Thor: Ragnarok

Tagged: Film

Film (2017). Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures presents a Marvel Studios production. Directed by Taika Waititi. Written by Craig Kyle, Eric Pearson and Christopher Yost, based on the Marvel Comics character Thor by Stan Lee and Larry Lieber. Cast includes Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlet Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Mark Ruffalo, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban and Taika Waititi. 130 minutes. Colour.

Thor (Hemsworth) conducts a three-way knockabout bromance with adopted brother Loki (Hiddleston) and Avengers colleague Hulk (Ruffalo) while elder sister Hela (Blanchett) fulfils the prophecy of Ragnarök on Asgard.

A franchise on the scale of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) must constantly recode the Ur-narrative of its Shared Worlds in line with commercial imperative: hence Thor: Ragnarok's conspicuous disavowal of the space-faring Heroic Fantasy of Thor (2011) – a portentous mash-up of tropes from J R R Tolkien and Gene Roddenberry laden with cod-Shakespearean Clichés – and the muddled Gods and Demons Space Opera of Thor: the Dark World (2013) in favour of Humour, montage and spectacle. "The Marvel experience was particularly wrenching because I was sort of given absolute freedom while we were shooting, and then [in post-production] it turned into a different movie," Thor: the Dark World director Alan Taylor told the entertainment website UPROXX in June 2015. Marvel Studios applied its story formula sooner rather than later in the case of Thor: Ragnarok, choosing director Taika Waititi over other applicants on the basis of a "sizzle reel" that combined clips from John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China (1986) with Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song (1970), an aesthetic that survived the film's production process and informed its successful marketing strategy.

"A lot of what we're doing with the film is ... dismantling and destroying the old idea and rebuilding it in a new way that's fresh ... it feels like [this is] the first Thor," Waititi told Entertainment Weekly on March 9, 2017, a little over a month after telling entertainment newswire The A.V. Club: "Captain America: Civil War (2016) [is] just humans, humans with human problems. Ours is creatures and beings and all these sorts of really different characters ... in outer space or in other worlds." Waititi consulted with theoretical physicist Clifford Johnson on Wormholes and Spaceships and used the artwork of Thor's co-creator Jack Kirby as visual inspiration, encouraging cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe and production designer Dan Hennah to incorporate pictorial motifs from pop art-influenced Comic book adaptations such as Flash Gordon and popular primetime Television series Batman (1966-1968).

The fusion of Waititi's aesthetic and Marvel's story formula works – but the enjoyment comes at the cost of relegating Hela's invasion of Asgard to a kind of sideshow to the boys-will-be-boys badinage of Thor, Loki and Hulk. Thor returns to Asgard after defeating the fire demon in the film's prologue to find Loki posing as Odin (Hopkins): Thor – never the brightest tool in the pantheon, hammer notwithstanding – believes he has prevented Ragnarök by removing any possibility of anyone uniting the fire demon's crown with the Eternal Flame that burns in Odin's vault. This, in fact, is the deus ex machina McGuffin that affords the Marvel story engine one of its most basic and persistently useful moves: use one Villain to defeat the other just when all seems lost for the Heroes at the end of the movie, as, indeed, was the case at the denouement of the enormously-successful Doctor Strange (2016). Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) pops up here to direct Thor and Loki to their father in Norway, where Odin explains that his impending death will allow Hela, his first-born and general of the armies that brought him the Nine Realms, to return to wreak vengeance on the planet of Asgard. Hela (Blanchett, in a gloriously campy and vicious portrayal of the true nature of a people intent on the Colonization of Other Worlds) obliterates Thor's hammer Mjolnir, pursues Thor and Loki across the Bifröst Bridge and exiles them into deep space before quickly establishing her rule over Asgard by destroying the Warriors Three, resurrecting her ancient army from the dead and appointing Asgardian champion Skurge (Urban) as her executioner.

