After Ragnarok ended, I said to myself: “Well…they finally did it! They finally went Full Jack Kirby! It’s about fucking time.”
That’s not entirely accurate, upon reflection. These Marvel movies have always owed more to early-2000s comics than the mid-to-late 1960s comics – more Bryan Hitch and Steve Epting than Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko…and this one is no exception. But I noticed quite a bit of Walt Simonson in there as well – as did he, on his Twitter. And nothing says “Kirby” to me like a Space Opera that sprawls across the entire known universe. Or a time when the Old Gods died.
So after two failed attempts, we finally have a Thor movie that actually resembles Thor comics. Better late than never. Anything’s better than a $150 million dollar remake of Beastmaster 2 that was Thor: The One Without a Subtitle…even a patchwork of half-formed ideas that went through a Rolodex of directors, like The Dark World. At least Ragnarok only has three writers, as opposed to Dark World‘s five. And as far as I know, director Taika Waititi was the only one who made it all the way through Marvel’s arcane selection process.
In a surprise to me, said process doesn’t involve a sacrifice to Pan, the God of Panic or Gorr, the God Butcher. Apparently, Our Director got this job by making a sizzle reel of action scenes from previous Thor films, set to “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin – a song about a viking pinning for home as he raids villages along “the Western Shore” – which could be Britain, could be Ireland…hell, it could even be America. The suits at Marvel/Disney (allegedly) took one look at this and said, “Great! Love it…hey, what’s that song you used?” Displaying the even-temper and presence of mind you’d want from a big budget movie director, Waititi said, “It’s…Immigrant Song…by Led Zeppelin…one of the most popular and successful rock songs of all time.” And he did not ask them any follow-up questions. Like, “Have you seriously not listened to a classic rock station in your entire fucking lives? You live in LA, you’re stuck in traffic all the time – what the fuck are you doing? Taking calls? Never mind – of course you’re taking calls.” Or “ Has the robot apocalypse already begun? Somebody get me a Voight-Kampff machine! We’re gonna be asking some hard questions about tortoises up in here.”
The suits were probably already calculating how much the rights to a Zeppelin song would cost, so they hooked Waititi up with our three writers and he, in turn, hooked Marvel up with Weta Workshops – the production designers behind Lord of the Rings and…the Hobbit Trilogy…but we shouldn’t hold that against them. There’s was some of the best work in that whole depressing saga and they did enough good work here to convince people like me that Marvel’d finally gone full Jack Kirby. Hell, the whole art department deserves mad props.
As do our three writers. One of ’em – Eric Pearson- was the story editor for Agent Carter’s TV show (may it rest in power). The other two are veterans of the animated series that were all we superhero fans had to work with before the Disney buy-out. Both Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost came up from 2003’s X-Men: Evolution, which I eventually learned to like better than the 90s X-Men series everyone’s nostalgic for now. For years, both have been making stuff that I almost always wound up liking better than live-action films. Gratefully, I’ve lived long enough to see some of their stuff make it into the live-action films…but we’ll talk about Logan later…
Yost also worked on The Dark World, so there’s at least some carry-over of tone, particularly in the interactions between Odin’s sons. Kyle’s gotten a producer credit on all three Thor movies…and a screen story credit on a little 2010 animated feature called Planet Hulk, based on the 2006 comic book arc of the same name. It’s about the Hulk getting blasted off Earth, crash-landing on a complete nothing planet called Sakaar and having the fight his way out of gladiatorial slavery. Ragnarok also borrows heavily from Michael Oeming and Daniel Berman’s six-part, 2004 arc, also called Ragnarok, which stood as the grand finale to Thor’s series for three whole years…before his next reboot. That this Ragnorok managed to synthesize so many different stories, from so many different eras, into a coherent piece is amazing in itself, but it’s also something superhero animated series have been doing for years, I’m glad someone in the Disney sweatshop finally noticed. “Hey, maybe we should give these cartoon people a chance.” Kyle being a producer (and thus, officially recognized as a human being by the machine) probably helped out there, as well.
