In Search of the Alt-Superhero Film: The Misplaced Hype Around Thor: Ragnorak (2017)

Thor_Ragnarok_poster        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 UnbreakableposterwillisUnbreakable. 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.

Advertisements

Conceptions of Villainy in The Dark Knight and Bonnie and Clyde

SPOILERS AHEAD

DunawayAsBonniePromo

While travelling I recently found myself with the opportunity to catch up on two classic films, 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and 2008’s The Dark Knight. The two works make for very different viewing experiences: the former makes a (respectful) comedy out of two ultimately tragic lives, the latter tells a gratuitously dark story despite being centre around a clown. Both films feature plenty of gunshots, but only The Dark Knight will alienate those who don’t like their stories to be drowned in action.

What unites these works, however, is that they are stories centre around “villains” (well at least The Dark Knight will be best remembered for its villain). Villains can be the best parts of films, and perhaps no narrative-universe has understood this better than Batman, entertaining viewers with characters like The Penguin, The Riddler, Harley Quinn and of course, The Joker. At the same time, writing a character as a villain can be a literary and ethical dilemma. It’s a literary dilemma as writing complex, three-dimensional humans, means not putting them in the hero-villain binary. Humans do “villainous things” out of need, due to misunderstanding, due to deep internal battles, etc.

Writing characters as villains can be a political dilemma, since the mis-categorization of humans on a good-evil binary is still applied by advocates of tough-on-crime/militaristic policies such as mandatory minimum sentences, extra-judicial detention, torture and the death penalty.

The Dark Knight is certainly not a film that ignores politics, featuring a Mayor, and more prominently, an elected district attorney: Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). For both of these figures the political issue of central concern in Gotham is crime. If Gotham is in fact New York, the city’s well-known liberal side is nowhere to be seen. Justice in Gotham is simply understood as having a district attorney who can put as many people away as possible.

Despite these foundations, The Dark Knight does not give in to promoting a right-wing, good-evil dichotomy. How it avoids doing this is fascinating. Rather than showing us the moral of complexity of (most of) its villains, The Dark Knight introduces a villain in The Joker (Heath Ledger) who “just wants to watch the world burn.” The Joker defies the categories of (realistic) evil villain and complex-human-driven-to-evil-by-circumstances. Instead, his villainy manifests itself through his expression of a bizarre system of principles. When offered an immense sum of money for his work, the Joker sets it on fire, implying that evil should be done for its own sake. Another interesting choice on the writers’ part was to explicitly deny the Joker a backstory that explains his circumstances. A recurring motif in the film is Joker monologues beginning with the line “Do you know how I got these scars?” This line, superficially links the joker with characters like Shakespeare’s Richard III and (fellow Dark Knight villain) Two-Face; characters who explain their turn to the dark side citing marginalization related to their physical deformities. The Joker, however, defies this script by offering different explanations whenever he explains his scars; he does not explain his turn to evil, he mocks the idea of explaining his turn to evil.

As The Joker baffles audiences, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s script performs a bait and switch. The joker sets up an explosive system and presents two ships escaping Gotham with detonators, telling the passengers the only way to save themselves is to set off their detonator and destroy the other ship. After long deliberation both ships’ passengers refuse to give into temptation. Most notably, the first ship to refuse is the one populated by convicts. In this moment, the Nolans spell out that the Joker is not a rule, but an exception—a cartoonish exception. Contrary to Alfred’s advice to Batman, one should not read villains as simply “want[ing] to see the world burn.” The Dark Knight has its cake and eats it too. It thrives on the portrayal of a deeply evil character (the Joker), while still making clear that real criminals are not “evil” people who deserve to be detonated.

The Nolans further illustrate the message that there is no such thing as pure, irredeemable evil through the character of Harvey Dent/ Two-Face. Dent, who is portrayed as a hero at the beginning and end of the film, nonetheless develops a disproportionate, vengeful urge to kill innocents after the traumatic experience of having his face burned while learning his fiancé has died in an explosion.

