Things as They Are: "Thor: Ragnarok" Contra "Justice League"

It’s remiss of me to hand Walt Disney Pictures a good word after their actions towards the Los Angeles Times a couple weeks ago. Nevertheless, I begin here by offering the laudatory exclamation, with Joel Siegelese gusto, that their latest release Thor: Ragnarok, is probably the most satisfactory effort of the Marvel franchise, at least since 2008’s Iron Man, directed by Jon Favrau. By that I mean it’s the two hours-plus of projected comic book fast food that feels the most like a “movie” instead of a visually busy television episode in an endless serial, adding that for extra credit that Ragnarok, while sticking close to the mostly grating-because-it’s-cuddly format of smirking geek jizz, breaks Marvel’s usual routine of fluctuation between humor and thudding pathos, the serious “momentous turd” sequences of serious argument that has less to do with discourse than whining (the standard of long-running television—see Stranger Things’ hours and hours of strained and gasping air exchanged between adolescents and parents—that may have gotten its engine sparked by J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books), sticking to a more stable, comic tone. Previous installments like Ant-Man and both Guardians of the Galaxys could be sold as comedies that nevertheless plummeted into a dungheap as folks got sad about their dysfunctional families and stuff. Ragnarok has its dysfunctional family dynamics too, yes, but being that its Thor, Loki, Odin, and their estranged goth sister Hela, it's all kind of funny and we don't have to break from our nachos for "feelings." 

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Indeed, this could be said to make for a less rich experience, but considering this is Marvel, where by now I’ve kind of lost the script and would rather have my ribs nudged by Messrs Hemsworth and Goldblum while having a drink, I found this quite welcome. Thor Part Trois begins with our Nordic hero suspended on a chain above lava, taunted by an oversized demon and kind of resigned to his “How the hell did I get here?” predicament, something that Chris Hemsworth, an unexpected candidate for the most gifted of the Avenger stars with his intelligence juxtaposed against his swole bod, and so kind of nods to the impossibility of a satisfactory recapitulation: under the direction of Taika Waititi (of the farcical What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople), the journey's launchpad mirrors the hanging and wavering Thor, saying, “Whatever, let’s try to have fun.”

True to its antecedents, Ragnarok is still twenty minutes too long and has a final act of brash special effects overkill assuaging the more endearing idiosyncrasies of an otherwise good stand-alone film. Waititi does what he can though, stabilizing the comic tone and hiring Mark Mothersbaugh to write Marvel’s most idiosyncratic music score, some electronica suitable to Waititi’s follow-through on a throwback gimmick hearkening to the sci-fi ilk of Flash Gordon. Thankfully, the intricacies of the story don’t take themselves too seriously—pointedly so.

Ragnarok (a term referring to the end of times) follows Thor back home to Asgard, where the throne has been surreptitiously usurped by his half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), wearing the visage of deposed dad Odin (Anthony Hopkins), whom Loki has had the courtesy to send off to a nursing home in New York. Loki has turned the old world on its head with lavish commemorations of his own martyrdom (rewinding: before taking the throne, in Thor: The Dark World Loki sacrificed himself to save the day...except he lived because reasons), such as a theatrical tragedy where he’s played by Matt Damon,with Sam Neil overlooking his “favorite son” as Odin, and Hemsworth’s brother Luke playing the ersatz Thor. The powerful and wise Asgardian watchmen Heimdall (Idris Alba) has been replaced by dopey self-mythologizer Skurge (Karl Urban), leaving the empire vulnerable to Odin’s long gone daughter Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death. Thor, with his trusty hammer, sets things right by unmasking Loki and, with the help of fellow Avenger Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), collects Odin, who’s since taken leave to Norway. Turns out dad’s had enough of life, much as Anthony Hopkins is probably thrilled to be free of his Marvel contract, and evaporates into the sea, leaving his sons to take on Hela, who’s since begun her conquest of Asgard, making Skurge her unlikely collaborator in what I gather from the Internet is some kind of post-colonial commentary.

Thor’s hammer is little match for the Great Oppressor’s antlered postures of destructive lightning, and Thor and Loki find themselves in the wasteful squalor of Sakaar, ruled by Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), a brain-farting mesh of Donald Trump and Vince McMahon who gives his coliseum audience gladiatorial spectacles. While the Machiavellian Loki has withered his way into Grandmaster’s favor as a courtesan, Thor—stripped of his hammer and powerless—is thrown into combat. Luckily, Grandmaster’s champion competitor is fellow Avenger Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). Thor’s task is to convince Hulk (lavishing in his champ status and harboring grudges against the other muscly Avenger) and alcoholic bounty hunter Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) to help him launch an uprising against Grandmaster, after which they can go back to Asgard for a CGI dance off against Cate Blanchett and save the day.

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To reiterate, the movie works because all these plotty intrigues are secondary to its satisfaction, and Thor 3 holds a distinction of halting the constant serialization and world-building of Marvel, satisfied in its place as a pleasant—if smug—stand alone spinoff. That’s part of a larger point, of spectacular surfaces obscuring ecstatic constants. Using a G.O.A.T. performer like Blanchett here, as an aging intergalactic goth rocker striking poses on a stage without offering much else, is reprehensibly wasteful, but then again there's a significant motif here, beginning with Loki’s self-aggrandizing play starring Matt Damon, and coming to more consequential instances such as Asgardian murals depicting Odin’s legacy crumbling to reveal apocryphal stories, featuring Hela, drawn on a deeper dome head, and of course the ethos of the Incredible Hulk, whose ripped veneer Thor has to penetrate in order to connect with Bruce Banner, the flesh-and-blood actor Mark Ruffalo serving as a digital cartoon’s tangible though obscured template. The stakes are lowered as death amounts to little more than a metamorphosis (for example, Odin's departure and Hela’s swift eradication of Thor’s three buddies from previous films, the “Warriors Three”), and after countless hours of losing the plot in all the blustery signal-to-noise, that’s just fine. Instead of continuing the Marvel Avengers franchise, Ragnarok is more like a vacation from it, the trivial fun of its pompous personae hiding the more cynical machinations of the Disney machine spewing dehydrating sugary content in a thirsty multiplex, probably killing us but what the hell. 