Fact is, the serialized storytelling format of monthly comics translates much better to weekly shows than it does to a bi- or tri-annual movies. Also, the lack of money riding on a cartoon’s success leads to a relative lack of corporate oversight, allowing for more experimentation by the artists involved. And since the Marvel Universes are all so fucking insane, all artists really have to do to “experiment” is adapt things the movies have spent ten years being too scared to touch. Like how they originally felt they couldn’t make the Asgardian’s gods because that would open up a whole can of metaphysical worms. So they had to become aliens…that somehow look, act and think exactly like we “Earthers” do, with all our hang-ups. Like in Star Wars.
Also like Star Wars, Thor’s movies present themselves as sprawling, Epic Space Operas…that can easily be boiled down to one fucked-up family’s never-ending internal drama. The members of that family just casually refer to themselves as gods now, because fuck it. No one’s going to scream about Thor leading their precious, Christian children to paganism and witchcraft, like they did with Harry Potter. Or, if they are, no one at Marvel’s going to hear it, because money is the best insulation in the world.
Against long odds, this creative team managed to make a movie that continues Thor’s arc and effectively critiques the failings of its predecessors by doing a lot of the same things, only better. As in The Dark World, Thor must confront an ancient and powerful entity bent on remaking the universe in their own image, damn the consequences, full genocide ahead. As in the first movie, Thor is almost immediately de-powered and set adrift on an alien planet, and must climb back up from the bottom of the social ladder. Near the end, Hela accuses Odin of solving all his problems by papering over them, and Thor counters with, “Or by sending them away.” But Odin exiled his favorite son in the hope that the experience would teach him much-needed humility, and it worked (mostly thanks to Jane Foster, as played by Natalie – who remains a bad-ass bitch).
Thor’s time with Avengers only reinforced those lessons, as he saw how much destruction his people (or anyone with any comparable amount of power) might wreck upon an unsuspecting universe of civilians who’re just trying to get by, for the most part. Here, he comes back home at last, only to find that home’s built on a foundation of lies and bullshit. Like Captain America, in Winter Soldier, only more explicit. Because you don’t have to risk accusations of being “too political” if you dress up your socio-political commentary in an allegory. That’s something J.R.R. Tolkein never understood – or, if he understood it, he never got on board with it because people insisted on reading his Epic Fantasy Trilogy as an allegory for the wrong war. There’s a really snotty bit in the intro to my edition where Tolkein basically says, “If this were WWII, Gondor would’ve kept the ring, united with Saruman, split Mordor up between them, and started a new war almost immediately. ‘Mr. President – we must not allow a Ring of Power gap!’” I’m paraphrasing, but still…
If you forgot the end of The Dark World, I don’t blame you. Loki faked his own death and usurped Odin as Asgard’s ruler (again) – though, this time he has the presence of mind to steal Odin’s form, allowing him to brand any challenge to his authority “treason” and put on propaganda plays that double as handy reminders of what happened in Dark World. Thor finds all this out from the fire-giant Surtur, Asgard’s prophesied destroyer…but by the time he and Loki find Odin (with a little help from a local doctor), it’s too late. The old man has just enough time to warn them about their long-exiled older sister before he expires and his death frees Hela from…Hela-Jail…or wherever she’s been all this time.
Being the first born, she overpowers both the boys without even really trying and kicks them both out of the bifrost somewhere between Asgard and Earth. They land on the planet Sakaar, which bears almost no resemblance to the Sakaar in the comics. That Sakaar was a post-Apocalyptic wasteland – Mad Max meets ancient Rome, but with power armor, and ruled by a 9/11 Truther’s vision of Dubya.
