Scalding Hot Takes #1 Thor: Ragnarok
Well folks, welcome to the very first installment in Scalding Hot Takes. It’s a bizarre new column where I do this bizarre thing where I see the giant movie everyone’s talking and write about it in a timely fashion. It’s such an incongruously sensible, non-self-indulgent idea that of course I did not come up with it myself.
I was planning the very first episode of Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast, a new podcast about this website that will debut this week with my pal and co-host Clint Worthington and he said, “Hey, why don’t we talk about a big new movie like Thor: Ragnarok?”
Suddenly I had the world’s smallest epiphany: I should write about something other than Corey Feldman and Chuck Norris’ lesser films and the obscure early album cuts of American pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic. Maybe I could write about relatively timely, commercial things every once in a while and it would not destroy or corrupt the site. Maybe I can find more of a balance between writing about the weird, obscure ephemera that obsess me and the stuff everybody else in the world is apparently interested in.
When I got laid off from my job at The Dissolve about two and a half years ago, I lost interest in being a film critic roughly the same time people lost interest in paying me to review movies. I stopped reviewing movies professionally, but I also stopped going to movie theaters and watching new movies. It reminded me too much of my former life and my former profession and the intense feelings of rejection and failure surrounding them.
I did what I had to do to survive a particularly painful period in my life and career but in doing so I also cut myself off from one of the greatest sources of pleasure and satisfaction I’ve ever known: going to the movies. Watching Thor: Ragnorak at the De Kalb mall this last Saturday reconnected me with the joy and excitement I felt during my film critic days when I finally had the opportunity to experience for myself a movie I’d been feverishly anticipating since the moment I found out about it.
That was me and Thor: Ragnarok. One of my favorite films of the past decade is Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s hilarious vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows. I’m also a huge fan of Waititi’s lovely coming-of-age comedy-drama Boy so the idea that someone would give this idiosyncratic genius two hundred million dollars and the full resources of the Marvel machine to make a trippy cosmic inter-galactic comedy was unbelievably exciting to me, and I only get excited about pretty much everything.
Thor had never been my favorite Avenger. I’m not sure he’d make the top five but I love Chris Hemsworth's take on the character. The natural inclination with a character who’s a fucking norse God would be to go big and soap-operatic, delivering a performance epic enough for a motherfucking GOD OF THUNDER. Hemsworth goes the opposite direction. He underplays Thor. There’s a sly element of winking self-deprecation to Hemsworth’s take on the character, a wink and a nod that assures us that Hemsworth understands and appreciates the inherent ridiculousness of what’s going on as much as the audience does.
With the exception of Kate McKinnon, Hemsworth was the funniest part of Ghostbusters. It almost seems unfair that a man as ridiculously gorgeous as Hemsworth is also so funny and charming. Thor: Ragnarok is a big, messy, sprawling pop art extravaganza with Hemsworth as its rock-solid center. He’s a presence big yet spry enough to hold this crazy contraption together through sheer magnetism. Hemsworth took one of the most boring Avengers and made him one of the most charismatic and undeniable figures in superhero cinema history.
Thor: Ragnarok isn’t just the first, and possibly only Marvel blockbuster to share a subtitle with a John Hodgman special: it’s also the first Marvel movie to share a sensibility with him as well, although, to be fair, the film’s deadpan is of the New Zealand rather than the New York intellectual variety.
The second Thor sequel finds Thor teaming up with black sheep sibling/nemesis/foil Loki (Tom Hiddleston) after their father, the God Odin (Anthony Hopkins) dies, unleashing the full wrath of his daughter Hela (Cait Blanchett), who returns to Asgard with an insatiable lust for destruction and power.
Somewhere in the cosmos, Thor gets captured by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, in a star-making performance), a hard-drinking, hard-living, Han Solo-like lovable rogue and bounty hunter who delivers the muscle-bound Avenger to Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), a debauched and corrupt leader with a distinct “Bread and Circuses” philosophy who pits a reluctant Thor against his planet’s most feared and beloved gladiator, the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).
Yes, Trump is President but we nevertheless inhabit a world where an hour in, a movie can go from a movie with no Incredible Hulk to a goddamn Incredible Hulk movie in a matter of moments. Then again, Thor: Ragnarok isn't quite an Incredible Hulk movie, because despite the sizable role the big green rageaholic plays in the film’s second half, the movie is so big and wild and overflowing with scene stealers that the motherfucking Incredible Hulk can enter the fray in outer space as an intergalactic Mike Tyson and he still has to fight for audiences’ attention. And he’s the fucking Incredible Hulk! As in, "Hulk Smash!" fame.
That’s the state of superhero movies in 2017. The stakes have gotten so high and they’ve gotten so flooded with meta-humans that the motherfucking Incredible Hulk can show up halfway through to fight monsters and heroes in outer space and have it be just another value-added attraction for the second sequel to a spin-off from a lesser Avenger.
Thor’s first dialogue scene with Incredible Hulk is a bit of a letdown but things improve once the big green dude gives way to Bruce Banner, who is a little foggy, having been in Hulk mode full-time for the last two years, something that’s bound to give you a bit of a hangover even if you aren’t trying to start a space revolution in outer space alongside Thor and a few scrappy Asgardians.
One of the reasons I was excited about Thor: Ragnarok is because I’d heard it compared to Midnight Run and the idea of a character like Charles Grodin’s in a 200 million dollar superhero movie excited me to no end. At his neurotic best, Ruffalo’s doctor lost in another world does cut a bit of a Charles Grodin figure, and it is amusing to see a creature of intellect like Banner in a world of gods and monsters.
