I don’t make a point of going to superhero films. I went to Thor: Ragnorak based on rumours that it was something different: that if not one of the funniest films of the year, it was one of the funniest superhero films ever made. I also went because of my interest in its director Taika Waititi, whose What We Do in the Shadows ranks amongst my favourite films of all time, and whose Hunt for the Wilderpeople would have near equal standing in my heart but for my discomfort with hunting.
Unfortunately, while he apparently did some editing, Waititi did not write the script for Ragnorak. Waititi’s influence in the work is certainly noticeable: for example in the understated comedic dialogue in scene I, the appearances by Wilderpeople stars Sam Neil and Rachel House, Waititi’s own character, Korg, etc. Nonetheless, as a whole, the film does not come across as the genre-transforming piece I’d anticipated. It’s not unusual for Superhero Films to employ the odd joke; Spiderman and Iron Man certainly have their sassy sides. Nothing about Ragnorak stands out as going beyond the comedic standards set by these aforementioned sagas. Deadpool with its anti-hero protagonist and regular fourth wall breaking, whatever one thinks of its crassness, was no doubt a more innovative work than Ragnorak.
Granted, perhaps it is not my place to criticize Ragnorak. Its target audience is not people like me, but avid followers of the Marvael universe who are able to remember who the heck Idris Elba’s character was from the previous Thor films and get excited by action sequences. That said, surely some superhero films, do strive to be transcendently appealing, and with that in mind, I think its worth exploring how Ragnorak falls short.
The story of Ragnorak is essentially that Thor’s evil sister, Hela the goddess of death, (Cate Blanchett) breaks out of Asgardian prison and declares herself Queen of Asgard, and then promptly starts a killing spree. Thor and a his god-of-mischief-brother Loki must work to overthrow her, but along the way Thor is captured on behalf of another planet’s villainous “Grandmaster” (Jeff Goldblum) where he is detained to participate in prize-fights. This high stakes plot stands in stark contrast to Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows, a documentary about vampires who eat some people, befriend others and go to an awkward party. The simplicity of this plot means that it derives its life from the personalities of its characters: the unexplainable awe the vampires hold for an IT worker named Stu, their fear of being exposed by non-humans (except the ones making the documentary) and their house rules and flat meetings. Ragnorak, by contrast, calls on its characters to overcome their quirks to participate in a high stakes, big budget battle to the death. While the battle scenes are not free of funny moments (Eg Thor suddenly remembering mid battle he is the god of thunder), they ultimately serve to divert the film from its comic potential.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople, provides another lens through which Ragnorak can be critiqued. That film does have a high stakes plot (a boy and his gruff, adopted father take to the woods to avoid his being found by child services). Unlike Ragnorak, however, Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s central antagonists are funny. Thor Ragnorak has no lack of silly bad guys. Goldblum’s character is whimsical and arbitrary in his tyranny. Loki, as god of mischief, is Thor’s friend one second, and his playful enemy the next. The film, however finds its sense of direction in the character’s confrontation with Hela, a conventional, clad in darkness villain who kills mercilessly in pursuit of power, leaving the more amusing Thor vs Loki (or even Thor vs Grandmaster) dynamics, underdeveloped.
My disappointment with Ragnorak is indeed largely attributable to its reputation as comedic, a reputation, I would argue, it fails to live up to. Its flaws, however, can more broadly be attributed not to how much humor it has, but the non-impact of the humor on the film’s skeletal plot structure.
Since seeing Ragnorak, I have also taken the time to see M. Night Shymalan’s Unbreakable. The latter film is incomparable to Ragnorak in that it does not aspire to be comedic. Nonetheless, the contrast between these two works illustrates what it takes to make an interesting superhero film. Shyamalan has described the film as an “origin story that the audience doesn’t know is an origin story until its last image.” Unbreakable, thus satisfies audiences by taking traditional constructs (heroes and villains) and sneakily forcing viewers to reimagine them. Ragnorak may have its creative moments, but it is ultimately still the story of a hero overcoming (by his standards not overwhelming) odds to take on a plain-stated villain.
Unbreakable is also an interesting example of how a work can quickly redeem itself. Much of the film lies in an emotional grey zone: the character’s are clearly dealing with serious issues, yet these issues don’t always seem serious enough to feel like they’re going anywhere. When the film all comes together at its end, however, audiences are able to retrospectively appreciate the whole work. Unbreakable stands out in that its hero’s self-doubt is his defining feature (rather than the more typical lingering-back-of-the-mind concern). Its villain, meanwhile, stands out in that we get to know them almost entirely for their endearing personality and only minimally for their villainy. Unbreakable closes by taking its viewers into a novel emotional space. When it finally creates a confrontation between good and evil it is not exciting or nerve wracking, but tragically beautiful.
Ragnorak may make audiences laugh, but audiences will not laugh at its central thesis: the confrontation of Hela and Thor. The world needs more films like Unbreakable, or even Deadpool. If Marvel studios is going to keep riding on the talents of directors like Waititi, it should consider giving them the creative space to truly develop the superhero genre.