Thor: Ragnarok Is Fun, But Not Much More (Like Marvel’s Other Recent Outings)
Let’s try and show what we mean and look at Marvel fun in action with its latest outing, the film where the fun talk went into overdrive: Thor: Ragnarok. It’s one of the most purely funny films in the mega-franchise (although it’s worth noting both Iron Man 3 and Ant-Man were straight-up comedies before it) that manages to inject energy into the moribund Thor sub-series. However, it’s a very superficial film; there’s a greater meaning to Thor’s MCU journey, the prophecy of Ragnarok and true identity, but that’s all trappings to the action and yuks.
Director Taika Waititi’s previous films, especially direct predecessor Hunt for the Wilderpeople, were personified by a perfect grasp of “happy-sad” (hat-tip Sing Street); there was unbridled absurdist humor, but it was always framed alongside incredibly dour emotional turns, with perhaps his greatest skill being the ability to contrast risque black comedy and heartstring-pulling drama in the same beat. Yet even though his MCU movie is a comedy that sees the destruction of the hero’s home – i.e. classic Waititi – there’s none of that, just jokes. It has a lot of personality – its music and production design are the best in the series – yet underneath that is the same machinery. Plainly, Ragnarok feels like a Marvel movie with some Taika Waititi inflections tacked on, rather than a Taika Waititi movie in the MCU.
This is a story we’ve seen already in 2017. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 had a strong throughline of parental themes of all stripes, yet James Gunn was married to a structure that left it with a gaping narrative hole in its center (there’s little actual plot to the film, with the half-hour stretch after meeting Ego completely devoid of any forward momentum). Spider-Man: Homecoming was a bit stronger, with clearer set and achieved targets, although its biggest flaw may be the most revealing: Jon Watts just wasn’t aiming as high as he could have. Everything Homecoming wanted to do, it did; there just wasn’t that much ambition to actually do more than put Peter Parker in the MCU.
Marvel’s “Serious” Films Are Now The Outliers
Again, none of these are bad films (especially true with Homecoming) thanks to the franchise’s recurrent trumpeting of character and propensity to wear its inspirations on its sleeve – the meta-textuality Marvel is playing with almost puts Stranger Things to shame – but likewise, it feels like the franchise confines see them all ultimately fall into that “fun” category. That we’ve had this three times in a year (and, frankly, Doctor Strange fits in the same pen) suggests Marvel is just happy making these light movies.
In print, Marvel would never stoop this low. They revolutionized comics in the 1960s when they grounded superheroes and later pushed boundaries with The Night Gwen Stacey Died, Demon in a Bottle and so much more. Whatever you think of the recent changes made by the All-New All-Different reboot, there’s been a wealth of different, daring stories that use the characters in interesting ways and where style isn’t beholden to type.
And it’s perhaps no coincidence that out of the movies widely regarded as the best in the franchise, most of them are the ones that least fit the “fun” branding. The likes of the original Iron Man, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Civil War are sure-fire entertainment, but their level of success really comes from endeavoring to be something more – to explore an idea with these characters and present a bigger experience of it to the audience. The best-regard film in the canon that’s purely “fun” is The Avengers, and that was an industry-redefining event whose importance is so self-aware it’d hard to dismiss as frivolous.
But how can you blame them? The movies we just mentioned that went further were rolls of the dice – everyone loves to say unproven brands are Marvel’s biggest gambles, but it’s really stories that don’t follow their own defined norms – and are much less likely creative successes than something that’s knockabout. They’re a risk; fun unquestionably works.
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