I saw Thor: Ragnarok in 3-D in a half-full mall theater with an audience that wasn’t half as excited or amused as I was. The quirkiness of the comedy seemed to leave them cold, so they seized upon elements I found a little surprising. When Bruce Banner said that he had no less than seven PhDs, for example, the person behind me gasped audibly and said “Wow.”
Yes. That’s what’s notable about Bruce Banner, the fact that he’s freakishly over-educated, not the fact that he’s also a giant green rage-monster gladiator in outer space.
Blanchett’s performance was what I wanted Tilda Swinton’s to be in Dr. Strange and without the racially problematic elements to boot, just as Thor: Ragnarok is the goofy cosmic head trip I similarly wanted Dr. Strange to be. With Dr. Strange I didn’t just want a slightly bent, stoner variation on tried and true Marvel formula: I full-on wanted to see some mind-blowing shit that’d make me be all, “Whoah!”
I didn’t just want Marvel to leave these earthly confines en route to something more mystic: it turns out I wanted to experience things like Thor fucking shit up in slow motion to the thundering accompaniment of Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song”, Thor shooting old jolts of electricity like he’s in a Cannon movie from 1986, and Taiki Waititi as a blue rock monster who’s a fierce warrior but more importantly, very friendly and polite, and just a pleasure to be around. As in What We Do In Shadows, Waititi is playing a monster whose defining feature might be their surprising but refreshing niceness.
Thor: Ragnorak is genuinely sexy in a way that’s rare for superhero movies. But its ripe sensuality marks another way in which it deviates from the Marvel/superhero mode, or Suicide Squad's conception of sensuality, which revolved around filming much of the film with the camera somewhere deep inside Margot Robbie's backside.
Thor: Ragnarok sexualizes its male characters as much, if not more, than its female characters. Thor is a big, beautiful, perfectly muscled slab of superhuman beefcake the camera loves ogling. He’s masculinity in its purest, ruggedest form (with the possible exception of the Incredible Hulk) but otherwise the movie embraces a funky pansexual sexuality that purposefully blurs the lines separating genders and sexuality.
Blanchett plays Hela as both a malevolent force of nature but also an ice-cold Sex God, someone it would be a weird, kinky pleasure to prostrate yourself before as your ultimate ruler.
The phrase “badass” has been cheapened to the point where it now applies to anyone who does anything even remotely impressive. It’s no longer reserved for, say, fearless women like Asia Argento, who helped bring down a preeminent Hollywood monster at great personal cost to her life and career. All you pretty much have to do is bake cookies without burning them to earn the title of “badass” these days.
But Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie not only meets the old standard of badass (when it was saved for women like Grace Jones, Eartha Kitt and Joan Jett) she exceeds it. I’m far too old and too exhausted to fall in love with fictional characters anymore, but I might have developed at least a minor crush on most of the characters in Thor: Ragnarok, female, male and rock monster alike.
I hadn’t realized how badly I wanted Jeff Goldblum to be part of the Marvel universe until he was cast in Thor: Ragnarok as an outer-space showman and full-time degenerate who’s fifty percent intergalactic Don King, fifty percent Caligula in outer space and one hundred percent Jeff Goldblum gleeful eccentricity. In one of the many killer details separating Ragnarok from every superhero movie ever made, we learn late in the film that a vessel the self-fashioned “Revengers” steal from Goldblum's character is specifically designed to host orgies. Oh, how I'd love for Marvel to reprise its "One Shot" short film program for a Ragnarok prequel explaining the origins and creation of Grandmaster's orgy ship.
In outer space everything seems to be a whole lot more gender-fluid. Heterosexuality in superhero movies has gotten super fucking boring. Oppressive whiteness in superhero movies is super-fucking boring. It’s a delight to see the comic book world reflect the outside world and grow more fascinatingly and encouragingly diverse even as the real-world backlash against diversity and progress grows more pronounced and horrifying by the day.
There are so many awesome actors and great characters in Thor: Ragnorak that when Idris Elba shows up deep into the film, reprising his character from the over-achieving yet vastly inferior first two entries in this series, it almost feels like too much awesomeness. It almost feels like too much of a good thing, too many amazing actors for even a movie this ridiculously over-stuffed to contain or handle. And, to be fair, the Asgard elements are the film’s most serious and least compelling elements.
I enjoyed Transformers: The Last Knight star Anthony Hopkins—he’s the one who told us that Harriet Tubman worked with the Autbobots, secure in the knowledge that unless you’re Harvey Weinstein, the Academy can’t touch you—as Odin most when Loki, ever the trickster, is inhabiting his body yet portraying him less as he actually was than as a Norse mythological version of Futurama’s Hedonismbot.
The Shakespeare-for-comic-books palace intrigue of the battle for control of Asgard, never the most riveting corner of the Marvel universe, feels particularly ponderous alongside the 1980s Nagel-on-Ecstasy neon spectacle and goofy humor. Thor: Ragnorak is audacious enough to pretty much be a flat-out science fiction comedy with elements of grand mythology thrown in and on that level, it’s a goofy, giddy triumph.
Now that I finally have a strong opinion on a movie everyone is talking about it falls upon me to take to the message boards of the internet to impress upon the ignorant masses why any viewpoint that deviates from my own is not only wrong, but also inauthentic, and also the mark of a real hipster.
The flame wars that I shall get into defending my beloved Thor: Ragnarok shall take up most of time and energy in the weeks and months ahead, so don't be surprised if I stop posting articles here so I can spend hours dog-fighting with strangers about a silly comic book movie. I will not rest until everyone who disagrees with me on the internet has been conclusively proven wrong in the eyes of God and man and publicly humiliated.
On second thought, maybe Scalding Hot Takes isn’t such a great idea. After all, I love movies, new and old, I just hate all the bullshit that comes along with them.
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