“Thor: Ragnarok” is a passionless apocalypse, but revealing

Summary: Thor: Ragnarok is a fun, shallow, passionless film. Good to fill an empty afternoon, but a waste of potentially great mythic material. Like all our blockbuster films, it provides a mirror in which we can more clearly see how the West is evolving.

Thor Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok is a fun film. Like most recent blockbusters, the plot makes little sense. Naturally so for T:R, since the writers appear to have regarded the material as a joke. The critics hated those superhero films about duty and heroism, and love their evolution into comedy with Ant-Man and Guardians Of The Galaxy. With their usual group-think, almost all applaud Thor: Ragnarok as a goof on the title character and the genre.

This is a competently executed film. Good direction, skilled actors, and Hollywood’s typically fine CGI. The writing is its weakness. The plot is often slow and sometimes idiotic. Worse is the sometimes-weird dialogue. Thor III is an odd combination of comedy and tragedy. It worked for Shakespeare, but melding these was beyond the skill of its writers. The result: the major characters often seem to have a casual or lighthearted attitude even in scenes of sad or horrific events (much like the officers in “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, in the Enterprise’s bridge watching events with the mild interest of a suburban family watching a sitcom during dinner).

That is also true of the film’s plot and character arcs, drawn almost without emotion or involvement of the writers or actors. For instance, Bruce Banner — one of the most interesting people in comics — suffers a sad fate without a tear or even acknowledgement by his “friend.” Ditto for the fate of the great city of Asgard, with its wonders and glorious history.

Thor: Ragnarok

It’s a mirror showing our loss of confidence in institutions

Blockbuster films are mirrors in which we can more easily see ourselves, with our values. hopes and fears magnified on the big screen.

For instance, femininity is not valued in our increasingly feminist-run society. (In my 15 years as a Boy Scout leader, I never heard a dad speak more proudly of a child than when boasting that his daughter was a tomboy.) So Natalie Portman, playing Thor’s love interest Jane Foster, was dumped for a woman with the most valued of traits in a woman in modern cinema: being a kick-ass — with Tessa Thompson as a Valkyrie (and bisexual) warrior. The comics have gone all the way and had Jane Foster become Thor.

A larger example is the treatment in modern films of institutions that maintain order. Mild spoilers ahead! They are corrupted or destroyed, or corrupted and destroyed. In its second film, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, the organization is outlawed and destroyed. In its second film, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, the organization’s people and bases are destroyed. In its second major film appearance, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, SHIELD is revealed as both evil and totally infiltrated by HYDRA (we do not learn what happens next; hopefully it is closed down). The international law enforcement agency, UNCLE, does not even appear in the film The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (except in a cameo at the very end). In the Thor films Asgard was a protector of the Nine Worlds. It suffers a cruel fate in the film, leaving its people in a sad situation.

This is us today. Loss of faith in our institutions. Uninterested in making them work. Passive while fantasizing about rogue individuals saving us. Hollywood makes films that tap this belief. Unfortunately, we act on this belief as well. Instead of shaping organizations, like unions and political parties, through which we can act — we elect lone heroes to Washington. Obama was the Left’s Lone Ranger, a marginally effective President who left the Democratic Party a shambles. The Right then elected their Lone Ranger, ineffective and doing the same to the Republican Party.

All this is part of a larger and more serious trend. See Why have our movies become so dark, showing a government so evil?

Comic books used to help teach children our culture’s values, and provide a space to see their values and fears clash — and see a hopeful resolution. Comic books no longer do so. The films based on them are perhaps worse, exulting in a rebellious individualism. They ignore or mock collective action — through groups or institutions — which is our only path to strength in this perilous world.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about heroes, about book, film, & TV reviews, especially these…

  1. The problem with America lies in our choice of heroes.
  2. Are our film heroes leading us to the future, or signaling despair?
  3. We like superheroes because we’re weak. Let’s use other myths to become strong.
  4. Hollywood’s Hero Deficit – both a cause and symptom of our weakness.
  5. Our biggest films reveal dark truths about us.
  6. The horrifying list of inspirational films about humanity building a better future.
  7. An America without heroes. We’ll miss them.
  8. Captain America: the Winter Soldier – high-quality indoctrination for sheep.