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This all predicates the more dreaded part of a two-part review, as Thor’s effective frivolity is unfortunately another reminder of why Marvel’s antagonist, DC Comics, can’t make their own expanded universe work. This week it's Justice League, the long-gestating Avengers counterpart where Superman aka Clark Kent (Henry Cavill, whose character is dead but really just "mostly dead") and Batman aka Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) recruit Wonder Woman aka Diana (Gal Gadot), the Flash (Ezra Miller), Aqua Man (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to help save the world from a behemoth cartoon (voiced by Ciaran Hinds)—who strangely looks like a more wobbly cousin to the horny demon with whom we see Thor first dealing with in Ragnarok. I say “dreaded,” in an admittedly low-key review, because it seems the DC fanboys are like the envious and more studious middle children who can’t fathom why the world loves the jockey older brother: the public and critics love these Stan Lee concoctions of Marvel and yawn with disappointment at Man of Steel, Suicide Squad, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and now, with a 40% Rotten Tomato score and unsatisfactory box office returns, Justice League. DC is like Nixon sneering at JFK’s portrait, asking "why am I so hated and you so loved?" The fallout has amounted to conspiracy theories of Disney filling critics’ pocketbooks (conversely, there’s myriad reasons why the previous DC franchise, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, is leagues above anything Marvel has put out, but all this arguing is already complicated enough).

Putting it bluntly, Justice League is a flaming shit pile, though not necessarily an unpleasant one, if that makes sense. Its schizoid construction, the result of DC Universe architect Zack Snyder leaving production and former Avengers helmer Joss Whedon taking up the slack with far less interesting camera set-ups and clever quips to amplify “delight” in an otherwise dour film series, amounts to something less pleasurable than watching over the insurmountable chore of filmmakers basting on ridiculous plot points as millions of dollars fly by. Bruce Wayne/Batman goes off to find his Justice League in a race with the demonic alien Steppenwolf, the endgame being to find three important boxes leading to other universes, I think. Hilarity ensues. Or not. While Thor: Ragnarok has winking fun with its synthetic theater, the Whedonisms are cut-and-pasted inserts riding alongside its stars on an immense rubbery backdrop. The uneven authorial presences struggling to roll a $300 million boulder up a mountain feel as if they want nothing more than to sign off and be done with a monstrosity, wasting the familiar talents of Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons, Amy Adams, Connie Nielsen, Holt McCallany, and Joe Morton along the way. At a fast moving if bumpy two hours, it’s junk food that goes down easy but proves uncouthly diarrheic, the only bits sustaining in memory being the more embarrassing ones, such as Mamoa’s “Yeah-uh!”

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This hasn’t been a symptom of the franchise throughout its full run (i.e. not all of these movies are that bad). While I wouldn’t call Dawn of Justice a success, it was at the very least interesting, more interesting than its Marvel counterparts, beginning and ending with nods to the abrasive Wagnerian noise of John Boorman’s Excalibur, and an over-the-top They Live-esque fight in CGI screaming with beautiful perversity. Meanwhile Justice League is an abandoned child put in exhausted and dispirited hands, its canvas more than ever looking like that of an outdated video game than a motion picture event. This isn’t a badness unique to itself. Suicide Squad felt like the product of movie trailer editors after the director—David Ayer—had been thrown away, and even the one unequivocal financial and critical success of the franchise, Wonder-Woman, while highlighting Gal Gadot’s undeniable charisma, is too cautiously helmed by Patty Jenkins, working its way to endear itself to us while straying into a laughably infantile series mythology. Had it been released in a cultural climate outside of the Oval Office's present toxicity and rankness, it may have been assessed as Warner Bros.’ most head-scratching film maudit instead of a great example of criticism declining into progressive think-pieces. But I digress. 

Anyway, Justice League's sound and fury having concluded to subpar box office, what now? For studios, there will be Wonder-Woman 2, and as Gadot is the brightest screen presence in any of the three films in which she is featured, that’s sensible. Another Batman trilogy is being prepped, reportedly without Affleck. And somehow there will be a Suicide Squad sequel. One gets the sense that DC and Warners is churning out these films because they have to, building towards an ungraspable destination, like contributing to a health savings account that, by the time one gets really sick, still doesn’t have a prayer of paying off.

E’en so, Warners is the studio that has Clint Eastwood and Christopher Nolan, and may do well to keep supporting them and, god willing, other directors, while Disney, hosting both Marvel and Star Wars, seems to chew up and spit out its talent. “Asgard isn’t a place, it’s a people,” is the major revelation of Thor: Ragnarok, which has fun with its faces instead of putting name actors through a studio meat-grinder: the plot doesn't matter as long as the characters are free to do their thing. Meanwhile, Justice League’s players are shackled visages constricted by comic book costumes that smell too much like contractual obligations. While I’d much rather be talking about certain other movies this month—that have been pulled from release (sorry to be vague)—Christopher Plummer popping up to replace Kevin Spacey all of a sudden feels less a revolutionary maneuver than as something naturally growing out of the times. Or as studio exec Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) said 25 years ago in Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire The Player, “If we could only getting rid of these actors and directors, maybe we got something.”