Critical Conversations – Thor: Ragnarok

Chris Lopez: Ragnarok is upon us! Or at least Marvel studios’ version of it is, and the film was entertaining and light on its feet. Tonally speaking, Thor: Ragnarok dramatically shifts from the melodramatic tone of the previous Thor films to a comically self-reflexive, space odyssey-esque adventure. Having the Team Thor short films helped prepare me for this nonchalant Thor and tonal shift, so I wasn’t taken aback. The film colorfully brings back beloved characters like Loki and Hulk/Bruce Banner and introduces intriguing new ones like Valkyrie and Hela whose backstories I wish the film explored more! I appreciated how the film was aware that it belonged to MCU but wasn’t beholden to all of the MCU’s conventions. I’m not ready to join other critics in calling this Marvel Studios’ best, but it soars over Guardians of the Galaxy as Marvel’s funniest movie. Before we dive deeper into Thor: Ragnarok, assuming that’s possible, what were your first impressions?

Elijah Davidson: Thor: Ragnarok? More like Thor: RagnaROFL, am I right? I thought this MCU entry was great fun. Even in it’s most serious moments, the MCU has skipped along rather lightly. The series’ most serious film, Iron Man 3, took the bite off Tony Stark’s post-NYC invasion PTSD by laying on a thick layer of Shane Black’s signature sardonic banter between Tony and whichever secondary character he was buddied up with at any moment in the story. They do a similar thing here with Thor, having him bounce from a skeleton to Loki to Korg to Hulk to Valkyrie to Bruce throughout the film, so there is always someone for Hemsworth to do a Taika Waititi-esque comedy routine with and muffle whatever grief he’s feeling over the loss of his father. Hemsworth has great timing. His Thor is the Avenger you most want to grab a beer with, though judging from that early scene with Doctor Strange, you’d have to be careful not let him drink you under the table.

CL: “RangaROFL” indeed! It’s funny that you bring up Iron Man 3‘s undercutting humor. Between my own ROFLs, I was comparing the use of comedy in this film to its use in other MCU films. The comedic moments in the other films can confuse audience’s attempts to connect with the story and sometimes severely undermine character development as you’ve identified in IM3. Waititi and crew use comedy in a very different and affective way. Comedy is essential to this film as opposed to being something forcefully fit in. The fun and hilarity of the opening scene with Thor’s tongue in cheek dialogue with Surtur and Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” rocking in the background carries all the way through the film without losing my concern for these characters. In most MCU films, we are required to relate to the superheroes through their struggles and brokenness. Black Widow is relatable through her past of abuse; T’Challa is relatable through his righteous anger toward the people who killed his father; the Guardians are reliable through their experience as misfits in society. Thor: Ragnarok reminds us that there is a comedic dimension to being human. There is a part of us that simply wants to enjoy the adventure, and we get to connect with that through the characters of this film whether we are laughing at them or with them.

ED: Those are good observations about the way comedy is used in this film. Did you ever find the light tone inappropriate? I’m thinking of the way GOTG‘s nonchalance rubs me the wrong way when one of its “heroes” is gleefully wiping our vast numbers of lifeforms. There are quite a few on-screen deaths in Thor: Ragnarok, and I was on high alert to see if the humor bled into the massacre scenes here as it does in GOTG. A day later, only one moment sticks with me as being perhaps a little too happy about des-troying lots of beings quickly. (I think you know which scene I’m talking about. I’ll leave it vague to avoid SPOILERS in this conversation.) Then again, T:R pulls that nifty trick many superhero movies pull and has the beings being slaughtered be nameless, faceless, zombie-like creatures that are different from robots only in that they are organic in origin. Most of the massacre scenes in T:R are carried out by our villain, Hela, and the tone is decidedly dour. Speaking of Hela, does the MCU side-step its usual villain problem here for you?

CL: I was also hyper-aware to how T:R would juxtapose its violence and buoyant tone. While there is no innocent perpetrator here, T:R relegates most of its senseless mass-violence to its villain(s) who snuffs out people with faces albeit most without names. Small stylistic choices are made to add whatever gravitas possible to these grave moments in the larger gleeful story arc. These scenes are scored with operatic symphonies and the sound effects associated with Hela’s weapons crack, cling and slash in startlingly and grotesque ways. The film also uses the Asgardian art and Valkyrie’s flashback to help us feel the threat. Unfortunately, the portrayal of Hela, like other one-and-done MCU villains, mitigates the severity of “evil”  filmmakers wanted intended Hela to carry. On the surface, Hela might appear different, but her lust for destruction and domination feels recycled since we’ve already seen similar motivations in Loki. We aren’t given a chance to sit with her dysfunctional relationships with Thor and others. Now with all of that said, I’m not upset with T:R or left me wanting per se, because the overall tone of film did not set me up for these things. Like the Grandmaster, the film finds a way to humorlessly palliates anything that sounds too harsh.

ED: I was really hoping for more of that typical Thor-film, familial drama. It’s one of the things that has made these Thor stories feel a little weightier. The, um, complicated relationship between Thor, Loki, and their newly discovered sister isn’t ever really explored, mainly because she goes into full “kill everything” mode immediately upon appearing on-screen. I also wanted Thor to struggle a bit more with the revelation that his father wasn’t as magnanimous as he thought. The tension between what we believe about our society’s past and what the truth is would have been a theme resonant for American audiences as well Asgardian ones, and I think the film kind of just rushes past any of those sticky issues. Oh well. It is an MCU movie after all, and I don’t really expect more at this point. Any kind of interesting sociological conversations happen in the margins of these films not on the surface.

