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Thor Ragnarok And Justice League– Who says superhero movies can’t be funny?
Early in Justice League, the new DC Comics juggernaut, Batman (Ben Affleck) is gathering his team of exiled, misfit superheroes to defeat a growing threat. Getting into Batman’s luxurious car, The Flash (Ezra Miller) wonders, “What are your superpowers again?” To which the Caped Crusader simply responds, “I’m rich.”
It’s a one-liner that echoes a similarly glib moment from Thor Ragnarok. You know, that other superhero spectacle of two weeks ago, from that other competing comic book universe, Marvel. In his third Thor movie, our main hero (Chris Hemsworth) finds himself captured on a remote planet as a gladiator combatant. He runs into his old pal Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and explains to his angry green friend what’s been going on since they last saw each other back on Earth. “I don’t hang with the Avengers anymore,” says the God of Thunder. “It all got too corporate.”
Both films are loud, cluttered and flabby. They are tonally helter-skelter, and loosely uninspired, undisciplined chaos. They are also self-referential, ironic and aim for laughs. Batman and Thor suffer from a sincerity complex.
From what moment did heroic fare feel compelled to become comedy?
This week, I had the rare, if ear-splitting, opportunity to watch, on the same day, both Thor Ragnarok and “Justice League.” Now that I have stopped shaking from the cumulative decibels of restless super-fights, I’ve wiped clean the stain of superfluous digital effects from the hard drive of my mind and I’ll try my best to answer that question.
For its part, Justice League seems bent on putting daylight between itself and DC’s previous doom-and-gloom downers like Suicide Squad, and the Zack Snyder-directed Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Man of Steel. All were almost universally panned. While Snyder also gets credit for directing Justice League, writer/director Joss Whedon, who put his witty stamp on Marvel’s The Avengers, was brought on to finish the job.
Whedon’s withdrawal to the other side (the DC series is run by Warner Bros.) ought to be called a corrective. Disney’s Marvel franchise formula — cram half dozen superheroes onto the big screen, add hijinks, more in-jokes, more yuk-yuk camaraderie (see Guardians of the Galaxy) — has now been brazenly applied to “Justice League.”
How can anyone blame “Justice League” for trying to evoke the wiseacre spirit of Marvel’s magic? In one early scene, Bruce Wayne is trying to recruit the bad boy, muscle-bound Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) for his dream team. Seeing Wayne wearing street clothes, Curry jokes, “Let me get this straight. You do this dressed like a bat? An actual bat?” Wayne’s deadpan returns: “It’s worked for 20 years in Gotham.” Unfortunately, the fun and games don’t.
To be sure, these superheroes are made to feel quirky, lived-in, three-dimensional. The Flash comes off as a skitchy, nerdy millennial who doesn’t understand the point of doing brunch. Trapped in a half-man, half-robot form, Cyborg (Ray Fisher) bares his angst and self-esteem problems up his sleeve. The only outlier here is Superman (Henry Cavill). Offed in Batman v Superman, it’s no spoiler to say that in Justice League the Man of Steel reappears from beyond the grave. Nevertheless, Cavill plays the role stiff as a dead man. As for Wonder Woman, we’ll soon get to her.
Over in the Marvel universe, by the first reel of Thor Ragnarok, not only have our hero’s trademark hammer and golden locks disappeared, but so has the entire superhero movie template. It is reported that director Taika Waititi, also directing the New Zealand vampire comedy “What We Do in the Shadows,” had his actors improvise most of their dialogues. It shows. Nearly every scene with Thor, Hulk and the mischievous Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has that campy “Hey guys, I just thought this up. By the way, we’re making a MOVIE!” wink-wink feel.
Sadly, it seems like no one is having much fun with the fare, especially Hemsworth. The same goes to Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose insane gravitas gets wasted in an extremely brief appearance. Even villainess Hela (Cate Blanchett), The God of Thunder’s older sister, looks bored, fresh from her imprisonment and aiming to rule over Asgard with her army of re-animated Viking warriors. The only characters stuck playing it straight are Odin (Anthony Hopkins), Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Skurge (Karl Urban).
Perhaps it’s just me, but superheroes seem to be not as funny as these moviemakers want them to be.