This Sakaar is the most Jack Kirby planet I’ve seen outside of a comic book – a patchwork of 1960s futurism, hard-edged angularity, and good, ol’ fashioned piles of junk. The lived-in, constantly used, high-tech-but-rundown space fantasy futurism everyone praises Star Wars for, either oblivious to, or uncaring about, where Star Wars got it from in the first place. Emphasized by the fact the planet’s orientation video calls Sakaar “the collection point for all lost and unloved things” – the galaxy’s own Island of Misfit Toys. Ruled over by “the First Lost and the First Found,” (whatever that means) The Grandmaster
He’s very different from any Grandmaster I’ve ever met, but he’s Jeff Golbume, so I don’t really care. He’s having more fun than I’ve seen him have in ages and that’s infectious all by itself. Between him and Benecio del Toro’s Collector, we’ve now seen two Ancients in the Cinematic Universe, and they’ve both been their own kind of pack rat, living on the fringes of galactic society. Is their constant hording of objects (including people they treat like objects) the last symptom of a longing for the civilizations they outlived so long ago, no one even remembers the names of their species? Beats the fuck out of me, but it’s fun to imagine.
Loki’s already there and already sliming his way to the top – mostly by schmoozing at parties. Lucky for Thor, Hulk is also here, and he’s taken to the gladiatorial pit-fighting like a shark to water. How did he get here? Was that quinjet Nick found crashed at the end of Avengers 2 just a relic of some other SHIELD mission that ended as well as they usually end? We’ll probably never know – unless someone wants pop over to the dimension where Universal isn’t holding future Hulk movies hostage. Maybe there’s a universe where they’re still owned by a vodka company and aren’t making any more Jurassic Parks.
Meanwhile, in Universe 2×10^5, the Hulk has been Hulk for two years, meaning he’s learned to speak. Meaning he can finally have a conversation with his co-stars! As in Planet Hulk, he’s found a greater degree of equanimity on Sakaar than he ever could on Earth. Better to be the reigning champion of the local bloodsport circus than the pariah on a team of pariahs. After Hulk actively interferes with his escape attempts, Thor must forge a connection with Puny Banner (who has no idea what the fuck’s going on once he shrinks down) and the one other Asgardian on-world – the Last of the Valkyries. The rest of the Valkyries died fighting Hela way back when, and Tessa Thompson’s character has been drinking her way across the galaxy ever since. Can our motley crew stir up a local insurrection, steal a ship, and get back to Asgard before Hela takes the whole place over?
Well, duh. For me, the real meat of this piece is back on Asgard, watching Hela roll over its forces with graceful ease. They couldn’t make her Loki’s daughter – as she was in Norse mythology – without having some major ‘splaining to do…but making her Odin’s daughter allows a Marvel movie to finally critique the hypocrisies of imperialism…or, at the very least, finally bring them up. They’ve been simmering in the subtext of pretty much all these films since the beginning, way back in Iron Man. It’s like someone said, “did you like the Vulture’s whole ‘the rich and the powerful, they do whatever they want’ speech in Homecoming? Well, how about a feature length version of just that?” Yes, please.
The Grandmaster is the living embodiment of that truth, and Sakaar is a breathing example of where the rich and the powerful would very much like to end up. But he’s just the latest avatar – Asgard being another. It’s always looked nice, but the status quo it represents only looks more rotten by the day. The first Thor movie showed us the peace Odin imposed was actually so fragile, his sons almost broke it up by accident. Dark World showed us one of the (presumably) many people(s) Odin crushed in order to bring about that peace coming back for some re-vengeance. Since then, two Guardians of the Galaxy movies have shown us a Milky Way fill-to-bursting with warlords, Egoists, pirate gangs, and Death Mongers – where the benevolent fascism of Xandar looks like the only safe bet for people who want to settle down and raise a brood. Now, Hel comes to Asgardtown, a walking, talking refutation of all her father’s good intentions. Symbolized quite well by the ceiling mosaic she blasts open as soon as she gets to the throne room – revealing the older, uglier, but far-more truthful mosaic that was underneath it All This Time.
Odin always presented himself as the benignly neglectful patriarch of a society of well-meaning party animals, and now we see this for the late-in-life exercise in image-management it really was – a God-king’s midlife crisis. An attempt to paper over a tyrannical past, when slaves built him golden palaces. “Where do you think all this gold came from?” Hela asks her baby bro…and, of course, Thor has no answer. He was intentionally raised to not ask such questions, in the hope he’d grow to be the king Odin pretended he’d always been. But all that did was create the cruel, arrogant boy we met back in the beginning of Thor 1, who had to have everything taken from him (except his infuriatingly perfect abs) before he learned to value anything.
