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Waititi Sets Perfect Tone with Thor: Ragnarok

The Longbox Theory

lilposter[Warning: The following article contains spoilers!]
Thor: Ragnarok
is pure cinematic fun.
The movie owes as much to Midnight Run or Beverly Hills Cop as it does its predecessors in the MCU. Though Ant-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy films featured several comedic moments—all Marvel films have since the start, think Tony Stark’s constant snarky quips—this is the first movie in the franchise crafted primarily as a comedy. Some have fairly criticized Marvel’s films for using humor at inappropriate times, undercutting emotional moments by inserting a one-liner or slapstick gag in the midst of pathos, but Taika Waititi manages to avoid this pitfall.
It’s a matter of tone.

Recognizing that comic books are inherently funny and wholeheartedly embracing that fact, Waititi and his cast were free to craft a movie that feels fresh in a genre that’s showing wear and tear and is (possibly) generating audience fatigue. There’s still plenty of action, as well as poignancy. The latter comes as no surprise, given Waititi’s earlier indie film work (Boy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), which features dramatic tension and character development in the midst of all the humor. Many have wondered how the director got this gig, given a filmography with no big-budget credits, let alone straight dramas or action films. It’s clear that Kevin Feige and the studio bosses at Marvel recognize the need to evolve, and they studied Waititi’s CV carefully.

When Fox released Logan, many claimed that the superhero flick had reached its zenith and could only go down from there. The final chapter in Wolverine’s saga provided an ideal coda for the character, if not the genre itself. The film had gone places no one had imagined these movies would, in its depiction of violence, as well as the vivid consequences of that violence. The writers seemed to wrestle with opposing themes; glorifying ferocious action while wondering why, as a society, we get off on it.
Critics bought in, and started writing their obituaries for the superhero flick.
Deadpool had done profane, and despite having a similar irreverent vibe, most felt that the second Guardians film didn’t match the standard set by the first. And besides Wonder Woman, DC‘s films have been a thematically dark, overwrought slog of washed out colors, misplaced jokes that fall flat, and convoluted plots carried forward by irritating exposition. Perhaps it was time to throw dirt on the genre’s grave.

However, Marvel has been clever in their hires. The Russo brothers, Peyton Reed, Edgar Wright, and James Gunn had established backgrounds in comedy. Jon Favreau, who kick-started the MCU brand by directing the first two Iron Man films, was once an indie filmmaker with comedic chops. Each director approached the likely daunting task of making his first effects-filled blockbuster in his own way, but all followed the established formula of a reluctant protagonist’s journey to becoming a hero, sprinkling in light touches of comedy throughout the narrative when they felt it was necessary.

Freed of having to tell an origin story in the recent Spider-Man: Homecoming, Jon Watts was able to focus on developing the character and taking viewers into the psyche of the beloved hero. The film is as reminiscent of the work of the late, great, John Hughes as any superhero flick. Watts took the approach of making a “coming of age” story—full stop. The fact that the character has powers is beside the point. Wise choice, because it kept the focus where it should be, on Spider-Man. Focusing too much on plot devices only dilutes audience interest. Homecoming wasn’t a good film because the audience was curious about the Vulture’s big plans (he didn’t have any, which was a plus), it was good because Peter Parker grows and evolves in believable and engaging ways.

Homecoming had the right tone. It felt like a true Spider-Man film. The stakes were smaller (no world-ending alien invasions or cosmos reshaping) but personally significant. Peter could be funny, anxious and awkward. That’s what the best Spider-Man comic book stories are about; so it was refreshing to finally get a film that matched their tone. The superhero genre certainly will die soon if all the stories become formulaic and interchangeable. But before we sound the death knell, remember that people still successfully paint landscapes, sculpt the nude figure, and photograph portraits—and we enjoy new examples of all the above even though Monet, Michelangelo and Annie Leibovitz supposedly reached the pinnacle of these respective disciplines long ago.
There will always be a way to keep the material fresh and beguile an audience, if the creator dares to take a bold step in an unexpected direction.

Taika Waititi took the boldest step of all in making Thor: Ragnarok a comedy because, unlike Spider-Man, Thor isn’t a small-stakes, constantly quipping, street-level character. In fact, even though he incorporated dozens of deep-cut homages to the best of Jack Kirby and Walt Simonson’s runs on the book, the film is a stark contrast to the Thor comics Marvel is currently publishing. Unworthy Thor struggling with his place in the universe and questioning his right to call himself a god while his beloved hammer has chosen a new Thor? Rather than load the character with self-doubt and paralyze him, Waititi punctures his self-importance by having him take a pratfall whenever he gets preachy. Jason Aaron gives Unworthy Thor daddy issues and takes one of his arms? Movie Thor loses his three besties and his father, his hammer is smashed to bits, and he allows his homeland to burn to a crisp, leaving what’s left of his people homeless and displaced.
Did I mention he loses an eye?..
These are big stakes.
Yet because we’re laughing throughout the film, and the director has a deftly light touch, we may not immediately realize how much loss our protagonist actually suffers.

Waititi with some of his cast

Waititi with some of his cast

This could have backfired terribly in the hands of the wrong team. In subtle ways, Thor: Ragnarok is as much a comment about society and the film industry as Logan was. This third entry in the Thor franchise may be a comedy, but there are layers to peel away here, depth beneath the laughs. When Loki and Thor share an elevator ride and a heart to heart, Waititi avoids the trap of most Marvel films: Without belaboring the point, Thor explains how deeply Loki has hurt and disappointed him. Tom Hiddleston‘s reactions as Loki are an acting clinic, and the scene resonates with all the betrayals that have passed between them through four films. In recent Marvel movies, they would have broken the tension by immediately inserting a joke. Instead, Waititi lets it play out and linger. Though Thor eventually suggests a silly plan, the joke doesn’t appear until the next scene, and it speaks to a nostalgic pull both characters feel for simpler times when they were best friends as well as brothers, and not antagonists.

Thor: Ragnarok plays for laughs, but the scene in which Odin passes on, hums with intensity despite being such a simple shot—Loki and Thor beside Odin on a bare cliff in Norway. Though it visually recalls Frigga’s passing in the previous movie (Thor: The Dark World), with each disintegrating in a cloud of golden particles, it’s much more powerful and evocative than the Queen’s giant set piece of a funeral from the earlier film. The audience doesn’t laugh, nor does Waititi bail them out with a joke; instead choosing to let the scene roll on as Thor trembles with impotent fury and grief, and shock and guilt (perhaps even despair) pass through Loki for the first time in the franchise. This film is an excellent comedy, but Waititi is developing these characters. He wants us to laugh, but he also wants us to see and feel something a bit deeper than that.

The best comedy sneaks a message in among the laughs.
However, beyond plumbing hidden depths, Waititi reminds us that movies are supposed to be fun. We’re meant to be transported somewhere we’ve never been. We’re meant to feel time has flown by. I hope Marvel gets him to do more films. I hope all their directors analyze what makes this film great. Maybe the creative teams on the comics will take a hard look too, and remember that more than anything else, the books are supposed to be fun.
It’s a matter of tone…

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