Not in My Wheelhouse: Thor Ragnarok
Welcome to “Not in My Wheelhouse,” a weekly column in which one of our staff members recommends a movie to another that is outside of their cinematic comfort zone! See other entries in the series here.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017). Directed by Taika Waititi, written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher L. Yost (based on the Marvel Comics property), starring Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, and just about everyone else under the sun. Recommend by ace gent Andy Elijah.
How Far Outside My Wheelhouse is Thor: Ragnarok?
I suspect Andy selected this feature as a means to challenge my disinterest in the recent crop of superhero films, chiefly those representing the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m not necessarily adverse to comics or superheroes in toto, hence my undying love for movies like Danger: Diabolik, Batman Returns, and Josie and the Pussycats (okay, not superheroes, but still!) as well as a penchant for Jeph Loeb’s storylines (The Long Halloween), but those texts flourished with idiosyncrasies and infectious, sometimes perverse fervor. The Marvel films, however, are the epitome of production-line filmmaking: designed by committee, storyboarded within an inch of its life, seemingly test-screened to the point of eradicating any eccentricity, and functioning as mindless fare that ultimately exists to promote the next hit film coming soon to a multiplex near you (In short, it all reeks of box-ticking and bland competence). Yet I haven’t been entirely ignorant, having seen fifteen of the twenty MCU entries released at the time of this writing, which can only be explained my masochistic-cum-self-defeating desire to keep a finger on the pulse of popular culture.
It’s the more shambolic crossover installments that incite a sense of discomposure, as I swore off the Avengers sequels in the wake of enduring the original ass-number, whereas the standalone titles prove more tolerable, sometimes engrossing (I genuinely likedBlack Panther and the original Guardians of the Galaxy). Being that Thor: Ragnarok appears to occupy some interspace, I’m expecting a very uneven movie: stirring thrills and smart-ass characters lumped in with laborious universe-building, contractually-obligated cameos, and confusing callbacks to events for which I lack context. What’s most curious, however, is that a good deal of Ragnarok’s praise points to its helmer, Taika Waititi, as the key to overall success, implying that his personality shines through the Tab-A-in-Slot-B template. I’ve yet to see Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, rendering me unable to decipher if Ragnarok is representative of his directorial sensibilities or is simply a gun-for-hire job. Regardless, I’m happy that I’ll finally see one of his movies.
Well, what do you know? It’s another middle-of-the-road Marvel film. No matter. I didn’t approach this with the highest of hopes, but I still want to congratulate Waititi and the suits for creating a rather curiously contradictive movie, one that spends just as much time trying to be itself while maintaining the visage of a soulless franchise picture.
My inability to recount the plot probably has more to do with my own incompetence than the movie’s, but here goes nothing: Ragnarok picks up some time after the events of Ultron, finding Thor (Chris Hemworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) engaging in a skirmish with Hela (Cate Blanchett, acting in the key of Eva Green), Goddess of Death and the late Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) firstborn child, to protect Asgard from a return to imperial rule. That’s Movie A, the obligatory set-up – you almost wish Wagner was here to punch it up. Movie B is far weirder, funnier, and livelier, commencing once Loki and Thor wind up stranded lightyears from home on Sakaar, a literal trash-heap of a planet. Not much holds this part of the movie together – it’s more an array of juicy ambles with offscreen dangers and the broad second-act character goal (return to Asgard) stoking the narrative flames – but thanks to the charismatic Hemsworth, a rousing arena battle with the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and give-and-take sessions with friends and foes (including Jeff Goldblum, sporting a blue soul patch and delivering dialogue with that trademark inflection), it’s a welcoming diversion, enkindling thoughts about how good the MCU could be if they consistently wielded a similar elan.
It’s the aforementioned gab sessions that, I think, defines the appeal of the Marvel films. These are basically big-budget hangout movies, populated with characters that do verbal combat with one another, brandishing attitude and wit, only occasionally duking it out in the physical sense when the villain du jour manifests. That emphasis on character over action is just as well, given that the majority of MCU’s output suffers from uninspired staging of spectacle; too often, the action sequences play as “previsualized” rather than directed. It’s also worth noting that the surprise success of Guardians of the Galaxy appears to have reconfigured the Marvel house-style, as instances of pop-music scored melee have become mainstay of the franchise; here, Led Zeppelin gets the big needle-drop.
Ragnarok is hampered by these symptoms, yet Waititi’s storytelling is punctuated by a breezy efficiency that keeps the movie light on its feet, and most of the pleasures are expectedly derived from the jibber-jabber and interpersonal strife. This isn’t a tightly plotted narrative, and the wonky pacing certainly bogs slivers of the middle down, but that slackness is part of the charm. That’s not to say Ragnarok is shorn of underpinnings and substance. In fact, Waititi and writers Pearson, Kyle, and Yost devise a rather intriguing thread concerning the myths perpetuated by society and its institutions in order to veil darker historical truths, which, by turns, plays out as both overly emphatic and underrealized. Its best incarnation comes at the start, in a scene of Odin presiding over a re-enactment of Loki’s death from, I suspect, a previous Marvel installment; weighty cultural history transfigured into light entertainment for the masses.
As before, I remain disinterested in the recent Superhero cycle but contend it’s among the most important pop-culture phenomena of our current day. The prestigious low-budget indie dramas can convey notions surrounding certain subsets of the culture at large, but the real food for thought lies in those top-grossers, even if the stories themselves are light on substance and heavy on spectacle. More than anything else, the general public views movies as an escapist medium, a delivery device for entertainment and pop-myths that examine basic values, politics, and ideals without getting too bogged down in the real-world contexts they have to face to everyday. I might not be thrilled by this trend, but, so long as someone’s buying those tickets, the MCU will remain under close scrutiny for the time being.
Passing the Baton
And now we’ve arrived at the point where Dan’s true colors are unveiled. For my cohort, Gary Kramer, not known to dabble in science fiction and skin flicks, I’ve selected a true oddity, a beloved grotesquerie that’s enthused me since the high school years and has been inflicted on many an unsuspecting viewer. That film is none other than the gonzo freak-out Café Flesh, directed by Stephen Sayadian (credited as Rinse Dream): an intoxicating hybrid of post-apocalyptic sci-fi and hardcore pornography (yep, you read that right!) that’s also an inspired exploration of cinematic spectatorship/voyeurism and whose mise-en-scène recalls German Expressionist paintings. I’m eager to read his findings and expect to be disinvited from all future cinephile happenings for life.