I got out of the cinema less than fifteen minutes ago. Let’s do this. Oh, yeah, spoiler alert.
The trend towards Superhero movies is dangerous because they promote an inherently republican agenda: There are bad guys out there, and you are not safe. You cannot trust the state to keep you safe, nor can you trust those in your community not to be bad guys. Trust instead in an extra-judicial vigilante who should be immune to the legal ramifications of their actions, because ‘the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun’. Sorry, I mean ‘the only thing that can stop a bad guy with superpowers is a good guy with superpowers…’
This is why I’ve always liked the Thor movies. They’re about fundamentally alien conflicts that happen to take place on Earth. They’re about backstabbing trickster princes and forbidden ancient weapons and dark rituals and proper world-ending stuff. And they’re all immortal Gods with magic powers. And I think the word I’m looking for is epic. Thor is about epic stories – how humanity is powerless in the face of such darkness, but there are those, equally alien, that rise up and fight it. It’s total fantasy. It’s a space opera. The conflicts might take place on earth, but that’s just the battleground. The actual stakes are much higher than humanity. And Thor: Ragnarok is absolutely epic, but manages to be so in all the wrong ways.
It’s grand in scope and scale, but misses the crucial grounding element of humanity. It’s absolutely lacking in this film. It’s not about a lone vigilante protecting a society that can’t protect itself, but that’s because it’s not about anything. I’m sorry but I can’t like this film. I’ve tried and tried and I can’t. And it’s bothering me because it’s pretty-looking, and funny, and… and… it’s just another bloody Superhero film. And I like Superhero films, they’re just a shitty vehicle for telling interesting stories. Thor: Ragnarok has a plot that is completely signposted from minute one of the film. Fine. We don’t go to Superhero movies for complicated plotlines. But maybe we should.
Because there were no deeper meanings or themes explored in the film and there was AMPLE opportunity for them to do so. In fact, I’m struggling to think of a film which so fails to grow to any kind of a point with such fertile soil. Shall we look at the bonds of family and forgiveness with the Hela-Loki-Thor dynamic? Nope. Loki can throw away a few lines while he and Thor murder some guards. Well then what about Genocide and Immigration with the Asgardian exodus? Nah, we’ll show Idris Elba as Robin Hood cum Aragorn and leave it at that. Okay, then slavery, servitude and modern capitalism on the Fighting-planet? No? Then surely we’ll do something about what it takes to forge an Empire, and rewriting and whitewashing of history, then, because that’s Hela’s whole thing. No. There’s so much scope to tell some kind of a story, to have some kind of moral, or stance on any issue. But Thor: Ragnarok decides to take no stances on anything.
There’s no dramatic question. I mean, there is but it sucks, and we don’t care. The central question is: Will Hela manage to… I dunno, conquer Asgard? She does that half an hour in. Will Thor be able to defeat her? Yeah, of course he will. That’s never in question. There’s no jeopardy here. Nothing to keep the audience emotionally invested. There’s never a moment you think someone that you care about might die. And that’s not because no-one dies, it’s because we don’t care about any of them.
Perhaps this is because the film is populated by cardboard cut-outs. Its characters flip-flop in their core beliefs, change allegiances on a fucking whim and present as bland mannekins who spew out quips and cool one-liners. This might, with care, have made them seem complex, and nuanced, but instead makes them feel totally ungrounded. We can’t connect with these characters as people, because their drives and motivations are so unclear. As a consequence, the film lacks any kind of emotional impact at all. Some character dies? We don’t care. Some character wins in a fight? We don’t care. They’re not people, they’re fight-scenes given dialogue.
Now the fight scenes are great. Of course they are, it’s a modern Marvel (pun intended). There’s a ton of ass-kicking and slow-motion badassery. The film is visually very very pretty. Everything from Thor’s new lightning effects, to the end credit sequence shows a level of polish and refinement which costs a lot of money, and is gorgeous and eye-pleasing. It leans heavily on the colourful aesthetics established as part of the MCU pallette by Guardians of the Galaxy, and this sets it apart from its drab older siblings. In fact, it takes a lot from the Guardians films, seemingly taking the sense of humour of Starlord and grafting it into Thor’s character. In this film he is suddenly an inept flirt, constantly styling-out comic circumstances.
And I hate this! It’s like they looked at Guardians of the Galaxy, which was brilliant because it was COLOURFUL and FUN and had a GREAT SOUNDTRACK and went, oh, well let’s just do that again, but with Thor this time! And yeah, it’s better than the first two Thor films but so what? Here is a film where they have a budget of umpteen million dollars, and a guaranteed audience, and decided to do absolutely nothing meaningful. Nothing at all. It’s very easy watching, and if all you want to do is watch beautiful people commit fantasy violence at each other for two hours, then it’s exactly the film for you. Mindless, soulless, dull. Is it ‘fun’? I mean… yes. It is. It’s fun to see Hulk smashing Thor around, but it’s only there as a metatextual throwback for the fans, it doesn’t have any kind of payoff. None of it does.
Oh man, did this film piss me off. Bruce Banner decides to commit suicide because he’s more use to the team dead, so that Hulk can live and help them fight, and how does the film use this moment? As a cheap joke! Whether they bring back Ruffalo as Banner is functionally irrelevant, because at that point, the character believes this is the end. Actually, that’s a grand metaphor. The film literally has the genius with seven PhDs kill himself to revive the big stupid fighter, because that’s what’s valuable. And it doesn’t make a big deal about it because the intent is less important than the action.
I sat back in my seat in abject disappointment when The Hulk reappeared at the end of the film with zero fanfare, but then he almost ruins the good-guys’ plan by being true to his character and being a mindless killing machine. I so badly wanted the film to demonstrate that actually the testosterone-fuelled rage machine might not have been a better choice than the genius scientist, since violence has a dark side and is often uncontrollable. In fact, this is the character we’ve been shown the whole film. But I suppose, that strays too close to a message that isn’t ‘murder is fun, now shut up and eat your popcorn’ for this film.
Listen, I have no doubt that it’ll go gangbusters at the box office, making tons of money and lots of people will enjoy it. Hell, you’ll probably enjoy it. I did. Enjoyed the hell out of it and felt a little dirty for doing so. Hundreds of thousands of people will see this film. It’s not that there isn’t a place for violence-porn in escapist fantasy, it’s just that I don’t know that it’s a healthy media for children to consume. When it’s wrapped up in a colourful package and given zero moral weight, violence is normalised. Shit, when you don’t show the negative ramifications but show people looking like total badasses, then it’s actively encouraged. There’s no downside. Own guns. Guns are cool. Be a hero.
Watch this film if you want to, or don’t. If you do, you’ll likely enjoy it. But if we don’t start to ask for more from our films, then this is all we’ll get.