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Theater Thoughts: Thor: Ragnarok

As Marvel Studios continues down its path to cinematic and universal domination, they have begun to take a lot of chances with the kinds of movies that they are making, and the kinds of heroes they are focusing on. It is not a stretch to say that the latest installment in the universe, Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi, is no exception. Despite being a franchise whose roots are in the early, more conservative era of MCU films, (I’m talking all the way back in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s; this is ancient history) Ragnarok gives us a fresh, lighter take on the character, while simultaneously filling his world with a perfect balance of humor and a seriousness that just was not in the previous films. While Thor: The Dark World was certainly dark and lacking in humor, the stakes have never felt as real as they did in Ragnarok, and the viewer really feels the weight of the choices Thor has to make as a hero and a leader. And yet, I would say that this is one of the funniest movies Marvel has released since Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 1, right next to the release from earlier this year Spider-Man: Homecoming. At its heart, this film is a wonderfully told story, in a beautiful, colorful world, with fun, adventure, and consequences around every corner. But to really understand what makes Ragnarok and incredible piece of storytelling, we have to understand both its place in the world of Marvel superhero movies, and how it plays on its identity as an adaptation of a comic book world.

The first nine MCU films focus entirely on four of earth's most beloved heroes, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America, with one film, The Avengers (2012) focusing on them as a team. In those early days, making lighthearted superhero movies with rock and roll backed action set pieces and bright colors in cities other than New York was a bit of a risk. Besides the notable exceptions of Spidey and Supes, most superhero films were dark, gritty, and about the underbelly of society in the big city being dealt with by vigilante heroes. (See, Blade (1998), Daredevil (2003), and of course, the many, many Batman films) Even the earliest X-Men films were a lot darker in color palette, and the warmest and most colorful of these, X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) did not fare very well.

Of course, now that there is an established market for superhero movies, Marvel has been able to expand the types of characters they feature, the types of stories that they tell, and the way that those stories are told to better encapsulate the diversity of the comic book source material. This expansion really started with Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 1 (2014) an instant hit amongst the fans, which was the August release counterpart to 2014’s May Marvel release Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Then a small tradition was established of a traditional superhero film coming out in the spring (Ultron and Civil War) with a non-traditional counterpart. (Ant-Man and Doctor Strange)

This year, the mold of two films a year has been expanded to fit three, and yet it still seems to be a synthesis of the traditions that have come before it. In a beautiful twist, the film that was the traditional hero story this year was actually Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017) the film whose franchise launched the trend of non-traditional superhero films. It told a heartwarming tale for our characters, whose themes of heroism, identity, and sacrifice were the central focus of the film, rather than relying heavily on the science fiction and comedic elements that made the first one great. This marks the first year that the late spring release has not been a title film for one of the four original heroes or the Avengers as a team. In yet another surprise this year, the more comedic, non-traditional film this year was actually Spider-Man: Homecoming, in which we saw a John Hughes-esque high school film that drew heavily upon the tropes of its influences, and saw our hero repeatedly fail and have to overcome his innate inability and lack of experience.

And in the final surprise of the year, Thor: Ragnarok brings us back to one of our initial four characters, which, while not at the bottom of the fan rankings (our apologies to the Hulk, who not only never saw a sequel, but got recast as well) has remained a background character since his initial sequel four years ago Thor: The Dark World, which did not fair the best among critics and fans. But this break from having the character and the world in the limelight was much needed for the franchise, and this final installment in the trilogy infuses the series with a gorgeous neon-colored whirlwind of action, emotion, humor, and visuals, that brings new life to the world of Thor.

And this is the context in which I really want to explore Thor: Ragnarok, because it does an amazing job at both subverting the tropes of the established comic book movies, which its franchise had a large part in establishing, while simultaneously bringing the genre as close as it has come to the format of its source material: comic books. In many ways, Ragnarok feels more like a “comic book” movie than many of the others in the MCU, because of the way it’s story-telling rejects the structures and conventions of film, and embraces the structures and conventions of the comic book.

