directed by taika waititi, starring chris hemsworth, tom hiddleston, cate blanchett
4 out of 5 muscles recommend thor, but not the heart
Thor’s been my favorite overmuscled blondie since the first movie established its motif: have a problem? throw a hammer at it. So---brother betrays you? Wing ‘im with a hammer. Father disappointed in you? Hammer some guys until he respects you again. Natalie portman wasted as an actress? Go full hammer to distract the audience. And who would’ve thought thor divorced from his hammer could be fun, but the third asgardian movie is a jungle gym compared to the first two. Unfortunately, it’s fun and nothing more.
The definition of ‘blockbuster’ is a little fluid, but we all know it when we see it: a bigbudget movie with stars and money and special effects and, above all, entertainment. In contrast, when we say ‘indie’ we often mean something that prioritizes something besides entertainment, like maybe form or selfexpression or evoking thought. Thor ragnarok is a cardcarrying blockbuster, as we can see just by looking at one scene.
Quick expository nonsense: After their father, odin (anthony hopkins), commits death by dissolution kungfupanda style, and their sister (cate blanchett) terrifies everyone with her emo makeup, thor (chris hemsworth) and loki (tom hiddleston) wind up trapped on a bizarre, gladiatorial planet. Loki cozies up to the planet’s ruler, the grandmaster (jeff goldblum), but thor is captured and sold into bondage as a gladiator. The scene starts with thor kneeling in prison, facing the wall, reciting a eulogy for odin. Loki shows up in astral projection form and tries to convince thor to stay on the planet and forget about going back to asgard. Thor’s not having it, and eventually loki leaves amid harsh words about placing a bet against thor’s chances of survival in the upcoming match. Then another prisoner, korg (taika waitit as a pile of rocks), gets in a quick oneliner, ‘piss off, ghost!’ and kicks the blank wall where loki’s hologram just passed through.
Whew. What a crazy movie. What’s important is that this is the first time thor has a chance to reconcile his father’s death, that he and loki have an earnest conversation, and that korg slips in at the very end.
This two minute scene is a rare moment in ragnarok’s trippy tumble down the stairs. It’s slow and meditative, driven by emotion. The drama is internally motivated; there’s no battle, no problem to solve, no clear objective. Much has been made over why marvel is so successful while dc consistently poos the box office bed, and I’d argue that scenes like this are crucial. Galactic power struggles and hammerthrows are great, but at some point you gotta help the audience care. Allpowerful gods are difficult to empathize with, and marvel understands that regular doses of humanity (read: vulnerability, humor, friendship) keep us caring about thor and loki’s relationship.
We’re taking our cues from thor. He feels sad, so we feel sad for him. The loss of a father isn’t a superhero problem, it’s a human one. And it gives us an opportunity to see the unique relationships each son (one biological, one adopted) had with odin. Staging it while thor’s imprisoned while loki can come and go helps reinforce that of the two, thor feels more helpless in the face of odin’s death.
I think a lot of directors/editors of mainstream movies are hesitant to give the audience something that’s purely sad. Simple sorrow isn’t entertaining, and at the end of the day there’s money on the line. Especially in the insane, discotheque sound and light show that is ragnarok, what are we supposed to do with sorrow? We either have to live in it, or dismiss it outright.
If the bulk of the scene is the emotional chisel, the last few seconds are the hammer. As the camera goes shot, reverse shot, hiddleston and hemsworth play their parts well enough you can catch the tone even sans sound. First, loki is conciliatory, hoping to bring thor to his side. Thor is resistant, refusing to say anything for the first half of the scene. Gradually, they move on to blame and antagonism before loki abruptly leaves. Enter the hammer: there’s not even two seconds between loki’s exit and korg running over to shout, memorably, ‘piss off, ghost!’
The joke itself is funny partly since it’s so unexpected, so counter to 99% of the scene. But getting the laugh means sacrificing the somber tone. Korg’s sudden appearance and oneliner banishes any iota of sadness and helps the audience click back into passivity. We laugh and are reminded we don’t have to feel. We’re being entertained.
And you might credibly ask, what’s so bad about that?. Well, inherently, nothing. It reveals the priority of this movie: entertain the audience. Be funny, be brisk. Don’t let too much time pass before the action starts back up. That’s a legitimate goal, but why not do all that and still inject some substantive emotion into thor? A few simple changes could’ve made all the difference. If korg had never appeared and the camera simply lingered on thor and the empty spot where loki had stood, wouldn’t that give us some idea of thor at his lowest and loneliest? We’d take odin’s death more seriously if it wasn’t swept aside by a silly few words, and the movie ultimately would be better if we cared more about the main character.
The movie closes, emotionally, with thor finally assuming his father’s mantle, a king who’s obligated to protect and care for his people. Wonderful. But because the movie spent the previous two hours being silly and funky and entertaining, it’s not much of a moment. Thor’s ascension and all its attendant hand wringing is writ small. I’m glad, I guess, that he’s reconciled with his brother, processed his father’s death, prevented his sister from destroying his people, taken on the role of noah on a spaceark, and finally feels ready to step into odin’s imposing shoes, but overall it falls flat. It should be triumphant but because the movie downplays thor’s inner turmoil at every step, the catharsis got lost along the way.
I had fun, though.