The stylish director helms a zippy space adventure—until franchise mythology gets in the way.
An idiosyncratic, somewhat fledgling director being handed the reins of one of Marvel’s big light shows can, in a way, feel like a triumph. A budding auteur has gotten the summons from Hollywood—a glorious career boost for them, indeed. But also it’s good for us; it means our superhero movies—which are just a part of life now, and we must accept them—will be better, crafted by more thoughtful hands than some paycheck-mad, blow-’em-up hack’s. Everybody wins!
And to some extent, that has been proven true. Marvel has shown ingenuity by hiring directors with distinct points of view, and reaped rewards from it, be it Joeand Anthony Russo deftly handling the Captain America films, or Jon Wattsgiving us a surprisingly endearing Spider-Man relaunch, or James Gunn leaving horror-comedy behind to give witty life to Guardians of the Galaxy. Those films are all far better than they might have been had some dutiful company man been tasked to bring the ship into port with the help of a fleet of studio tugs. (Just go with the metaphor.)
Watching Marvel’s newest installment, the bright and antic Thor Ragnarok, made me feel something other than victor, though. Directed by cult-favorite New Zealand director Taika Waititi, Thor Ragnarok is silly and fun and zippy, a great showcase for star Chris Hemsworth’s increasingly reliable humor, and a solid introduction for Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie and some other spirited supporting characters. It’s a fine diversion, and ably carries the Marvel torch before it’s passed to Black Panther (and then to Avengers Infinity War, Part 1, and then to Ant-Man and the Wasp,etc.). Yet the film is entertaining enough, and Waititi delivers enough moxie and silliness wit throughout the film, that rather than feeling glad that he’d been hired to direct the film, I felt a little sad that he had to bother at all.
Meaning: hopefully, Thor Ragnarok will become a huge hit and will write Waititi a blank check to do whatever flight of prickly whimsy he wants to do later on. For that, it was probably all worth it. But watching Ragnarok, I was struck by the assimilating, Borg-esque aspect of this whole Marvel enterprise—the way it absorbs filmmakers’ talents, compacting them all into the house style. It’s almost aggressive from that aspect, how they looked for interesting directors and force them to bend to their will. At least Thor Ragnarok features what looks a little bit like revolution.
Half-ish of the movie takes place on a distant garbage planet ruled by Jeff Goldblum’s delightfully loopy Grandmaster, an ageless being who spends his time toying with various collected creatures in a gladiatorial arena. Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston, his acid-green glow dimmed some, now that he’s done this shtick four times) find themselves on this planet through circumstances both complicated and not complicated at all—the point is they get there. While Thor Ragnarok is exploring this bizarre place and its inhabitants—including an adorable weird rock monster voiced by Waititi, whom I’d love to see in a buddy comedy next to Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape—the film has gleeful bounce. It’s an arch and winking cousin, or companion piece, to Guardians of the Galaxy, with a tone and verve all its own.
But the issue here is that this is a Thor entry, and a direct fragment of the Avengers continuity—so Waititi must ultimately pull his attention away from all this playing and finish his mythology homework. Enter Cate Blanchett as Hela, the goddess of death and heretofore unknown first child of Odin (Anthony Hopkins, so very tired), who is hella bent on taking control of Asgard (Thor’s home planet) and turning its people into a violent, colonial warrior race again. Sigh. I can’t believe I’m saying that the Cate Blanchett-as-villain parts were my least favorite parts of a movie, but there it is. These parts are just so nimble and familiar, with all their slow-motion battling and deus-ex-machina solutions and complete lack of stakes.
We have to give props to the film, even though we know that Hela will somehow be defeated and Thor will win, how she’s defeated and how he wins do really have some reverberating effects that will alter the physics of the Avengers universe. But still, for the most part, we know how this all goes, and the scenes on Asgard have a bored, perfunctory limpness. Even Hela’s villain one-liners, which again are blasted by Cate freaking Blanchett, are not entirely genuine and strong. (The script was written by Eric Pearson and Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost.) All this “I will destroy [blank]!” stuff, all the superhero self-actualization stuff . . . it’s either not interesting to Waititi, or it’s just not his ken. Whatever the reason, Ragnarok sags when it actually has to be a true, hardcore Marvel movie.
Which brings me back to asking myself whether or not these kind of hip, indie moviemakers getting dragged into this process is always, or ever, a good thing. Right across the Disney lot (or next door; I’ve never been), Lucasfilm is having its trouble with auteurs, firing young indie directors and replacing them with the likes of Ron Howard. Which could cause its own set of issues—recklessness changed for a safe bet. But at least the original Han Solo prequel directors, Christopher Millerand Phil Lord, are free to do something outside the strictures of this particularly intricate studio scheme. (As for the other fired Star Wars director, let’s just say I’m less eager to see what Colin Trevorrow does next.)
I have a similar wish for Waititi. Maybe he had a blast producing Thor Ragnarok, which is showed by some of the film’s airier, more delightful stretches. But I’d much rather see something that’s entirely his, rather than Marvel draining him for his resources and funneling them into the irradiated slurry that fuels all these work. Perhaps this major superhero endeavor—which, again, Waititi more than half pulls off—indicates that he has written his ticket. Here’s hoping he’ll use it to get as far away from Asgard he can.