What The Hela?
What happens when the title of a movie promises one thing but delivers something entirely different?
That goes to the larger issue with moviegoing, I suppose. You see a trailer, spy a poster, even just hear a title, and an imaginary movie with a very particular look and feel starts playing in your head. If the movie in your head aligns with reality, even somewhat, you’re likely to be a happy camper.
In 1994, audiences saw a trailer for When a Man Loves a Woman. It starred Meg Ryan, long considered to be the alpha and the omega of romantic comedy. What the trailer showed was a light romp, maybe a little drama. What audiences got was a depressing drama about alcoholism and a marriage reaching the breaking point. Needless to say, both moviegoers and critics were not pleased.
What the hell does any of this have to do with Thor: Ragnarok, you’re likely asking? I’m a comic nerd and local apologist for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so I’m inclined to give these movies a pass. I’m also into mythology. Upon hearing the newest film in the MCU would be entitled Thor: Ragnarok, my head swam with visions. If you’re not familiar with Norse mythology, Ragnarok refers to the final battle of the gods, the deaths of a great many of them, the destruction of the world, and its rebirth. I imagined high adventure on a mythic scale, yet pensive, thoughtful, and acknowledging the passing of time and the inevitability of change. But with jokes.
The movie in my head was one thing. The movie I actually saw was very different. Regardless, let’s take a moment and talk about some things you won’t see in the film.
- The convulsions of the Midgard Serpent Jormungandr, which causes massive tidal waves.
- The father of the gods, Odin, is devoured by the great wolf Fenrir.
- Thor destroys the Midgard Serpent, staggers 9 steps and drops to the ground dead.
- The sun becomes black, the earth sinks into the oceans, the stars disappear, and fire laps at the skies.
As you can imagine, I was disappointed. So does that mean that Thor: Ragnarok is a failure? Not at all! It’s a lot of fun, it does certain things very well, and I’ll almost guarantee you a good time out at the movies. But this film is almost allergic to things like real emotions and themes, and every time things get too serious, we’re pelted with a barrage of jokes. It’s not that we don’t have a fun time at the movies because we do. We could have gotten something closer to the stuff of legend.
I’ve got good news, though. This film is very nearly a stand-alone film, and you don’t need to have seen 8+ other movies to understand just what the hell is happening. All you need to know is that after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the god of thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is traveling the universe looking for Infinity Stones, objects of immense power. He’s captured by the fire demon Surtur (voiced by Clancy Brown), and the fiery beast informs the Thunderer that his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has disappeared from Asgard.* That’s a big old bummer. An even bigger bummer is Surtur mentioning the apocalyptic prophecy of Ragnarok.
From there, we actually get two narratives running in tandem. The first involves Hela (Cate Blanchette), Thor’s heretofore unknown sister. She’s the goddess of death, and in this case, that means she wants to destroy all of reality.** Hela emerges and casually slaughters hundreds of Asgardians, but gains the service of Skurge (Karl Urban), an overlooked warrior looking to make a name for himself.
The second narrative is much sillier and far more entertaining. Thor is dropped onto the planet Sakaar and captured by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), a bounty hunter and drunk in equal measure. She sells him to The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who forces a wide variety of beings to fight in gladiatorial competitions. His first opponent is the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and a plethora of smashing takes place. The Hulk has evolved a little, and he now has the attitude of a petulant 4-year-old with the vocabulary to match. Thor’s trickster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is also back, and he acts as both a help and a hindrance to his bro. Now Thor must free the Hulk and the other captives, escape from Sakaar, and save Asgard. Piece of cake, right?
Within the MCU, there have been 3 trilogies. The Iron Man trilogy is about a narcissist who learns unselfishness and grapples with trauma. The Captain America trilogy is about a soldier from a simpler time learning to navigate the more complicated present. Both trilogies work well, for the most part.*** The Thor trilogy isn’t so hot, though. Thor is cheap-looking and makes the baffling decision to set a large portion of the action in a small town. Thor: The Dark World has possibly the dullest villain in the MCU. Is the trilogy about an arrogant prince who learns humility, or about the burden of responsibility? All of the above, and more!
