Holidays and breaks are the perfect time to sit down to a double-feature. Way back when, double-features were purposely paired, and I like to try and keep that tradition on the rare occasions I have the time (and money), so this holiday season it was Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League.
I started with my 1010am showing of Thor: Ragnarok and I went in with super low expectations. I like Thor, I love Norse mythology, but Thor has always been the butt of the joke, even in his own movies. He’s the caricature, the beefcake, the thing others make fun of. Don’t get me wrong- I love the other Thor movies, I tear up everytime I hear Anthony Hopkins say “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” Loki is funny, and silly. Certainly the jokes Stark and Cap make about Thor are some of the most quotable in the entire MCU. Thor just never seen to live up to anything, and the movies seemed happy just shuffling along.
I don’t know much about Thor in the comics, other than Vincent D’Onofrio and Adventures in Babysitting, so I don’t know if he’s this much a joke in the comics, but the MCU movies have been happy to have him play the straight man to everyone else’s jokes. As with so much in Thor: Ragnarok, this concept is turned on its head. First, the film opens with Thor in a cage, talking to himself, but also narrating his own story, singing his own praises as a hero, which both points out the weakness of Thor in general, while showing the fun you can have with it. Which seems to have been the guiding principle with the whole movie. Every piece of it- the return of Loki, Tessa Thompson as the Valkyrie, the Hulk, all quickly acknowledges what we know and expect from a Thor movie, heck at this point from most Marvel movies, gives it to us, then moves onto more interesting things.
Thor’s internal monologue, which ties up in a non-answer Thor’s quest for the Infinity Stones (he doesn’t find them) is followed by a standoff against Surtur, who explains Ragnarok. Then is destroyed. It’s a fun fight to watch, the highlight of which, and is true of most of the movie, is the 1980s synth soundtrack. And I don’t say that to be snarky or disingenuous- the synth score is pure genius and used to absolute perfection. It doesn’t mean the movie isn’t any good, it means the synth score is Just. That. Good. The fight, with fun effects and cute comedic timing is nice, and cool, but again, it gives us what to expect, gets it out of the way, so we can get to the amazing, the inspired. In this case, a play of Loki’s demise where Loki is played by Matt Damon and Odin is Sam Neill, all performed over the top, for the real Loki still masquerading as Odin and his own entertainment. Taking great glee in his own propaganda and mouthing the lines he wrote. It’s gorgeous, it’s hysterical, and it’s a five minute bit. One thing the MCU has rightly been accused of lately is that their movies just DRAG on. Heavy, plodding, too weighed down. There are good bits but they’re tied together with mostly meh bits. Thor: Ragnarok is an answer to this, it shows that you don’t have to make movies like that.
Loki is ultimately revealed, Thor gets the truth out of him, and they go off in search of the Shady retirement home where Loki has stashed a bewitched Odin. If you saw the end scene of Doctor Strange, you know what comes next, and it’s again, a funny bit, that we expect to see– because OF COURSE Strange wouldn’t just let them land in New York and not do anything, and then we’re onto what we want to see, Odin warning his boys of impending doom and then shuffling off. Does it seem like that’s a lot? It is. And it’s barely the first thirty minutes. It’s one of the things that Taika Waititi did so well, the tightness, the leanness of the storytelling. It covers things just enough to keep the movie moving forward without feeling like we’re skipping over anything or missing anything. Waititi’s other piece of genius is his portrayal of Korg. No offense to Waititi, but I really got spooked, because Korg sounds just like Robin Williams as Mork and it was very weird to have that reaction every time Korg spoke.
Speeding right along- Thor and Loki face their previously unbeknownst sister Hela, lose a fight, and are separated while traveling the Bifrost. Thor ends up in a dump in a gladiator world run by Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster who is phenomenal in everything, but particularly fun in this. Thor ends up having to fight in the arena, where he meets Korg, another fighter, although he humbly states, just a warm-up for the real fights. It turns out the Grandmaster’s supreme champion the last couple of years has been the Hulk, but it’s the Hulk as we’ve never seen him. First, he’s articulate in a way we haven’t seen and funny, and second, we’ve never actually SEEN him this way, because he actually looks like Mark Ruffalo, as Banner, which is a nice change, because I love Ruffalo, but it also does something most portrayals of Hulk don’t do which is to visually emphasize the personality bleed through that happens between Banner and the Hulk. Chatty Hulk is a bit like a toddler, throwing tantrums and fits because Thor won’t be the type of friend he wants, and it’s a lot of fun to watch. Especially when you add Tessa Thompson as the drunk, traumatized Valkyrie is something new. She’s not an ideal, she’s not wooden, she’s not a stereotype. She’s fun, and complicated, and pals with the Hulk. Why? Don’t know. It’s not a story we get. But I bet it’s a fun one.