The trailer to Thor Ragnarok

 

21 thoughts on ““Thor: Ragnarok” is a passionless apocalypse, but revealing

  1. “superhero films about duty and heroism”

    Other than a passing reference in Spiderman (“With great power comes great responsibility”), I can’t think of a single superhero film in the last 20 years that mentions anything about duty. Heroism, at least as defined as starting a fight nobody else could survive, is a big thing in all the recent superhero movies. Which is why the writers keep doing horrible things to the organizations that recruit superheros.

    I have some small hope that Black Panther will rise at least a little way above the current remarkably mediocre crop superhero films. But I’ll be surprised if that hope wasn’t ruthlessly crushed in the first act of the film.

    1. Pluto,

      The original Spiderman films (2002, 2004, 2007), the first season of “Smallville” on TV, the first Captain America film — all had duty as their central theme.

      “Heroism, at least as defined as starting a fight nobody else could survive,”

      Lots of bar fights fit that description. Every weekend emergency rooms in Appalachia and our inner cities overflow with “heroes” by that definition. Often with high levels of blood alcohol or drugs.

      Heroes are usually defined as people admired for their courage and other noble qualities when putting themselves at risk for higher goals than their personal welfare and benefit. Superhero films have this, but only in the sense of lone — often rogue — heroes. Fun to watch, but provide little for us as models to emulate. We can hope for a flying two-fisted Jesus-figure to save us, but will hope in vain.

    2. Mystery Men had duty as one of its themes, and working class super heroes going about their work with no credit or appreciation. Now I’m not sure more than 3 people saw or remember it, but that’s besides the point.

  2. I won’t dispute your review because I haven’t seen it, and don”t plan to. I’m sure you’ve hit close to the mark. Most superhero movies bore me, although there are exceptions. I liked the very first Batman, and I enjoyed the one where Heath Ledger played the Joker. I liked the first Iron Man and the first Spider Man.

    TV did better supers back in the days. The old Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno Incredible Hulk was fun. My favorite superhero (And I’m not sure this one counts) was The Six Million Dollar Man. (A lot more fun than the Martin Caidin novel on which it was based, IMHO.) And The Greatest American Hero was good, In this age of remakes and reboots, I don’t understand why no one has dusted that one off. Maybe because there would be no replacing Robert Culp.

    I think one reason why these movies depict the government as evil may be that Hollywood aims a lot at the overseas market, and Hollywood is playing to an audience that is eager to think the worst about America. Or maybe these people are just decadent and waiting for the barbarians to show up.

    1. The Man,

      “Hollywood is playing to an audience that is eager to think the worst about America.”

      This theme predates the emphasis on international markets, and is vividly seen in TV shows marketed largely to a US audience.

    2. The Six Million Dollar Man:
      – possesses superhuman powers
      – protects innocent people (and sometimes animals)
      – fights dangerous people, including others with superhuman powers
      – ends up in really far-out situations (including rescuing stranded aliens)

      Steve Austin, Bionic Man, is DEFINITELY a superhero. And a pretty good one, too.

    3. Tice,

      I believe we are all agreed that there are lots of superheroes in our films and TV, in the usual sense of the term. The question I raise in this post is about their role as individuals or even rogues.

      Steve Austin’s Bionic Man (1973-78) is an older kind of hero — who works as part of an effective and good organization. The kind that has almost (almost) disappeared from American screens these days.

    4. Larry,

      I didn’t mean to disagree with you. I just wanted to reassure The Man Who Laughs that yes, “The Six Million Dollar Man” is very much in the superhero genre. Which makes it, as you noticed, one more data point in the pattern of the way superheroes used to be, but aren’t anymore.

  3. You can still find the more hopeful stuff, but these days it comes out of Tokyo rather than Hollywood. My Generation (Millenials) is probably defined by this kind of influence.

    1. FDW,

      Can you recommend some English-language films from Japan that are hopeful. The last Japanese film I watched stared Godzilla.

    2. Films? I was talking about Media in general, more specifically Japanese comics, know as Manga. There’s so much more in terms of variety compared to mainstream stuff.

      The series that I would recommend as an example of what I’m talking about would be Space Brothers (Uchuu Kyoudai). I specifically recommend the comic, and not its animated or live action adaptations. Though the Comic is extremely long (over 300 chapters), and the art is kind of weird, the writing is awesome. The author clearly does the research on the subject (look up the bus route operating from Houston’s Airport to downtown, that’s how far the author goes), and does a damn job at making an engaging and interesting cast.