Speaking of the score, I loved what Mark Mothersbaugh did here. Beyond the recurring “Immigrant Song” motif, the beepity-boopity, 80s funk, synth score was terrific fun. It reminded me of those early 80s sic-fi films I enjoy, like Flash Gordon, Conan the Barbarian, and the odder Jim Henson films. Giacchino’s score for Doctor Strange deviated from the bland, MCU norm, and now Mothersbaugh was able to do something interesting here too. I hope this is an MCU trend that continues.

Chris, you always have keen eye for comic book adaptation stylistic choices in these films. Did anything stand out for you here?

CL: These days I just go to the comics for the sociological conversations. Maybe that will change with Black Panther? If the music clips I heard at the film composer panel at Comic-Con give any indication as to where  Ludwig Göransson will go with the film’s music, the MCU’s musical trend will continue!

It’s funny how the more I learn about comic book aesthetic and film style, the less I see MCU films as comic book films. Sure they’re taking narrative material that existed in another medium and translating it into cinema, but adaptations don’t necessarily include a translation of the source material’s aesthetic. In other words, few MCU films make an effort to translate or better remediate the medium of the source material. There’s nothing intermedial about these films. They mostly borrow story concepts from the source material and use film style conventions that work like any other Hollywood action blockbuster.

All of that said, the closest to remediation in T:R I saw was during Valkyrie’s flash back. The sequence achieves a figural intermediality whereby film audiences are exposed the elastic temporality of comic book panels and the staccato rhythm of reading sequential images. Each shot of the flashback contains a moment in the battle against Hela, but through speed ramping each shot is brought almost to a static image giving the viewer time soak in all of the narrative content like she would with a comic book panel. In addition, the flash back is broken apart with quick fade-ins and fade-outs which remediates the experience of connecting discontinuous images. In this short sequence, film audiences are given a chance to construct and internalize a piece of Valkyrie’s past them same way a comic book reader constructs and internalizes one page of panels. This is not the only way to remediate the comic book aesthetic, but this sequence is one of the MCU’s best attempts at using what is being called comic book film style.

ED: See, folks – this is why you talk to Chris about these movies. You learn things.

As a film reviewer, I would have just called Valkyrie’s flashback “a bit of business,” praised it, and moved along in my review. I recognized it as the most visually interesting moment in the film, but I didn’t have time while watching the film to think about why. I could have only given it attention in subsequent viewings. Make smart friends, folks. Find and read smart critics, like Chris. Learn.

“Bits of business” – so many of these blockbuster franchises end up looking the same. There’s a post-2000, Hollywood, sci-fi/fantasy action blockbuster style that, after seeing so many movies made in that style begins to be kind of boring. But occasionally in these movies, you get a “bit of business,” like the Valkyrie flashback, where you can tell an artist or group of artists had the chance to do something idiosyncratic. Doctor Strange’s acid trip is another recent MCU “bit of business.” The “Tale of the Deathly Hallows” in the final Harry Potter film is another one. As a film critic who has to watch all these movies, I live for “bits of business.”

As I write that, I can also see how “bits of business” work because they stand in contrast to the ever-present post-2000, Hollywood, sci-fi/fantasy action blockbuster style. You could look at pretty much all of Zach Snyder’s Batman v. Superman as one big “bit of business,” and when a movie is only stylistic moments and never conventional “and then…” storytelling, it fails at being what a blockbuster absolutely has to include – a compelling, popularly accessible story. I’ll always contend that Snyder should be a b-unit director and be able to bring “bits of business” to other movies.

But I don’t mean to meander away from Thor. Before we wrap up, I’m trying to think if there’s anything else I want to bring up.

Tessa Thompson is a remarkable screen presence no matter what she’s in. I hope to see more of her in the MCU and in other movies.
The more “unhinged” a MCU movie is, at this point in the saga, the better, I think.
It is kind of remarkable that they’ve created a—What is this now?—seventeen film cycle that all ties-in together with now “Odin’s Infinity Gauntlet is a fake” internal continuity. What a ride.

Anything else you want to bring up before we close?

CL: Ride is a good analogy. These films are like that one ride at an amusement park that designers keep adding bells and whistles to while every now and then adding an extra loop or making the drop steeper. In the end though, it’s the same ride. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to leave the amusement park. I just hope once the cycle hits Infinity War the tracks split and allows for other “bits of business” to form.

Nothing to add here!  I don’t think there’s much else to say and that’s the point of T:R. It doesn’t ask much of you while it gives you plenty of ROFL. While I particularly enjoyed Hemsworth and Thompson’s performances, every (voice) actor has their moment of brilliantly timed banter.

Always enjoy talking superhero films with you, Elijah. Every time I come away with a helpful new way to look at film, which is why I think it’s helpful to come to a decision about a film in community and not always on your own. If the Hollywood powers that be have their way, we’ll have plenty more times to discuss these films. Thanks for this!