The pliability of Norse Mythology is remarkable: comparable, perhaps, to the themes of Greek mythology that underpin so much of Fantastika and the Western Canon. Where writers as diverse as A S Byatt, in Ragnarok: The End of the Gods (2011) and Neil Gaiman, in Norse Mythology (2017), have rewritten the myths as an attempt to recapture the Sense of Wonder the stories inspired in them as children, the symbols therein more often appear in visual media as motifs of the End of the World, with Cinema in particular being suited to the depiction of sites whose provenance is not to be trusted, or which are under threat of impending Disaster: Comics are similarly disposed to the portrayal of lost Cities, secret passages and planetary catastrophe, and as soon as the viewer sees the way in which well-known signifiers such as Yggdrasil, the tree that connects the nine worlds of Norse mythology, or the Bifröst Bridge, the burning rainbow that stretches between Midgard (Earth) and Asgard, are rendered in Thor: Ragnarok, she has a pretty good idea of how the movie is going to end. And so we move quickly from the barely-substantive shots of the landmarks of Asgard to the combative Planetary Romance of Planet Hulk (Incredible Hulk #92-105, April 2006-June 2007) – a Marvel Comics storyline by Greg Pak whose inspiration came from Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada's suggestion that The Incredible Hulk be sent off-world to battle Aliens in a gladiatorial arena – and then very quickly into a variation on the plot from Road to Zanzibar (1941), starring Bing Crosby (1903-1977) and Bob Hope (1903-2003), in which Hope memorably wrestles a gorilla (see Apes as Human) for the love of a disinterested woman. Thor is captured by bounty hunter Scrapper 142 (Thompson, like Blanchett, very good but criminally-underused) after crash-landing on the wormhole-surrounded trash-disposal planet of Sakaar and rendered into the service of Grandmaster (Goldblum, whose wry, staccato delivery does much to reinforce the combination of Pulp and Postmodernism that drives the aesthetic of Thor: Ragnarok) and the bread-and-circuses Political framework of the Grandmaster's gladiatorial Conquest of Champions: "People come from far and wide to unwillingly participate in it." Thor is delighted to see that he must face Hulk in the arena – "I know him! He's a friend from work!" – but soon finds that Hulk is burdened by no such recollection and that the Grandmaster has fixed the fight in Hulk's favour. An amusing double-performance from Mark Ruffalo as Hulk/Bruce Banner – he is brought back to his human self by an encounter with a recording of Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) aboard the Quinjet on which Thor, Hulk, Loki and Scrapper 142 (the Superhero "Valkyrie" from the Marvel Comics) make good their escape – delivers a basic truth: "You're just using me to get to Hulk. It's gross. You're a bad friend."

Waititi's direction and the comedic interplay between Hemsworth, Hiddleston, Thompson and Ruffalo keep Thor: Ragnarok rattling along in entertaining fashion but it is not until we return, eventually, to Asgard in the last third of the film that any degree of thematic spice is revealed. "It seems our father's solution to every problem was to cover it up," Hela tells younger brother Thor when he arrives on his home planet to confront her: "Where do you think all this gold came from?" Any whiff of postcolonial critique or sedition – the gladiator Korg (Waititi) makes playful reference to the idea of impending revolution and the Grandmaster to "prisoners-with-jobs" rather than "slaves" – is quickly passed over for the all-too-predictable fight at the end in which Hela is defeated by the demon Thor has already captured: the populace of Asgard is moved off-planet to avoid Ragnarök.

With Disney (which owns both the MCU and the rights to Star Wars via its ownership of Lucasfilm) said to be in talks to buy Twentieth Century Fox, current custodians of the intellectual property rights to the X-Men and the Fantastic Four among others, expect to see more movies with the dramatic shape and visual register of Thor: Ragnarok: this is the kind of film that underpins a successful franchise. Events depicted here occur two years after those of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), follow directly on from those of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) and prefigure those in the forthcoming «Avengers: Infinity War». [MD]

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