Thor: Ragnarok – Giving Thor a movie he deserves

Okay, this movie is a little different. Unlike the previous Thor movies that were grim in their tone, Thor: Ragnarok is an out and out comedy and a full-blown entertainer. From the very outset, the film demands that the viewer buy into this premise to fully immerse himself/herself into the film. This took me a while to get used to. For instance, in my first two viewings of the film, I couldn’t quite get used to Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song in the background during the first and final battle scenes. Battles, after all, are supposed to be serious affairs with a few light moments peppered in to ease the audience. The MCU has established that. Ragnarok breaks this mould. And once you buy into its tone, you really appreciate the difference. You even enjoy Immigrant Song and play it on a loop for days after the fact. Ragnarok is supposed to be the end of worlds. But there is no time for doom and gloom here. The movie leaves you feeling satisfied. A large part of this has to do with the development of the two central characters in the movie – Thor and Loki.

Let us start by analysing Thor. Until this movie we have seen him transform from a brutish fighter who would punch his way into and out of dangerous situations to a man who understands the purpose of governance, understands that he isn’t interested in taking on that responsibility and continuing to work as a soldier for the nine realms. But so far, we don’t really understand who Thor is. In trying to write this review, I was struggling to write about his journey. I kept taking breaks, disappointed that I hadn’t completely understood my favourite superhero. In one of those breaks I happened to watch a YouTube video about the movie. It made me realise that Thor doesn’t really have an arc so far. Ragnarok tries to remedy that by stripping the character of his paraphernalia – the throne of Asgard, Jane, his hammer – and exploring the man underneath. In an interview, director Taika Waititi said that he saw the story of Ragnarok as that of a man trying to find his way home. That man just happens to be a demi-god trying to stop the Goddess of Death from taking over his country. In the process, he discovers who he is and what it is that he values.

The first thing we notice in Ragnarok is that Thor seems much more human this time around. He no longer speaks in an archaic manner like a king from the past. He is funny, a bit stupid at times and sees himself as part of a social group outside of the palace (Remember when he calls the Hulk a “friend from work”)? Thor’s interactions with the Avengers have humanised him over the years, and the changes in his personality aren’t out of place. As the film goes on, we understand this character more. Unlike when the character was first introduced, Thor doesn’t seek out conflict. But he is essentially a fighter. Even without Mjolnir to help him, Thor is determined to break out of Sakaar and return to Asgard to try and save his home. This is perhaps best exemplified in the battle between Thor and the Hulk in Sakaar. When he realises that Banner isn’t going to recognise him and his only way out is to fight the Hulk, Thor puts up an impressive fight for his life and for the chance to leave the planet. This is also the scene gives a new layer to Thor the superhero.  When he shoots lightning at the Hulk, we see a new version of Thor who is ready to kick ass. But the audience and the character don’t realise the significance of this moment until much later in the film. Only after receiving counsel from his father (and losing an eye) does he realise that he is the God of Thunder, and as the God of Thunder he can harness lightning. He doesn’t need Mjolnir or anything else to defend himself and Asgard. This is a pivotal moment in the character’s arc. From being a warrior prince who chose Mjolnir as his coronation present and didn’t seem to amount to much without the hammer to a fighter who realises who he truly is, Thor has finally come a long way.

Furthermore, the film explores the meaning of home and nation in a much more significant way than any of the MCU films before it have done. The movie begins with Thor trying to stop Ragnarok. According to Norse mythology, Ragnarok is the end of everything. It is when entire worlds are destroyed and the gods are killed. At the beginning of the movie, Thor believes he can stop Ragnarok, and the audience believes him. But when the Goddess of Death seems unstoppable even after Thor realises his might, Thor’s character takes yet another turn. First, he is confronted with his limits despite his significant powers. He realises that he cant defeat Hela. And the only way to do so would be to destroy his beloved Asgard along with Hela by causing Ragnarok. Second, he realises that the essence of Asgard was never the planet, but the people who live on it. If Asgardians live anywhere in the universe, he will have saved Asgard. At this point, Thor has learnt much about governance. He has stopped seeking out war (unlike Odin in his early years, whose actions ultimately cause Ragnarok.) He is powerful enough to protect the universe from threats. And he understands what his kingdom really is. When he takes his place as king – in the Grand Master’s spaceship with a rotating chair as his throne – we know he is worthy.

