November 27, 2017
Thor: Ragnarok is a riveting buddy-cop film disguised as an inter-dimensional apocalyptic romp through the MCU! Wait, wait, no it isn’t. It sucks, but admittedly it’s some of the best Marvel has done, if only through persistent distillation… We’ll get back to that. What we’re dealing with at this point is a constructed spectacle. In his 1967 work The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Dubord wrote that the decline of contemporary life is a process by which the lived experience of being is changed, transmuted really, into an experience of having: Commodification, in other words. This is a necessity for companies that make serialized art like Marvel, and companies that make toys and other crap like Disney. Comics have long been a fixture of popular culture or counterculture (of course, also subculture). Animation, comic strips, pulp comics, even something so seemingly divorced from this narrative as manga: Necessarily commodities. We’re not talking about Windsor McKee’s diary, we’re talking about works made to be sold, and to be distributed. As such, comics rely on spectacle: Giant robots, lasers, talking pterodactyls, inter-dimensional wizards, and ripped wonder boys and mary sues in tight outfits.
The nature of sequential art, particularly static sequential art, forces artists and authors to make a point quickly, to use iconographic shorthand like explosions, walking into the sunset, a long shadow across the face of a villain for the more elucidated strokes of someone writing a book. The heretofore redeeming quality of comics, at least before Disney got a hold of them, was that the schlock was superficial and apparent, i.e. part of the appeal (and if not, we called it a “graphic novel”). When Disney bought Marvel and started designing the cinematic universe roll-out, they clearly intended to create a fairly epic/serious franchise. Say what you will about the Iron man films, Captain America, and so on: They are meant to be AAA blockbusters. At first, the sheer budget, star power, and polish of these (circa. 2008) was enough to blind audiences to the fact that the character development was fairly thin, the plots don’t really make a lot of sense (this is more forgivable in comics), and that the story arcs don’t fit neatly into the 2.5 hour time frame. Once we hit Antman, the luster began to peel back like the burnshield of a lunar lander upon re-entry, for me at least. Fast-forward to Fall 2017, Thor: Ragnorok the 17th (!!!) movie, the fifth in so-called “Phase 3”: Disney builds spectacle upon spectacle, and despite finally introducing some interesting characters (I cannot WAIT to see Black Panther), they’ve stacked so much hollow bullshit on top of itself that we are reduced to parsing every scene through Disney’s beloved clown archetype in the form of Korg (played by the film’s lovable director, Taika Waititi). These clown characters are necessary in some cases to accommodate bad writing (see George Lucas’ R2-D2 and C-3PO), but must a new one appear in literally EVERY Marvel property? Really? It must be syntactically necessary to defuse some of the over-earnest carnival tricks Disney uses to punctuate the paper-thin plots, true, but it also takes us back to ancient theater tropes in which the plots were explained to the unwashed masses by the chorus- because the plebeians could neither read nor write, and presumably did not have access to anything better.
All this to cover for the clear lack of beginning, middle, and end. There is no end. Disney is going to ride this show pony until it gives out under the weight of the audience’s inevitable boredom. The plot to Thor, if I’m being honest, feels like listening to a coke-addled 80’s writer pitch the plot to an interstellar Dolph Lundgren film. Despite the epic heavy metal set pieces steeped in Led Zeppelin ballads in which each hero (Thor, Valkyrie, even Skurge) descend from the heavens knee-first into a teeming pile of enemy bodies, the film makes no sense. Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, optimistically, is meant to be an ecstatic motif, one which is apropos for a movie, based on a comic, based on a tenuous grasp of Norse mythology, and is certainly in the tradition of the Prose Edda (if nothing else). That’s the positive-patty in this shit sandwich of an enterprise.
My question at this point: Why do we need to construct a self-contained cinematic universe in which to situate these movies? Is it, perhaps, because the logic necessary to appreciate these works can only exist in a gated system? That outside this system, the superficial aesthetics and ill-considered plot motifs of the films ring false? Case in point: “dragon anus” (spoilers). Someone consciously decided to call the giant vortex above Sakaar the “DRAGON ANUS” (metaphorically, of course). As in, someone actually wrote that into a script, someone else approved it, and then multiple actors (including Jeff Goldblum) actually spoke those words. The only way this small detail can make it outside of a Seth Rogan movie is if it is buttressed by a series of interconnected marketing, production, and merchandising plugged directly into our dopamine receptors and reinforced through nearly ubiquitous cultural presence, such that we no longer care WHAT we are watching. We are satisfied, it seems, THAT we are watching a Marvel movie, and I guess that’s enough for many of us.
As much as I appreciate Waititi’s efforts to create a diverse cast, and to make this film more fun than it should be given the distinct parts, I still can’t take my eye off the broader picture. I pick this specific hill on which to die, not because I think Thor: Ragnarok is the worst Marvel film, but because it is clearly one of the best. This is horrifying for criticism. If this film came out on its own without the benefit of the Marvel cinematic universe, it would MAYBE be solidly mediocre. The problem is that the extended universe causes us to forgive so much of the shorthand utilized to build these half-assed arcs, that we tend to forget how abbreviated the actual content is. We are so at home with the subject matter, that it feels almost petty or perhaps even cruel to criticize the very bricks that form the foundation of geekery’s ascendant superstructure. Just for a moment, imagine seeing this movie without the “benefit” of the MCU. What would the effect be? You wouldn’t know who Hulk is, who Thor is, why he and Loki are hanging out, why Loki is disguised as Odin, why Hulk is on a planet other than Earth, or even who the fuck Hulk is. We have all the information BEFORE we go into the theater, and this allows directors and producers to cut straight to the spectacle without paying much attention to what actually makes movies interesting or you know… worth watching. I’m not saying that every movie has to be self-contained, or that every movie needs to be “good” by some arbitrary/subjective standard, but I am suggesting that perhaps this feedback loop Disney has set up with Marvel films is harmful to the overall project of art, which is to provoke discourse, new ideas, to provide the opportunity for imagination, understanding, and introspection. What opportunity exists in a landscape relegated to cameos and telling every possible story, breathlessly, not to mention beating to death every compelling concept with the nearest MacGuffin until it is unrecognizable as either compelling OR even really a distinct “idea.” The whole enterprise of the MCU lands somewhere between naive/disingenuous Disney utopianism and cynical/nihilistic corporate consolidation of leisure-time profits. Each movie is a prefabricated block of yellow sponge cake, which is iced and embellished for the purposes of a given movie. There are no substantive differences between many of these films, and it’s beginning to wear on my psyche. I think Black Panther will be the last Marvel movie I see, and I’m not kidding.