I digress here to note that Dent’s portrayal is otherwise not one of The Dark Knight’s strong suits. Despite the film’s lengthy runtime, Dent’s turn to the dark side feels rushed and forced. A further oddity in Dent’s portrayal is that his corrupting is revealed to be a plot by the Joker to show that even the purest of souls can be turned evil. While (as I just noted) the contrast between pre-trauma Dent and Two Face is stark, Dent never comes across as a kindly or idealistic figure; his virtuosity only goes so far as prosecuting criminals (he even has a Joker like tendency of flipping a coin as a way of making moral decisions). While perhaps the Nolans aim is to challenge viewers to have a sense of morality that goes beyond what is plainly stated to them by the film’s cast, the presentation of pre-Two Face Dent as a “white knight” arguably realigns the film with a right-wing understanding of crime and justice, that the scene with the detonators rejects.

 

Despite its missteps in portraying Dent, The Dark Knight should still be recognized as a work that centred its plot around criminal exploits, without touting a tough-on-crime political message. Bonnie and Clyde, though otherwise a very different film than The Dark Knight, should be hailed for achieving the same feat. The latter film wastes no time in establishing its leads as criminals (carjacks and bank robbers, to be clear, we’re not talking Joker level villainy). It also wastes no time in establishing Bonnie’s (Faye Dunaway) motive—escaping her mundane life, and perhaps (though not explicitly stated) the limits placed on her as a woman in rural 1930s Texas. Clyde’s (Warren Beatty) motivations are less clear, though his own psychological side is exposed through his moments of brooding, and his attempt to celebrate his “career” choice as a stand against bank-tyranny.

Bonnie and Clyde, however, is not a biopic that sought to capture the psychological realities of two people. The film can instead be reasonably described as tragi-comedy. It uses the comic trope of an awkwardly put-together gang featuring the adventurous Parker, the troubled but equally adventurous Barrow, a naïve but eager youngster (Michael J Pollard), Barrow’s doesn’t-want-to-be-there-daughter-of-a-preacher sister in law (Estelle Parsons), and (briefly) a couple of very gracious hostages played by Gene Wilder and Evans Evans (yes, as far as I can tell that’s her real name).

The story of Bonnie and Clyde is not simply a comedy to its viewers, but in a way, a comedy to its participants. An unmistakeable characteristic of Parker is her playful side, seen most notably when the gang ties up an unsuspecting Sheriff and takes a goofy photo with him. Bonnie and the gang’s criminality thus essentially comes across as a game of cops and robbers. In the eyes of the gang members they are not stealing and shooting so much as they are playing.

Bonnie and Clyde are ultimately assassinated by a sheriff and posse, but crucially, not mid-robbery or at the hands of someone they had shot at. Rather, their killer is the same sheriff they had earlier humiliated (a historical inaccuracy, as the posse was in fact headed by a sheriff who had never deal with them before). This was an important decision on the part of the writer. Viewers are thus not inclined to see Bonnie and Clyde as having faced their just deserts, but instead as having faced a cruel end to their game at the hands of a humourless sheriff.

There is much stylistic difference between Bonnie and Clyde and The Dark Knight, but the two share a common accomplishment—making good art about crime, without making reactionary statements about the role of crime in the real world. The Dark Knight depicts its central criminal as the twisted being that many want to write off real criminals as, while making it clear that this cartoon villain is not at all representative of crime in the real world. Bonnie and Clyde, meanwhile avoids making its titular bank robbers symbols of real world criminal danger by making their criminal exploits appear (both to viewers and the characters themselves) as playful escapades. In doing so, it simultaneously separates the character’s actions from real world criminality, while also sympathetically portraying a psychological state that some real criminals may have (a playful naivety to the consequences of their actions).

So riddle me this Batman, can we have a cinema rich in crime that isn’t tough on crime? These two films suggest we can.