Ragnarok opens with him still valuing the wrong things, having spent the two-in-continuity-years since Age of Ultron literally chasing a dream. A prophetic dream about Asgard’s destruction which, by the end of things, he will help fulfill in order to stop his evil sister from spreading destruction throughout the cosmos with her Army of Skeleton Warriors and her giant wolf. Because “Asgard,” as Odin’s ghost says during the make-or-break part of the third act, “is not a place – it’s a people.” A good sentiment, and true, since to be a hero is to guard your people from Death. This is why Our Hero was unable to unlock his full slate of thunder and lightning powers until now, at the end of all things.
Might’ve been nice to get to know some of those people before Death came for them. The few we’ve spent any good amount of time with are hardly a representative sample. The Warriors Three get got within seconds of our seeing them again here, to prove Hela’s super serial – and no one seems to know where the fuck Sif’s gone. Pretty sure I’m the only one who cares. It’s left to poor Idris Elba to shoulder all the weight and he spends this whole movie shepherding Asgardian civilians through the rolling hills we’ve also barely seen in three movies. Once again, he’s the fixed point – the last man standing. Thor never had a “guy in the chair” – to use Homecoming’s phrase – but he did have a guy at the bifrost who could see (apparently) everything. Wish a bit more had been made of Odinson’s connection to his older, wiser friend – a good paternalistic friendship can do more for you than your a bio-dad, especially when you’re bio-dad’s an aloof monarch with deep, dark secrets in his past…
Both the best and worst things you can say about these Marvel movies is “they’re fun,” bringing up images of rollicking good times and pointless frivolity that goes in one ear and out the other. It’s the contrast that gets people – and the seemingly-constant need to reinforce that contrast in every single scene. There is no dramatic moment that cannot be undermined with a joke. It’s what the ancient critics called “bathos.” As opposed to “pathos” – things that are supposed to inspire pity or sadness in an audience – “bathos” is all about undercutting that shit, usually for satirical or comedic effect.
Korg is the perfect example – a serious character, treated seriously in the comics and turned into the comic relief of a film where I occasionally needed relief from the comedy. Aww – did your dad die thanks to your evil brother’s machinations? And did your dad spend your whole life hiding the truth about himself, and your evil sister? Here: have a dick joke. Oh, you’re trapped on a planet where the only person you know – besides your evil brother – is a barely-articulate rage monster? Well, here’s another dick joke. For contrast. And, of course, there’s the massive implied dick-joke inherent in the Hulk himself…but we’ll talk about that more in the Infinity Wars to come…
Right now, let’s talk about frivolity. From a general audience perspective, watching a frivolous movie can be a welcome relief in a world where everything screams at you about how it’s the Most Important Thing Ever. From a bloodless, corporate vampire perspective, it is in your best interest to treat each of these movies like a disposable product – especially when you’re trying to put out three a year and each of them has to make a billion dollars to justify its existence. According to our director, he even asked his new bosses if the amount of humor in here was really appropriate for the subject matter, what will all the destruction and death and slavery and such. They apparently told him, “No, we love it – in fact, put in more. Jokes for the Joke God!” Honestly, I don’t mind when the jokes flow from the characters and their reaction to the ambient absurdity of their situations…but I can see the seeds of disaster germinating in this mentality…I remember the 90s…not with nostalgia, but with dawning horror. I grew up learning history repeated itself first as tragedy, then as farce…but nobody warned me that both the tragedy and the farce could happen at the same time.
This is all really, really absurd. We finally have a Thor movie I can unconditionally call “good” and all it took was two completely mediocre ones and two fair-to-mediocre Avengers movies. Deprived of all the trappings of godly kingship (most of which he never really wanted in the first place) the Son of Odin ends things finally feeling like he’s earned his place as god-king…now, if only he can find a place for his people…Guess it’s back to Earth for us all.