Let us now look at Loki. Unlike Thor, Loki has had a pretty well-defined character arc. In the first Thor movie, he realises that he has been raised by his father not as the prince of Asgard but as a pawn for political gains. His resentment for his father and brother comes to the forefront in The Avengers when he tries to take over the Earth by force. In Thor: The Dark World we that he became the trickster after his mother took him under her wing to teach him tricks so that he can stand up to Thor and his peers, who are physically stronger than him. We see him consumed by revenge after he breaks down when his mother dies (he unintentionally aids the murder of his mother.) He is easily one of the most interesting Marvel villains (really, one of two great Marvel movie villains – the other one being Thanos). He has certainly been one of my absolute favourite characters in the MCU. And it is not hard to see why. He is such a well-written, layered character. We feel his pain and want desperately for him to abandon his villainous pursuits, and every time he does just enough to keep us rooting for him, but also just enough to squarely place him in the villain category. I think the discrepancy between writing Thor and Loki comes from the original source of this material – Norse mythology. After watching the movie, I ended up reading Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. It is a collection of fables in Norse mythology and it tells us the stories of the Aesirs (gods and goddesses), frost giants, elves, dwarves and Asgard. It focuses primarily on the stories in the court of Asgard – stories of Odin, Thor and Loki. It is certainly an interesting read. Even in those stories, Loki is featured far more prominently than possibly any other character. His actions are described in great detail, as is his impact on Asgard. Loki is even painted in a somewhat sympathetic light where Thor is portrayed as boorish and thick. Even in the Thor movies, where he is the supporting character, Loki has a far superior arc to Thor. His story in Thor: The Dark World and the chemistry between Thor and Loki is perhaps the only reason I like that movie.

In Ragnarok we see yet another layer to this character which helps us understand him further. Unlike Thor, when Loki lands on Sakaar, he doesn’t try to fight his situation. Instead, he wins over the Grand Master and starts building a life there. Even when he goes to see Thor when the latter is captured, he describes to him a plan where the two brothers could take over the position of the Grand Master in time. We see that while Thor is a fighter, Loki is a survivor. Loki’s fraught relationship with his father coupled with the sense that he didn’t quite belong in the land he previously called home (the previous films show Loki as standing apart from Thor’s peer group) left him with little attachment for Asgard. Since his emotional needs were left unfulfilled, Loki uses his charm and cunning to keep afloat (albeit comfortably) rather than fight to get back what he lost. It is only when Thor tells him that he thought the world of him and that he imagined them fighting side by side does he feel the need to go back and fight for Asgard, and ultimately to join Thor on the spaceship to create a new Asgard.

Thor films have always been about excess. This film is no exception. But this is excess done right. Ragnarok develops what is integral to the Thor movies – a family saga – by helping the two central characters in the movie shine. Thor helps us understand the political responsibilities of the family, while Loki (over three films) showcases the family’s dysfunctional dynamic. But the film doesn’t stop there. It adds excellent supporting characters in the Hulk, Valkyrie and the Grand Master who take away from the grimness of a Shakespearean-style drama. Granted, Hela’s character could have been better developed. She was also a victim of Odin’s awful parenting, and could have been developed into a good villain like Loki. But honestly, I am satisfied enough with Thor, Loki and the absolute madness of the film to let this bit go.

I am so happy that Ragnarok turned out the way it did. Thor is my favourite superhero, and so far, he was left stagnating in the MCU. This film brings him into the forefront as a cool superhero, something the Russo brothers take forward in Infinity War. But more on that later. Right now, I am just going to sign off, satisfied knowing that my two favourite characters got a movie they always deserved.

 

 

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Thor: The Dark World – A film struggling to trim the fat

I really liked Thor: The Dark World, but I wanted to like it some more. Not unlike the last Thor movie, this one also suffers from overindulgence. It also suffers from poor imagination. And these two factors cast a shadow over an otherwise superb movie. Thor: The Dark World is the only film so far that has made me rewind and watch my favourite parts again. Honestly, if they would have trimmed the rest, this could have been one of the best movies in the MCU.

Why makes the great parts of this film so? I’ve said this before and I will say it again, Thor works so well as a family drama. It has all the right ingredients for it – squabbling siblings, parents playing favourites and keeping secrets from their children and a struggle for space within the family. In this case, the stakes are higher because the brothers are fighting for the throne of Asgard. The film takes the time to explore the personalities of Thor and Loki, their relationship as brothers and their relationships with their parents. And this translates into engagement with the audience. For instance, I felt Loki’s rage and grief when his mother died and he appeared a broken man. Similarly, in the scene wherein Loki and Thor fight the Dark Elves in Svartalfhiem, I felt the brothers being united in avenging their mother’s death even though they completely distrusted each other.