      I’m not sure how much it’ll resonate with you, but it’s certainly a series that I have a fond memories of (Well, technically it’s not over yet). But you can find it online, in English if you’re interested.

    3. FDW,

      Thank you for the recommendations! It’s a new world, only tiny slivers of which I’ve explored (or even know of).

    4. No problem.

      And by the way, there are a couple of tips I forgot to mention. If you’re getting the series from the official source, I recommend buying the Volumes, not the Chapters. The Volumes are collections of the chapters, and they’re usually a better deal than getting the chapters alone. The other thing is to keep in mind that Japanese comics read right to left.

  4. In the movie “Captain America, Civil War”… your topic was the main theme: what to do with rogue heroes like “Captain America and friends” who are not willing to comply to the rules of the governmental institutions like “Iron man and friends” are willing to do. I think the movie ” Superman vs Batman” handled a similar central theme…

    As for the Thor movies… One of the central themes in the Thor movie is the love/hate relationship between the two brothers (one adopted)… Thor and Loki…Brotherly love, envy, hate, heartbreak, temporary reconciliation, betrayal, mutual acceptance. The institution topic was not the main theme.

    About female love interest. In the two previous Thor movies, Thor choose a frail feminine pretty earthwoman (not from his “realm”) with smart scientific brains above ” fellow space viking” badass tomboy Sif… So been there, done that. No real romance in “Thor Ragnarok” though… too much was already going on in the movie.

    As I am also from the “6 million dollars man” generation… It took me a while before getting used to the modern movies with “flawed heroes” and “heroic villains”…

    1. Ikie,

      “In the movie “Captain America, Civil War”… your topic was the main theme: what to do with rogue heroes”

      I have never seen or written about “Civil War” or the theme you describe. It is an important point, but mine is more fundamental. Our fiction valorizes individuals over group/institutional effort. From what I’ve read, that’s the backdrop to “Civil War” — and attempt to institutionalize superheroes. Since this is a child-like fiction, having superpowered beings running around destroying things is considered an acceptable belief.

      “As for the Thor movies …. The institution topic was not the main theme.”

      I didn’t say it was. Rather, I said the valorization of individuals – seen in the destruction of institutions, such as Asgard — is the foundational belief for almost all superhero films.

      “No real romance in “Thor Ragnarok” though… ”

      Again, your are missing my point. I was referring to the type of woman portrayed. Their roles in the film are irrelevant to this. They can be active, advisors, or love-interests. But what they can’t be is traditional feminine women. Test: change the names in the script to a male or gender-neutral name — can you identify the gender of the characters? In the past, usually so. Now, increasingly seldom. Or more accurately, they are mostly or all most like traditional males. Now those roles are filled by men or women dressed like men, acting like men — sometimes with boobs and/or long hair.

  5. I don’t think this movie is for fans of Shakespeare. What I mean is, if your comparing Thor to Shakespeare your missing the point of the movie. All that awkwardness was because of ad lib comedy. Should we compare Will Farrell to Shakespeare?
    Lastly, your notion that comic books used to stand for something is wrong. Did you read all the comic books? No, just the ones you liked. You like ones that stand for something.
    Your review is simple. Should I compare your review to Shakespeare?

    1. Eric,

      “Lastly, your notion that comic books used to stand for something is wrong.”

      Many of the people who write them disagree with you. If you look at the writings of fan, millions of them pasionately disagree with you. These films have revenues of hundreds of millions of dollars each because they are our myths. Scholars who study myths — it is a large and vibrant field of study — strongly disagree with you. In other words, popular entertainment is a mirror in which we can more easily see ourselves.

      “I don’t think this movie is for fans of Shakespeare.”

      You are missing the point. Shakespeare is used at a common benchmark: a widely understood point of comparison. To say that a writer could not do what Shakespeare does is a way of saying that this task is difficult but possible for people with the highest level of skill. Much like saying “don’t try this at home.”

      “Your review is simple.”

      Would you have read it if it was deep and comprehensive 10,000 words?

      “Should I compare your review to Shakespeare?”

      Please do. That would be useful. I suspect you will discover that doing so a difficult but useful exercise.

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