marvel’s least interesting character. Whatever the reason, this movie kept me laughing from start to finish despite its archetypal plotting. So it gets a point in this category for that. Or a checkmark, or whatever the hell it is I’m doing here. Odin, I love day-drinking…

VILLAIN-OF-THE-WEEK WITH A DOOMSDAY PLOT

A hero is only as good as his arch-nemesis – John McClane has Hans Gruber, Captain Kirk has Khan, and Western Canada has Trudeau. Here we find one of Marvel’s greatest failings in that most of its villains are narratively expendable and utterly forgettable.

Marvel has largely employed a traditional villain-of-the-week to stand opposite their heroes not dissimilar to those found in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Despite casting veterans like Jeff Bridges, Mickey Rourke, Robert Redford, Mads Mikkelsen, and Hugo Weaving, these villains are generally the weakest link of their movies. If they’re not plotting fiendish schemes for world domination or undertaking menacing searches for magic McGuffins, they’re diabolically firing giant blue lasers into space with intent to do… something. Tom Hiddleston as Loki is the obvious standout of Marvel’s rogues gallery, but his motivations beyond giving his dad and brother the middle finger are nebulous and he’s starting to lean more toward the ‘anti-hero’ end of the teeter-totter anyway. Michael Keaton, on the other hand, was a breath of fresh air as The Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming because his goals were domestic, practical, and halfway justifiable. He wasn’t trying to terraform the world and mostly wanted Spider-Man to just stay the hell out of his way.

We now turn to Thor 3. Cate Blanchett is a delightful actress, and was delightfully hammy as an antlered Goddess of Death. The problem is that the movie didn’t exactly know what to do with her talents and restricted her to just sit around Asgard being maniacal until Thor returned to defeat her. Still, I’d love to see her in a similar role down the road, perhaps as a villainous sorceress should John Carpenter ever get around to Big Trouble in Little China 2.

So Cate Blanchett gets a thumbs up, but Thor: Rutabaga Pie doesn’t. Good for you, Cate Blanchett – I know this means a lot coming from someone who wears his bathrobe until 2 PM.

WAIT… GIRLS HAVE PERSONALITIES?

What do Liv Tyler, Natalie Portman, Emily VanCamp, Evangeline Lilly, and Rachel McAdams have in common? First, they’re all terrific actresses, and second, I had to be reminded they’re a part of this franchise.

Marvel apparently loves casting A-list actresses as its heroes’ girlfriends and then neglecting to give them any semblance of a personality. I can’t even cite any examples here because the only ‘girlfriend’ character from a recent comic book adaptation who’s stood out is Morena Baccarin in Deadpool… and her role actually worked because her character had spunk. Some in this day and age might call this trend misogyny, but I call it comic book writers’ natural inability to write compelling women. I don’t even blame them – I don’t know anything about how females think or act, and some of my split personalities are female.

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Fortunately, here Thor 3 actually triumphs by eschewing Natalie Portman’s role altogether and introducing Zoe Saldana Tessa Thompson as a swaggering, hard-drinking mercenary with a tormented past. She serves a vital role in the story, fulfills a personal arc, and doesn’t even kiss Thor at any point. She’s been one of the best additions to this franchise and I only hope she joins the ranks of the Avengers for Phase Four.

Beyond being merely progressive, Thor: Ragamuffin gets a pint of lager hoisted in its general direction for introducing a stellar character I’m eager to see more of.

I KNOW THAT VOICE… OR DO I??

A little trick I learned back in screenwriting school for determining the strength of individual characters’ identities is that one should be able to black out all the name tags on a script page and still be able to tell who’s speaking based on the dialogue alone. Some of the Avengers have distinct voices that would ring out loud and clear to a blind man. Tony Stark is quick-witted, sarcastic, and has all the clever zingers. Captain America is resolute, respectful, and the grounded voice of reason. Thor is… in attendance?

One of the funniest aspects of the MCU is that nobody knows how the hell to write Thor, and consequently his personality reflects the whims of the individual writer. He’s stoic in Thor and Avengers, buffoonish in Age of Ultron, a black screen in Thor: The Dark World (probably because I fell asleep), and comedic in Thor: Reggae Mixtape…. okay, I’ll stop now.

Though I feel like a god character should naturally be solemn, Thor as an emotional boulder was one of the blandest members of the Avengers, so I’ll give the movie an approving nod for at least making him fun, even if he is less a God of Thunder and more a God of Blunder.

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THE SHARED UNIVERSE EFFECT

A glaring problem with these Marvel movies is that most of them feel like purely obligatory assembly-line productions that exist purely to branch into the next phase on Disney’s release schedule.

Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy stand out as excellent films because they feel like Jon Favreau and James Gunn’s individual ideas, not manufactured corporate products designed by a board of fourteen people. One of their greatest strengths, in this regard, is that they function as self-contained stories without serving as springboards for future MCU installments. Captain America: Civil War is an obvious offender here, having devoted some of its ample running time to setting up both Spider-Man: Homecoming and Black Panther while leaving everything nice and tidy for whoever’s directing Avengers 3Ant-Man and Dr. Strange are also prime examples of some of the entirely obligatory chapters of this ‘verse – in fact, they feel suspiciously like they were adapted purely to keep Marvel’s intellectual property out of Sony and Fox’s hands, because we all know how amazing those shared universes are going to be.

Thor 3 largely avoided supporting the future of the MCU and stood as its own story. It only led into Avengers 3 after its climax, which is a shame because it lacked any real sense of finality, which will likely only come when the Avengers movies are finally wrapped in 2019 (and then rebooted in 2020, God help us all). I’ll still give Thor 3 a soft point here, but it sure would have been nice if somebody major finally died in one of these movies. I don’t get my money’s worth unless somebody dies in misery and isolation.

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CONCLUSION:

Though they have some Hulk-sized flaws, Marvel movies aren’t terrible. In fact, they’re generally inoffensive and easily-digestible offerings that are designed to not demand anything from their audience, even an ability to pay attention.

Which leads me to the greatest Marvel problem of all – while these movies do succeed in entertaining, they bring little to the table that’s of substance. They’re akin to fast food cheeseburgers in that they accomplish their immediate goal of satisfying a craving but provide little actual nutritional value, which I suppose is fine once in a while but leads to dire problems in the long run.

I’m reminded of a line Roger Ebert penned for his review of 2003’s The Jungle Book 2: “If kids grow up on the movie equivalent of fast food, they will form an addiction to that instant action high and will never develop the attention span they need to love worthwhile fiction.”

That’s the Marvel problem. At this point all the audience-pleasing trappings are merely a distraction for stories without a whole lot interesting or original to say besides a call to ‘tune in next week!’ for more tomfoolery. Call them popcorn-munchers, call them guilty-pleasures, just don’t call them good.

And after all that, I’m going to go ahead and (begrudgingly) give Thor: Ragnarok a 7/10 – not because it earned it, not because it was anywhere near good, but because it managed to charm me in spite of its flaws by being just different and weird enough to stand out from the pack.

Besides, from the look of the Justice League movie, it could have been far, far worse.

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