Christopher Maher: Walking home from the movie last night I asked you, Sam, what sort of movie you thought Marvel flicks classified as. Action? Adventure? “They’re just their own genre,” you answered, “and that’s the problem. These critics are seeing every movie that comes out and measuring against the others.” (Correct me if I’ve paraphrased to the point of missing your point).
“I understand measuring a movie against what it’s trying to be,” I countered, “but if you have a bunch of middling stuff and you measure it against a bunch more middling stuff… what, you just call everything excellent? And even measuring it against what it’s supposed to be, there is no way Marvel means to be this boring and drab.”
Thor: Ragnarok begins by emulating the worst part of the original Star Wars trilogy. In the beginning of Return of the Jedi the characters spend a boring half hour tediously reversing the plot point that ended The Empire Strikes Back. Unfreezing Han from carbonyte has genuinely nothing to do with the rest of the plot, and Thor: Ragnarok too opens with a reversal of the end of the previous film. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard, immediately recognizes Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in disguise, and the two brothers swing by New York to find their father. With the help of a totally superfluous Dr. Strange (Benedict Cummerbund, because I refuse to not use that name for him) they track Odin to some cliff in Norway where he stares at the ocean and rambles about how his time has come, a hilarious trope that never makes any sense. Before passing on he quickly fills in the brothers on the threat of the movie, their never-before mentioned sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) who feeds off Asgard’s power and who will be released from her prison as soon as Odin dies. She shows up, defeats the brothers, and flings them across the cosmos to begin a supposedly epic quest to return and… fight her again.
There’s so much wrong with the film I don’t even know where to start, but it’s really the same things wrong with every Marvel film. Even it’s frustrating, because the movies have proved they can do better. My shining example Captain America: Civil War showed that a sprawling cast doesn’t have to be so poorly managed. Thor: Ragnarok also has some nice moments between Thor and Loki, or Thor and fellow Avenger(s) Hulk and Bruce Banner. But at the end of the day Marvel movies have become a plot factories, utterly disinterested in story. The movie moves so quickly trying to show off all its awesome place and people that we’re never allowed to spend a moment breathing with the characters we already know. I’ve spoken… a lot, recently, about how spectacle without any weight attached falls apart pretty immediately, but this movie just reinforces it AGAIN. Marvel newcomers Tessa Thompson (Valkyrie) and Blanchett give strong performances, but both exemplify exactly the issue I’m talking about. Blanchett spends the entire movie doing this in a series of scenes. Marvel, finally giving a villain some screentime, has her exclusively serve up some exposition. Come on! (I’ll talk about my fix for this later). Valkyrie, meanwhile, is dead set against returning to Asgard until she has a sudden change of heart because… who knows? Her change occurs offscreen while other plot is happening. The answer is of course because the plot has decided it’s time to move on and Valkyrie is one of the stars of the film, and she needs to make it to the big CGI fight at the end of the movie, even though said fight doesn’t service any of the plot beats leading up to it. Hulk/Banner’s story, possibly the most interesting one in theory, stops dead and never resolves because Hulk needs to fight a giant CGI wolf.
Even the spectacle is boring. Thor mowing through a bunch of CGI skeletons (robots, aliens, take your pick) is never, ever, going to excite me. Sam, you brought up Legend of Korra fight choreography while we walked down the street. What particularly bored you about this movie? Is there anything nice you can say about it? Could you start your review by asking, again, as you did last night, “how is this getting this good of reviews?”
Sam Russell: These movies make me feel like a goddam junkie. After the one-two punch of trash that was Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant Man (with non-Marvel movies like Kong: Skull Island and Wonder Woman contributing) I swore to stop believing hype and cease spending my hard earned cash on these types of films. They keep making these tentpole films, and building to the release critics and fans buzz about how great they are, what a departure they are from all the others, and often how this new one is much “weirder” and “funnier” than all the others. I never really planned on seeing Wonder Woman, or Thor: Ragnorak this year, because I had zero expectation that they would be enjoyable. But the Rotten Tomatoes score climbed to absurd highs, and early twitter buzz heaped lavish praise, and they were (as they often are) helmed by talented and interesting directors. So with this film I chose to ignore the voice in my head telling me it wasn’t worth my time, and instead chased the high I got from movies like Captain America: Civil War and Logan (both huge outliers). I crawled back to the theater, after prepaying my 17 dollar ticket, shivering, eyes twitching, hoping for something genuinely interesting, only to be sold a dime bag of talcum powder and salt. Never again, I swear to myself. (I fear I will be unable to resist Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity Wars. But one day at a time, I guess.)