Not laughing? Then amp up the visuals. If Justice League has lightened up its footage a few f-stops compared to previous DC movies, Thor Ragnarok takes on the foot-candle intensity of a thousand suns. More Willy Wonka than Nordic franchise, every candy-colored outfit and set piece is bathed in a flashy, artificial glow. When the action surrounds a kaleidoscopic garbage dump planet where Thor and Hulk meet each other again, called Sakaar, the luminosity and color palette go supernova.
While few and far between, more emotionally satisfying moments in Thor Ragnarok almost pack a real punch, almost. There’s a flashback that explains why Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), now driven to drinking and depression, once fought for what she believed in: to defeat Hela, the Asgardian goddess of death. In that moment, and briefly in the final battle set to the thundering war-cry of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” the flick taps into the grandeur that Norse mythology can evoke.
But soon Thor Ragnarok reverts to joking. “I lost my hammer, like yesterday, so that’s still fresh,” explains Thor, the god of thunder, lightning and comedy. “Then I went on a journey of self-discovery.”
The other lesson from my Marvel-DC movie double-shot is this: stakes. Show me Thor, and I’m looking for heroics and hope, desperation and inspiration. I also want the thing that thwarts these goals — including inner torture and conflict. Who is Batman with no inner demons to battle? Who is Thor if he can bounce back from every body slam? Give me something to fight for, and something to lose.
I had hoped both these films would tap the more earnest mojo of this summer’s acclaimed “Wonder Woman.” Director Patty Jenkins didn’t shy away from sincerity, and managed to stir true emotion. Naive, but courageous, willing to fight for the weak, Princess Diana presented actual character development. The situation she faced felt plausible: a real World War I with just a smidgen of the supernatural. At the packed advance screening of Justice League, most of the biggest love was given to her. Writers: more Wonder Woman, please.
The other issue: Why should I feel invested in these apocalyptic plots when our heroes hardly take their foes seriously? Hela walks around spewing evil wisecracks with a pair of antlers on her head. In Justice League, the doom-bringer is a man called Steppenwolf. Mustering an undead army of moth-critters called Parademons — demogorgon, anyone? — the goat-horned, motion-capture video game baddie (Ciarán Hinds) hunts for three magic boxes, long hidden away, that throb with super bad energy. But what are Steppenwolf’s reasons for domination?
Because, you know, he likes covering the world with dark tendrils of CGI stuff. Villains whose own motives are increasingly preposterous, and who unleash hoards of monsters about as substantial as digital air bags, are as pointless as heroes with nothing to fight for.
As Hulk/Bruce Banner is flaunting a Duran Duran “Rio” album T-shirt, and the giant mythological wolf Fenris alongside an army of the undead are attacked by lasers and AK-47s on Asgard, suffice it to say, it’s impossible to get your bearings. Indeed, seeing both movies on the same day, I was struck by how the world-ending tales melded, remained interchangeable in my mind.
It’s all enough to long for the simple times of superhero yore. Don’t worry, the writers of Justice League are already there. “One misses the days when one’s biggest concerns were exploding, wind-up penguins,” quips Alfred, Batman’s trusty butler and technology guru (Jeremy Irons). We’re already nostalgic for the 1992 Tim Burton-directed Batman Returns.
Some fans might be pleased by the DC reunion. I did appreciate the Easter eggs. In one sequence, we get a glimpse at the “Metropolis Post” with the headline, “Did They Return to Their Planet? Mysterious Wave of Disappearing Heroes,” above pictures of David Bowie, Superman and Prince.
Still, haunting Justice League is this prescient exchange: Back in the Batcave after a bruising brawl, Wonder Woman says, “You can’t keep doing this forever” to a worn-out Batman, who responds, “I can barely do it now.”
That’s right DC and Marvel, you can’t keep doing this forever.
For the moment, DC fans, stay tuned for Aquaman in 2018; Marvel fans, be anticipated for Black Panther, and don’t forget Avengers Infinity War, where the world of Thor and Iron Man, et al, collides with Guardians of the Galaxy.
It’s only a matter of time before DC is consumed by the void of Disney, and the Star Wars universe emerges with Marvel, and all this superhero fare explodes and disintegrates and goes back into star dust.
Then, it will probably be time to hang up the cape, relinquish the hammer and give up the ghost.
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