Consider the “issue-by-issue” approach to comic books. In the world of comic books, stories are serialized, with a small development of the story occurring in each issue. Every issue is going to leave you with a reason to go back to the comic books store and pick up the next issue next week. Thus the comic book trope of the yellow box in the bottom corner of the last panel with the words “To be continued…?” was born of a sort of economic and marketing necessity. Ultimately, a series of eight to ten issues will makeup and arc, telling one complete story piece by piece, like a season of TV, or in this case a movie. But this gives the writer a lot of freedom. Because a whole arc is not being told in a fifteen-page magazine, the writer can take a book to have smaller offshoot stories within the larger narrative. For example, you might have a character from outside of the series main cast, like Doctor Strange in the Thor world, making a cameo to help the hero with a small part of his journey, and then disappearing. Or you can take time to let a sub-character have the heroic limelight, like making Heimdall the protector of the Asgardians and giving him a chance to fight and shine. These sorts of tropes are an emergent part of the form of comic books. The way that the story is told affects the story that can be told.

In other superhero films, these tropes have largely been written out, because the films have adhered to a three-act structure to maintain audience interest over a two-hour window. As such, every part of the film has something to do with the central plot of the film. There is no time for side adventures or extended cameos. Each act has to get our hero closer to the resolution of defeating the bad guy. Instead, we’ll get name drops and easter eggs, the examples of which are endless, or very brief cameos like Falcon in Ant-Man. (2015) This is where some of the recent Marvel TV shows have really blossomed, namely Daredevil (2015), Jessica Jones (2015), Luke Cage (2016), and Agents of Shield. (2013) But the movies have yet to find a way to incorporate the tropic results of the serialized nature of their source material. That is, until Ragnarok.

As an example, let's dissect what in film terms would be considered the first act of Ragnarok: from the initial fight with the Surtur, a lava monster who wants to bring about Ragnarok, the destruction of Asgard, up to the moment where Thor and Loki are flung out of the Bifrost and land on Sakaar. While we go through each sequence, keep in mind that the overarching narrative of this film is the struggle that Thor has with his role as the heir to the throne of Asgard, when all he really wants to be is a hero going on adventures. He has constantly rebelled against what his father wanted him to be and has seen a sort of crack in the utopian facade of Asgard, a crack which will be pried open by the films main protagonist, Hela. As we find out, Hela, the goddess of death and Odin’s eldest child, helped Odin to bring the nine realms to their knees and, through this conquest, provide Asgard with the resources it needed to become this golden city. But Odin feared Hela’s ambition and locked her away, and covered up his nefarious past to mold an Asgard to his ideal of peace and perfection, much in the same way as he has tried to mold his son. Thus the whole film, and every sequence in it, will in some way draw upon these themes of rejection of a flawed system, a struggle for freedom from oppression, and Thor’s learning who he is, where his power comes from, and what it truly means to be a good ruler, reconciling the way his father never was and a way that his father always wanted him to be.  

Much like a comic book starting its arc on the heels of another one finishing, Ragnarok begins with Thor in a cage in chains, giving a sudo-fourth wall breaking reminder of who he is and what he’s done. And this starts us off on a series of sequences that could just as easily be a series of comic books with “To be continued…” at the end of each one.  In the first chapter, Thor defeats a monster thinking he has stopped the prophecy of Ragnarok, the destruction of Asgard, and the nightmares he has been having, only to come home to Asgard and see a statue of Loki. (To be continued...) In the next chapter, Thor learns the truth about Odin and the trick that Loki has enacted in becoming a fake version of Odin. (Notice the groundwork for the theme that Odin’s rule is just a mask over treachery and lies.) Thor and Loki end up on earth, and it cliff-hangs on Loki being swept through a magic portal and a card being left behind. (To be continued...) The next chapter is the crossover issue with Dr. Strange (As featured in Doctor Strange (2016)!)  whose only concern is getting the Asgardians, namely Loki, off of planet earth. We learn more about Odin’s life on earth, and Thor is flung from room to room by Strange’s magic. (Notice how just before we see Odin again, Thor is treated like a child and controlled by Strange, reminding us of how Odin has treated Thor in the previous films.) Thor and Loki are sent from Strangers mansion to go to see Odin, he dies, (rather anticlimactically) and Hela is freed by his death. As Thor and Loki face off against her, Hela destroys Mjolnir, and Loki tries to get them to escape through the Bifrost. But that’s exactly what Hela wanted, and they are flung from the Bifrost. In the final panel, Thor wakes up, surrounded by scavengers on an alien planet, no Mjolnir, and no clue where he is. Whatever will Thor do? Will he and Loki be reunited? Will he get back to Asgard? All of this to be continued as the movie continues on in this sequence by sequence, issue-esque fashion.