To answer your question, Chris, I have no goddamn idea why this movie has received such high praise. The only thing I can fathom is, as you essentially spell out, the bar is so incredibly low. People ask for so little of these films. Which is fine, I guess. I just always thought that very lowest bar included being entertaining. Thor: Ragnorak bored me to tears. At the very least the action should be interesting, but action is not the main spectacle of these films. The main attraction are quips. Not jokes, little comments made, usually in response to something, that are timed and framed as if they are jokes. One of the biggest running gags in this film are that Jeff Goldbum’s character called Thor “Lord of Thunder,” despite Thor’s insistence that he is the “God of Thunder.” That’s not funny, or clever. It’s essentially the same running quip from Guardians of the Galaxy when nobody know’s that Peter Quill’s nickname is Star-Lord. A character wants to be called something, but their adversary casually refuses! Hilarious!
I mentioned Legend of Korra because the action scenes in that show are beautifully choreographed. Each character has a unique way of moving, they use their super abilities in creative ways, and each action scene moves the story (and the plot) forward. It’s a shining example of what all action scenes should strive to be. In Thor: Ragnorak, action scenes feel obligatory, they often have no overall bearing on the the rest of the film, they don’t affect the characters in any meaningful way, and they’re not even interesting to look at on a moment to moment basis. It’d be cheap to blame it an over reliance CGI, something people often point to when action scenes are bad- but you can have great action scenes that heavily rely on CGI. (Legend of Korra was an entirely animated show!) No, Thor: Ragnorak is just more interested in the stupid shit people say during action scenes than the action itself.
You asked if I had anything nice to say about this movie. Some of the costume design is kinda interesting. (Those people who are trying to eat Thor had cool masks). There are little pockets of good ideas scattered throughout (a very psychedelic sequence when Thor is strapped to a chair, rolling down a colorful hallway, about to meet Jeff Goldbum’s character.) But they are too few, and too far between.
Do you have anything nice to say, Chris?
CM: Honestly it’s hard to think of anything good. The soundtrack was pretty chill I guess. It’s difficult because, again emblematic of all these manufactured movies, it isn’t like the movie strikes off in an odd direction. It’s well constructed, it’s just that the final product, built well, is so boring.
Watching the trailer I was hopeful for this movie to at least look more operatic than the standard hallways and hangers of most Marvel movies, but like Guardians they keep to the hangers and hallways and just paint them a different color. In the trailers a shot of the Valkyries descending on Hela and it looks almost like a painting. Why not use CGI to create more shots like that?!
Really anything daring, even if it was a failure, would be exciting. I pitched an opening half hour where we see Hela and Odin doing all the evil stuff Hela explains to us later, an extended flashback to recontextualize Odin and establish Hela’s history and power (a technique called “showing not telling” – what a novel approach!). It’d be different, and even if it failed spectacularly it’d be something for us to be discussing right now.
Final question before we wrap up, Sam. Ignore critics who are maybe measuring these on a scale: why do audiences keep paying so much money to see these deeply boring movies? I love action movies and comedies but this is bad at both of those things. Can you possibly imagine what we’re missing?
SR: Well I don’t think most people view these as deeply boring. I think a lot of people enjoy the action scenes and find them to be very funny. Why that is, I have no idea.
I agree that the trailer convinced me it would at least be visually more compelling. The cinematography is very flat. For a movie with so many locations, they are all lit so evenly. In a dark fiery cave, a futuristic prison cell, inside an interdimensional transport beam called the “Rainbow Bridge”- the characters are lit evenly, brightly, with little contrast.
As far as your proposed fix- I personally am not a fan of prologues. (What you’re pitching me reminds me a bit of the opening of Man of Steel, which is like 20 unnecessary minutes of Russell Crowe riding dragons on Superman’s home planet). I also think the last thing this movie needed was more opening. It takes so absurdly long to get going, as you’ve mentioned. (By the way did we talk about how Anthony Hopkins’ performance is so phoned in he appears to be on Xanax? I mean I don’t blame him. Get your cash and get out, sir. But it is shockingly obvious how few shits he gives in this movie.)
I think the better fix would be to (like most Marvel movies do) use less Hela. The only actual purpose she serves is as a threat to Asgard that creates urgency for Thor to return. Just replace her with a monster slowly destroying Asgard. Or just replace this movie with an entirely different better movie. I don’t know. It’s not really my job to fix this movie. It’s not even my job to review this movie, but here I am.
CM: Still smarting from my WAY too high score for Guardians of the Galaxy 2, I give this movie a 5.5 hologram Jeff Goldblums out of 10 “hilarious” quips.
SR: I give this movie 2 (hours I will never get back) out of 10 (hours that I felt like I spent watching this movie).