On superheroes as a self-limiting genre, and how remarkably Taika Waititi broke them - and Thor - out of his monotony
Thor: Ragnarok Walt Disney Studios
Director: Taika Waititi
Screenplay: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost, based on the comic books created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Tessa Thompson, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Taika Waititi, Idris Elba, Tom Hiddleston and Karl Urban
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 10 minutes / 2.39:1
November 3, 2017
(out of four)
Perhaps the problem with superhero movies is considering them a genre unto themselves. Genre is more of a spectrum anyway - why should these be any different?
Of course, I realize there are clear-cut answers to that question. Marvel has defined - or distilled, rather - what we think of when we say Superhero Movie, and done it so thoroughly as to create a sort of monopoly of form. It's the brand name that became the genericized term - a cinematic Xerox machine in more ways than one. A standard-bearer not of quality but of simple definition.
Even DC, which has positioned itself (somewhat disingenuously, even from the start) as an anti-Marvel of sorts, has moved more and more in its rival's direction (both for better and for worse), going so far as to recruit Joss Whedon to not only finish up Justice League but take on a new DC movie (Batgirl) of his own. Wonder Woman was basically just a Marvel movie with a grainy blue-grey veneer, whether anyone wants to admit it or not. (Again, for better and worse.)
With the cultural ascendancy of this type of storytelling comes a presumed emphasis on worldbuilding, which in theory would open up varying possibilities for these varied properties. But that's just the problem - it's one world, instead of many. One way to make this type of movie, instead of many. And as far as the "world" part of the equation goes, there's not much to it. It's a conspicuously ordinary world, but with superheroes plopped into the middle of it (a strategy that works best when there's exactly one superhero - the normalcy emphasizing his or her anomalous presence, justifying the awe - rather than a universe full of them). What it's not is anything aesthetically, thematically, architecturally, or temporally specific. (When Fox's X-Men series - which matches Marvel in aesthetic ambivalence - took its story back in time, nothing changed. It all felt the same - just the wigs and fashions were different.)
So we have all these different characters and they all inhabit the same streamlined environment with the same streamlined rules. All these characters with entirely different origins, entirely different reasons for being, all framed in the same visual terms. It's not unlike, to use an obvious example, the way prestige musician biopics tend to cut their very different subjects from identical cloth. (They could share a universe, too.) With superhero films, what should be a wide-open canvas instead becomes a narrow M.O. The unique aspects of any one of these individual mythologies should ostensibly be what makes them interesting; a movie should be able to put them in their own context instead of the catch-all they've found themselves inhabiting for too long.
Consider the way action movies aren't exactly their own genre, but an endlessly versatile feature of countless genres. Superhero films should be largely the same. Let a superhero find his or her place instead of forcing them all into the same box.
It took three movies, but Thor has finally found his. Taika Waititi's terrific Ragnarok has so many familiar Marvel qualities, and yet it's also a necessary departure from the rigid construction of the Marvel brand. It's barely even attached to the larger franchise apparatus that's been, up to this point, so insistent on its interconnectedness and continuity. Perhaps Waititi - the Kiwi filmmaker behind What We Do in the Shadows, Eagle vs. Shark and last year's great Hunt for the Wilderpeople - was given a bit more leeway to create something idiosyncratic because the previous Thor entries (both lousy) had failed to connect the way the Iron Man and Captain America films did. Whatever the case, Ragnarok feels like the charming, unruly distant cousin who bears only a physical resemblance to the rest of the family.
Which is to say it's the first Marvel movie to fully embrace that the plot doesn't matter. Not just its own plot, but the big-picture, superheroes infinity stones SHIELD Hydra Thanos intergalactic war MCU plot, too. It uses the narrative purely as a means of structure. It's the skeleton frame holding everything in place, freeing Waititi and his cast to get their hands into the raw material - to stretch it and knead it and rearrange it, so that what was once, surely, on the page, a straightforward superhero movie, becomes a grand comic riff on characters, situations and tropes we've gotten so overacquainted with in recent years. Imagine if the James Bond series all of a sudden started taking more of its cues from Austin Powers and you might get the idea.
Ragnarok is a straight-up comedy - a perpetually surprising, peculiar, ingenious one, at that - which means it's the studio's purest form of any style or genre beyond the standard Marvel Cinematic Universe Template. It seems to consider its superhero trappings as incidental to its purpose. This is a buddy comedy, a fish-out-of-water comedy, a prison escape comedy, a sci-fi parody. It qualifies as a superhero movie yet can't resist undermining the very things that make these people superheroes (or supervillains) every chance it gets. The suddenly loquacious Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is a comically depressed, emasculated prisoner who's quite sick and tired of being in this giant superhuman body. Thor is a literal god, yet he's no great shakes to the ageless Grandmaster Jeff Goldblum, ruler of the planet Sakaar on which he's found himself hammerlessly marooned.
