Once upon a time, the release date for a new Marvel movie was an occasion for celebration.
Heading to the theater to see “The Avengers” or “Captain America” was virtually a guarantee of a crisply shot, excitingly choreographed action movie with humour and maybe even a nice little crackle of sexual chemistry.
There are still good Marvel movies, of course – I quite liked “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” which came out earlier this year – but those slick superhero outfits have acquired a higher drag coefficient over time. And “Thor: Ragnarok,” which takes us roughly halfway through Marvel’s so-called Phase Three, feels so threadbare that it threatens to expose just how tired the enterprise has become.
“Thor: Ragnarok” follows our titular hero (Chris Hemsworth) in exile as he goes home to Asgard and discovers that his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has exiled their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and is secretly ruling in his stead. After Odin dies, a further complication emerges: Thor’s older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) breaks out of her imprisonment, determined to take the throne, and kicks her two brothers out into deep space, while Heimdall (Idris Elba) foments a resistance movement back on Asgard. Once Thor finishes falling through space and lands at his destination, he teams back up with Loki, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). A reconquest ensues, with entirely predictable results.
In a profile of “Thor: Ragnarok” director Taika Waititi that ran in the New York Times before the movie’s release, there’s a moment when the director and his collaborators create a shot Waititi hadn’t actually filmed through computer rendering. It was presented as a sort of miracle-of-filmmaking technology moment, but on reflection, it actually seems to explain some of the problems with “Thor: Ragnarok,” which despite its zippy off-world locations is one of the worst-looking Marvel movies. One scene that ought to have been virtually effects-free, featuring Thor, Loki and Odin on a cliff somewhere in Norway, looked so digitally manipulated that by the time it was over I thought the most likely explanation was that all three actors hadn’t actually been in the shot together.
“Thor: Ragnarok” also has as its second unit director first-timer (and longtime stuntman) Ben Cooke, rather than John Mahaffie, who had handled the action sequences on many other Marvel movies, and it shows. “Thor: Ragnarok” is ostensibly built around gladiatorial duels, but its fight sequences have little zip or personality; they’re often shot from far away, giving the impression of tremendous force but nothing distinct about the combatants’ fighting styles. The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) may lack Thor’s and the Hulk’s brute force, but seeing him grab a motorcycle off a highway in “Captain America: Civil War” is more thrilling than any of the extended ruckus in “Thor: Ragnarok.”
And while the movie manages to jolt Thor out of a bit of a character rut by making him funnier and looser than he was in previous movies, “Thor: Ragnarok” does so by essentially turning him into another big, blond bro, rather than finding a way to make him feel genuinely strange and god-like. Beyond that, I could have written the basic character beats in my head. Responsibility is accepted. New powers are unlocked. The bad gal is defeated. Even recapitulating it here makes me yawn.
These problems are considerable, but in a way, they’re clarifying. When the zip and gloss of previous Marvel movies are stripped away, it’s easier to see just how narratively and emotionally stale the franchise’s formula has become. That’s even clearer because there are two truly different kinds of movies lurking around the margins of “Thor: Ragnarok,” both of them substantially more compelling than the blockbuster that’s actually on offer.
The first concerns Valkyrie, the last surviving member of an order of elite Asgardian female warriors decimated during Hela’s (Cate Blanchett) last rampage against Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Since her narrow escape, she has been working as a scrap hauler on the planet of Sakaar – which like our own has become organized almost entirely around the spectacle of gladiatorial combat – and effectively drinking herself to death.
To complain that it’s a spoiler to say that Thor eventually inspires Valkyrie to embrace the cause of Asgard would be to say that the basic arcs of Western literature itself are a surprise. But it still would have been interesting to frame a movie around the collateral damage of Asgard’s wars. And given the trouble the Marvel franchise has had in making Thor an interesting character, it could have been a chance to let another character see him from the outside in all of his emotional bluntness and noblesse oblige and embrace him as a flawed vehicle of redemption.
The other option would have been Hela herself, who sashays back into Asgard with some legitimate grievances, disconcerting backstory on Asgard’s glory and impressively mutable hair. It turns out that she was Daddy’s Little Weapon of Conquest until Odin decided he wanted to play the benevolent deity, and locked his eldest daughter and rightful heir away, ostensibly because of her “violent appetites,” but also so that he could burnish the family’s image.
“Thor: Ragnarok” never seriously contests her argument that Asgard is built on the violent subjugation of other societies, and it never really reckons with it, either. That’s a problem for the movie, which contains a lot of nattering about what it is that “heroes do” and how Asgard is defined by its people, not its physical location. It also would have been a terrific opportunity for a Marvel antihero movie that dares to ask whether our heroes are defending a tainted colonial legacy, and if so, what makes them morally superior to the weapon that forged that legacy?
Making either of these movies would have given Marvel a film with a female lead, too. And while I think it’s long overdue that these giant franchises focus on and greenlight movies by women and people of color, that’s only one sclerotic artery in the beating heart of Marvel that badly needs a stent.