Thursday, 26 October 2017

Mourning Mjolnir

History repeats ...tragedy... farce... something something. Yeah.

There's a bit at the beginning of the Force Awakens, where not-Leia gives the not-Death Star plans to not-R2D2, and then is immediately captured by not-Darth Vader. We've just seen a peaceful village massacred by stormtroopers, and a nice wise old man savagely chopped down by a scary powerful guy in a black mask, who has our brave not-Resistance fighter dragged before him. They look into each other's faces, the moment full of tension and danger, the audience already gripped by the compelling set-up and archetypal characters. That moment where they look at each other, the dark lord and his noble prisoner, the fires of the burning settlement reflecting off their faces/masks - it's grand, dark, in a word: epic. It's drawn out, the music builds.... And then our hero speaks:

"So who talks first? You talk first? I talk first?"

I don't even remember if anyone laughed when I saw it in the cinema. It's not that funny a line. But it is supposed to be a joke.

And suddenly, I thought: oh yeah, I'm watching a movie.

Honestly, why am I even writing this article? It's been said already by loads of people. Our glib approach to action and sci-fi movies is getting out of control. Wonder Woman was so great and refreshing for its sincerity and earnestness. Deadpool epitomises the nihilistic reddit obsession with picking apart and undermining every trope and genre. Pop culture has over-binged on bathos.

But I keep thinking about that line in the Force Awakens. Barely five minutes into the running time. And the pain on the face of one of the guys I watched it with, when we came out of the cinema. Star Wars should be protected, he said. Star Wars should be safe, off limits. Star Wars has to be real. If even Star Wars is reminding us that it is a movie, then where else do we have to truly escape? It was the pain of a child discovering Santa is your parents.

Thor: Ragnarok has 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. So I thought now would be a good opportunity to do something I have never before done in my whole entire life: complain about a Marvel movie.

The first Thor was about as classic and archetypal an origin story as you can get, devoting everything to its main theme of proving oneself a worthy hero. Thor 2 (tragedy, eh - see?) had some story problems but it still focused on sincere ideas of family and commitment. And now Thor the third totally and utterly embraces the status of farce.

The first act is devoted not only to undermining every artifice and 4th wall of the film itself, but also of the first two movies. In the very first minute of the movie, Thor summarises his history in the style of a cynical art-house foreign cinema hipster - exhibiting a contempt for his own character that is only reinforced by the filmmakers when we cut to a comic reveal that he is merely talking to himself. We immediately move, with no context, to the most transparent parody of a villain monologue. Just out of the blue. Let's make fun of comic book villains for no reason - right off the bat, as a nice little opening set-piece. Then we get to Asgard, only to discover that the sinister reveal of Loki having usurped the throne (at the end of the previous movie) is nothing but a fun side-show that is immediately dealt with simply by Thor's arrival.

Again, we mock the villain - not some random villain this time, but Loki, one of the most tormented and psychotic in the Marvel canon, the guy who gave us all goosebumps with his terrifying sociopathy in Avengers 1... dismissed as a silly little narcissist whose schemes amount to nothing more than a statue to himself and a play about how great he is. Har har.

The question for me arises: Why even make this movie if you think so little of superhero stories?

Were we so moronic when we were awed by these characters in previous movies, or similar ones in sagas through the ages? Is it really so childish to fear the trickster who mistakes subservience for respect? Even when he has control of the nuclear codes Bifröst?

This movie feels like a personal middle finger to Hiddleston himself, forced to undermine the gravity of his past performances. To the rest of us it is a simple taunt: "You thought Loki was a serious evil guy for trying to rule earth! NERD!"

Here's the thing: I really like Thor: Ragnarok. It's a fun movie. In the second act, Thor's descent and return is as richly executed as can be hoped. It makes you care about the story while still leaving room for japes. It's a fresh change of tone. Goodness knows I've never been a fan of super-serious Hollywood blockbusters, and it's great that Marvel were bright enough to go somewhere very different for this instalment.


This movie kills Thor. Thor is gone before the studio logo has time to fade. In place of a Norse god, we have a Chris. A modern action bro. Someone with cool repartee and "comedy chops". Can you imagine the Thor of Ragnarok commanding, as he does the last time we saw him in Age of Ultron, that "a victory should be honoured with revels", or asking the immortal question: "do I look to be in a gaming mood?" No, the Thor of Ragnarok would just say "are you kidding?" and pull a funny face. There is no Thor in Ragnarok. Just a Chris, a normal funny guy with big muscles who brings the thunder with a healthy side of banter. Switch him out with a Pine or a Pratt, you couldn't tell the difference. Everything distinctive is gone - the filmmakers didn't think it would add anything.

Thor, of course, is just the first casualty. We also lose evil Loki, as mentioned above, and then we proceed to quite literally lose Mjolnir, Odin, the Warriors Three (killed off with brutal disdain), and finally Asgard itself. We even lose the tantalising prospect of Neil Gaiman's awesome comic book anti-hero, Angela, the secret sister of Thor, since that role is simply handed for no particular reason to Hela, formerly Queen of Hel. (Did the studio chicken out of showing a non-Christian afterlife? Is that what happened here?)

Oh yeah, and Thor loses an eye without any story purpose whatsoever.

Am I a luddite for being concerned about this wanton devastation of the Thor universe, as if Marvel had unleashed a toddler into a lego model version? Am I the only one who finds it weird that Thor himself seems unaffected? Was I alone in my interest in a major Hollywood studio's decision to build a world out of ancient myths, and who is just a bit sad to see that experiment curtailed in favour of synthy neon sci-fi?

While I'm at it: am I the only one who is tired of bathos now? When Thor says "that's what heroes do", would it kill the movie to take that line seriously? It feels almost like a Pavlovian response at this point - any sincere message must be immediately undercut to reassure audiences that we're not really serious. It's ridiculously predictable at this point. Bruce was always going to fall flat on his face. Val was always going to stagger off her epic entrance platform. The result is that films like this don't have any message. They believe in nothing. They're all jest and no heart, as insubstantial as Loki's holograms.

Taika: there's a difference between fun and manic nihilism.

It's hard to complain when it's such a good movie. Marvel has made worse movies that I have defended. I just think there's so much more to be had from a Thor taken seriously. From a Thor who continues to smash his coffee mug when he wants a refill. If there's anything we should have learned from Roger Moore's Bond tenure, it's that you can make a good movie when you parody yourself, but rarely more than one. Something is lost along the way. A laugh fades, but a true hero that accepts her own corniness can become iconic. I don't know if I will remember this movie when I look back in ten years, whereas the image of a lost son trying to lift his hammer in the pouring rain will be an inspiration forever.

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