I could go on, but I think the point is clear. Ragnarok clearly embraces the elements of the format of the source material in a way that few other comic book movies have done so successfully. In any other film, a five-minute off-shoot of Doctor Strange and Thor would have felt out of place, and like a pointless attempt to tie the movie into the universe, and bring the newer characters into the universe that this franchise established. But it doesn’t feel like that it all. It feels like one in a sequence of well-executed stories that helps us better understand Thor, and moves us a step closer to the resolution of the film while allowing us to entertain the idea of what a conversation between a god and a magician would look like. Its success in the execution of the comic book form is absolutely masterful and it was a joy for me to watch. At the end, it left me longing for the next issue, ready to head back to the theater next week to see the continued adventures of Thor, that, in a melancholy sort of way, I know will never be.

However, with all the benefits of the comic book form come the drawbacks, and at the risk of sounding like one of those “only a real nerd” snobs that are so detestable, I have to wonder if Ragnarok will be as much of a joy to watch for others as it was for me. You see, with comic books, the medium was heavily influenced by the market. You write these smaller stories in issue format and have cameo’s in a single part of the story, like the Doctor Strange cameo, to sell more comic books. You have given the reader a reason to come back to the comic book store next week and buy the next issue of Thor. You have to give the reader whose only following Thor comics a taste of Doctor Strange so that they will get hooked on that character and start reading that storyline and buy more issues. For a while, the movies have worked this idea in the form of easter eggs, name drops and comic references that only “real nerds” get and allude to a larger universe that you should keep buying into by watching the films.

That fact is that the comic book market does not work in the same way as the comic book movie market, and so the necessity that drove the serialization and formed the tropes is not there to back up these creative decisions. When you include characters like Strange and the Hulk, or references to the relationship that Black Window formed with Banner in Ultron, you run the risk of alienating large portions of the audience from large portions of the film, because in Ragnarok these moments are not just cameos or easter eggs. The “lullaby” Black Widow used on Hulk is very important to the whole section of Thor convincing Hulk and Banner to help him, and it is the source for a number of jokes throughout that section. None of those jokes or that scene made sense to the viewer who missed the Avengers movie from almost three years ago. And neither Ultron nor Doctor Strange are technically prequels to Ragnarok. Yet the brilliance of Ragnarok is that it pulls off these moments with just the precise amount of weight so that someone less familiar with the films can still enjoy the action, the visuals, and the masterful storytelling, but just a moment further, and these bits could unintentionally alienate a lot of viewers.

But this is a chance that Ragnarok takes, and that perhaps only Ragnarok could have taken. Its ties to the founding of this era of superhero films give it a chance to take this risk, where a film with a new group of characters, like the upcoming Black Panther (2018), may not be able to be so bold. (Though I am sure it will be bold in plenty of other ways, and I am very much looking forward to it.) So should all superhero movies try to embrace the comic book “issue-by-issue” form? I’m not sure it’s the best bet for all films, and whether or not other films will even attempt this sort of form remains to be seen. It’s possible this form works brilliantly for the larger crossover films, like the Infinity War movies we expect in the coming years. One might even argue that there are hints of this kind of storytelling in films like Ultron and Civil War. But to see a movie like Ragnarok experiment with the idea, and to do so in such a masterful way was a joy and a treat.  I could not recommend this film more to comic book movie fans, comic book fans, and people who just want to see an entertaining movie.