Director Taika Waititi makes a canny decision, though. Other than hardcore comic nerds like me, Waititi realized that casual viewers wouldn’t care about capping thematic elements from previous films. He opts to basically ignore the last 2 installments and make a big and fun fantasy film that would be right at home in 1987. If Big Trouble in Little China and Krull got drunk and made a baby, Thor: Ragnarok would be their offspring. Waititi’s film moves quickly when the action is on Sakaar, and if you look beyond the zippy fight scenes, you’ll see production design that seems to have come from the mind of legendary comics creator Jack Kirby. It’s a colorful, light, and bouncy film that also has a retro synth soundtrack courtesy of Mark Mothersbaugh.
When the action is on Asgard, things aren’t so successful. Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost, and Eric Pearson are the credited screenwriters, though allegedly over 75% of the dialogue was improvised. That’s a serious problem. On the one hand, this film is riotously funny. It’s not a straight-ahead superhero film. Instead, it’s the first full-on comedy made by Marvel Studios, and it just happens to have action and special effects included. Problem is, the film is so busy bludgeoning the audience with sight gags, wordplay, and mostly clever jokes that it forgets to have a beating heart. In fact, every time the film threatens to get too serious or have too much emotion, a joke will come along and undercut the moment. I’m not saying the film needs to be as self-serious as Hamlet, but it should ride the line between fun and mythic.
The cast sure doesn’t seem to mind, and they all look like they’re having a ball. As The Grandmaster, Jeff Goldblum is the most Jeff Goldblum-iest he’s ever been, and he’s a collection of tics and amusing behavioral patterns instead of a character. Cate Blanchett is clearly enjoying herself as the sneering and sarcastic Hela. Mark Ruffalo did the motion-capture work as the Hulk, and the Green Goliath gets most of the screen time. Instead of a monster constantly being persecuted on Earth, the Hulk prefers Sakaar. He’s a popular and beloved sports hero who has no intention of leaving. Why would he? When the Hulk transforms back to his human alter ego of Bruce Banner, Ruffalo kind of hunches within himself, especially when he’s standing next to the massive Hemsworth. It’s a great piece of acting, and Ruffalo and Hemsworth share the best moments.
Tessa Thompson as the Valkyrie does very nice work as well. She reminded me of a character from an old detective movie, the tough dame with a heart of gold. The film’s not-so-secret weapon is Chris Hemsworth’s Thor. Hemsworth is a muscular and absurdly good-looking guy, so Hollywood naturally wanted to put him into traditional leading man roles. Within that exterior, however, is an astonishingly adept comedian. As the thunder god, Hemsworth is often a preening jackass. He means well and wants to be a hero, and he frequently reminds people about just how heroic he really is. There’s also a moment of physical comedy he performs that reminded me of Chevy Chase in his prime. Hemsworth is worth the price of admission alone.
Ultimately, I feel confident in saying that you’ll thoroughly enjoy Thor: Ragnarok. This is precision-engineered entertainment that wants you to have fun, but it doesn’t aim for much else. I’m not saying that I wanted a mainstream MCU movie that ended with all of the main characters dead. Think about the moments in the Lord of the Rings films where it felt iconic, legendary, like something out of myth. Thor: Ragnarok could have been something special. Instead, it settled.
*You might be wondering, Why are Infinity Stones important and why do they matter? Who is Odin? What’s Asgard? Ask a local nerd in your life to explain. If I get into it, we’ll be here all day.
**But if the goddess of death causes everything to die, doesn’t that jeopardize her job security? You would think deities would be better at long-term planning.
***Iron Man 2 sure ain’t good, though. Script pages were written daily as the film was being shot, and you can sure tell.