I wish they had only stuck to the family drama, though. Like Thor, this film also suffers from overindulgence. Here too, the love story between Jane and Thor feels forced. I forced myself to forget the utterly unconvincing notion that these characters fell in love in the previous movie. I tried to just take as a given that they’re in love. But even so, the love story simply doesn’t work. I think that is because Jane’s character is so underwritten. Yes, she has a lot of screen time, but I still didn’t get a sense of who she was. She is simply there to be rescued by Thor or to give Thor depth. Compare this to Frigga, who gets a lot less screen time, but I know everything I need to know of that character. I make this comparison to demonstrate that there was much potential for Jane’s character that was left unexplored. I also found Dr. Selvig’s research and his device to manipulate gravitational waves to provide a shortcut to a different realm like Svartalfhiem too far-fetched. In fact, Thor’s time on Earth made absolutely no difference to the film. Had the film just been set in the other realms and the changes caused by the alignment of the realms used as catalysts for the final action scene, the plot would have been much tighter.

In addition to overindulgence, the film also suffers from poorly imagined worlds. I understand the challenge of imagining an entirely new universe. And I am not mad that Asgard is so much like Earth. In fact, I even thought to myself that Asgard (for the most part) is so well imagined that I thought maybe it was Earth who borrowed Asgardian dress, customs and language. But this quickly falters when it comes to the army of the Dark Elves. There is no reason for that army to be brandishing gun-like weapons or wearing masks that look like spoofs of characters in superhero movies. For a race that is so unlike that of the human race, their weapons should have been different. Asgardian air force is also very poorly imagined. The rest of Asgardian military is equipped with swords and shields, but they have an air force that’s oddly similar to that on Earth? I wish they had come up with a new and creative look for the armies.

These negatives certainly bring the film down. But the good parts of the film simply shine. A good part of that has to do with the fact that Loki was given a much bigger part in the movie. So, while Thor: The Dark World does not come close to the top MCU movies, please excuse me while I go and re-watch the scenes between Loki and Thor for the fifth time.

Thor: The Importance of Restraint

Thor is an indulgent movie. It’s the first intergalactic movie in the MCU and director Kenneth Branagh wants to make sure that the experience is unforgettable. And it is. Thor’s world, Asgard, is fantastic and believable. I must make a special mention of the music that implored me to play closer attention and delve deeper into the scenes. The villain is both endearing and formidable. The movie is funny without being campy. Thor tries to combine elements of a family drama, science fiction, action and romance. And that is where the film goes too far. In trying to be everything, the writing falters and stops Thor from reaching its full potential.

First, the positives. Much of the film is extremely well written. This includes the family drama, much of Thor’s time on earth and the characters of the protagonist and antagonist. Thor (played by the oh-so-gorgeous Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston) have layers to their characters and well-defined character arcs as the film progresses. Thor starts off as brutish and thick. But as the film progresses he understands that governance cannot be carried out with muscle. Throughout the film, Loki is the master manipulator. As the film ends, however, he is shown as vulnerable, when he fails to prove himself to his father. Such changes mean that these two principal characters are well-rounded and therefore believable and relatable. Thor and Loki also share an easy chemistry which works great for a family drama. I need to say this about Loki before I move on – he is easily the best villain so far by a mile. The writers made his character just so damn charming. Unlike any other villain in the MCU, he makes me happy when he’s on screen.

Now for the negatives. The love story in the movie is wholly unnecessary. Jane (played by Natalie Portman) plays no role in carrying the story forward. Thor and Jane meet on earth for just a few days. It is entirely unrealistic that in that time she would believe Thor is an alien from Asgard, fall in love with him, and endanger herself and her friends in trying to protect him by lying to a top government agency. Her scientific research, rather than love, would have been a much stronger motivator for helping Thor find Mjolnir and go back to Asgard. Similarly, Thor’s desire to protect Jotunheim could simply have been the result of the empathy he learnt while on Earth. There was no reason to suggest that love for a woman he had known for three days had anything to do with it. Add to that, Hemsworth and Portman (both great individually) share no chemistry on screen. The scenes between them distracted me from an otherwise engaging movie.

Thor left me feeling both elated and disappointed. Elated because other than the love story, this has been the most enjoyable movie I’ve seen so far. And it could have been a much better film had the writers exercised restraint. Rather than making the movie a hotchpotch of every popular genre, it would have been better to stick to drama and action, because those were the most well developed. Ah well… I’ve heard it gets better in Thor: Ragnarok. Can’t wait for that.