This isn't Hawkeye we're talking about - this is two of the Avengers' finest. Here, they're no longer superheroes at all; they're junkyard scrap turned enslaved gladiators, mingling with various other amusingly pitiful creatures, all under the thumb of an absurd hedonistic swingin' despot who wields absolute control over this planet yet is charmingly, delightfully, coolly laid-back about it. Thor and Hulk don't punch, throw, smash or overpower their way to freedom - they sneak around like petty crooks and steal stuff. They bicker and fumble around and sneak and trick and run and hide. Aside from the inevitable action finale (which is cleverly, comically staged in its own right), the most notable sequence of superhero action in Ragnarok is a gladiator fight between Hulk and Thor with no other stakes other than that it is a gladiator fight between Hulk and Thor. With a latent wink of acknowledgment, the film gives us a big action centerpiece designed solely for the benefit of a coliseum audience (and, of course, those in the luxury suites making a ring around the arena). It contributes little else beyond its basic description, but that basic description (you guys! Hulk and Thor are beating each other up!) is more than enough.
That ruthless comic spirit follows the film everywhere. On Asgard, we see Thor's exploits campily immortalized by local thespians for Loki's entertainment - the world-saving accomplishments of Thor and his fellow Avengers reduced (and rewritten, to better commemorate Loki himself) to embellished, overacted sideshow theatre. Later there's a cameo appearance by Doctor Strange (introduced with a sly Sherlock allusion) in which he amuses himself by constantly transporting an increasingly bewildered Thor from one spot to another (never more than a few yards between them). Strange's sorcery - his superpower - means nothing; it's just a toy to play with for a few minutes. Waititi takes the dramatic beats so common to stories like this - entrances, arcs, pregnant pauses, prophecies, villainous monologues, heroes hanging helplessly, perilously, awaiting certain death - and finds the funniest angle through which to exploit them. There's still a story to be told, and still a megalomaniacal villain (Hela, Thor's sister, played by Cate Blanchett) to be defeated, but Waititi embraces those formulas and takes advantage; they are a support system for his comic inspiration and improvisation and farce. Even clunky, straightforward exposition, he turns into a delight. A shackled Thor arrives on Sakaar and is treated to a long-winded explanation and background summary of the planet and the Grandmaster himself - presented like an intro to an amusement-park ride, in the darkened tunnel just before the doors open.
After seeing the movie, a friend and I shared a laugh about the screenplay credit, which was officially awarded to Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost - no credit for Waititi, despite his fingerprints being all over the dialogue, the characterizations, the treatment of the plotting. WGA rules being what they are, I have no doubt those three writers - in some combination or another - are responsible for the film's general framework, its cast of characters, its basic sequence of events. And it's not hard to imagine this same story, beat by narrative beat, being treated in more straightforward fashion and delivering a more straightforward superhero action flick. But Waititi's particular tone of voice and comic sensibility are so thoroughly present that it alters the existing screenplay's DNA almost entirely.
For existing in such a carefully controlled machine, that distinct tone of voice is an accomplishment in itself. This is a rare Marvel movie - indeed, a rare superhero film - that is allowed to be itself. If Superhero is a genre, it's been a severely limiting one. Richard Donner's Superman stood out because it was new, and because its single hero was an awe-inspiring anachronism within very grounded versions of midwestern and big-city Americana. 1989's Batman stood out because superhero movies weren't exactly a thing yet, and the powers that be gave it to a weirdo gothic filmmaker who made a pair of weirdo Gothic Batman movies. (This is a high compliment.) Once these stories proliferated, distinction wore off, and broad brand recognition - as opposed to specific brand recognition - took control. While the Dark Knight series took the form of an urban crime drama - interpreting its ostensibly pulpy material in terms of economic unrest and domestic terrorism - too few have been satisfied with, or required to be, a boilerplate form of something that yearns to be as specific as that trilogy, if not more so.
Oddly, some of Marvel's televised adaptations have been given somewhat more aesthetic specificity, despite generally lesser production values - the clearly Nolan-inspired Daredevil, with its shadowy, stylized realism and sprawling sociopolitical allegory; Jessica Jones, with its noirish private-dick overtones (a style that sadly evaporates over the course of its first season); or Legion, a playful neosurrealist madhouse in which the very setting is the mind itself. When it comes to the movies, though they're often inspired by non-superhero fare, the problem is often that they don't go far enough into whatever form they want to take, or publicly insist they do take. Logan wasn't exactly a Western - it just took its cues from Westerns. Which worked, but would have worked better if it had gone all-in. The Winter Soldier wasn't really a political thriller, but it took its cues from them. Apparently next year's New Mutants is going to be a horror movie. We'll see. When these halfway-distinct superhero movies come out, we (and I include myself) tend to give them credit simply for doing more than is required - for behaving even a little bit like something other than a Superhero Movie. (Or whatever we've decided is a Superhero Movie, anyway.)
If superhero movies are here to stay, then they should continue to break apart into their own niche categories - ideally with their own niche voices, like Waititi's, behind them. Thor: Ragnarok stands above and beyond those movies not because it's a good superhero movie, but because it's a damn good comedy. That just happens to have superheroes in it.