Eventually the gang (not the Revengers), Thor, Loki, the Valkyrie, and Hulk team up, and head home to Asgard to face Hela and get their world back. Fighting for truth, justice…oh wait, that’s the next movie. The third act in Asgard doesn’t go as we expect, first because Thor seems to actually grow up, face the reality that his job is to protect the people of Asgard, even if that means losing the physical place, but also because it literally blows up the norm. Thor can’t defeat Hela on his own, even with the not-called-Revengers. He can’t save Asgard. But in learning that his people are the real treasure, what’s important, the movie takes a turn from most of Thor’s plotlines.
All in all, it’s a lot of fun. Karl Urban, as much as I love him, is a bit formulaic– you pretty much spend the whole movie waiting for him to have his change of heart redemption. Idris Elba should have been in more of the movie, but then again, Idris Elba should be in more of all movies. Cate Blanchett is fine as Hela. She didn’t really need to do much to move the plot along, and she didn’t. All in all, it’s a fun, new, take on the character of Thor and his story. I’d love to see more stand alone MCU movies that tried such risks with their material. It pays off. And I’m totally buying that synth score.
Like Thor: Ragnarok, I went into Justice League with super low expectations. The last week has seen Cavill’s CGIed mustache removal lambasted on Twitter, the sexist revision of the Amazons’ costumes skewed, and Zack Snyder’s fans calling for a recount, or at least a director’s cut. With the home run Wonder Woman hit, and the total disaster of Batman v. Superman, it was anyone’s best as to what Justice League would turn out to be, and that was before Whedon took over as director, and reveals that Whedon was perhaps not the champion of women we thought he was. This was all separate from the drama coming from the actors– such as Gal Gadot’s insistence that Brett Ratner not be involved with future movies in light of his sexual misconduct, Ben Affleck’s wrong answer to sexual assault and misconduct reveals of the past few months and Jason Momoa’s history of making a rape joke at a Game of Thrones SDCC panel getting fresh light. More and more, I find it hard to separate the actor, from the screen, so I clearly, and for good reason, thought I was walking into a mess.
And I was delightfully wrong. Maybe because I had the laundry list of issues already (seriously, go read Sophie Petzal’s running commentary on Justice League and Cavill’s mustache, it’s gold) I knew what to be upset about and not. I’m still not sure why Cavill shot all his scenes in reshoots that required the mustache removal, but honestly, even in IMAX, I had a hard time seeing the issue, and I was really looking. Yes, the bare midriffs of the Amazons were sexist, and unnecessary, but in those scenes, it isn’t ALL the Amazons, which is both confusing, and heartening (I like to imagine a mostly female costume department silently rebelling). Snyder’s fans complaining about Whedon’s take, and the comedy, can go suck it. If the Marvel films have suffered from slow, ridiculous pacing, DC has suffered from living in a hole of darkness. From Man of Steel’s dark turn (which I liked, don’t @ me), to Batman’s always tortured, holy crap, get a life, to him and Superman hating everything it seems, DC has suffered from dark storylines, a lack of storytelling and set up (there totally should have been another Superman movie before Batman v. Superman where we got to see Superman become the character we all know and love), and a lack of clear direction. Wonder Woman is the exception I would argue because you let women tell a woman’s story and if you don’t believe me, because who believes women these days, ask any woman who saw Wonder Woman how different the movie going experience was. So Justice League’s comic bent wasn’t the answer to all of DC’s moviemaking issues, but it was a good start. The movie ran the risk of getting too muddled trying to introduce three new characters but it did it through good editing, which I would bet is Whedon’s hand as he is adept at huge casts that still manage to give equal shrift to all, and their stories.
The best part about Justice League is Aquaman, and I’m not just saying that because Jason Momoa is gorgeous, as are the tattoos, or because as a long-suffering Aquaman fan, it’s about time he got his due and taken seriously. The tattoos are gorgeous, and the way the armour matches it is pretty spectacular. I was excited about the Aquaman movie before, now I’m ecstatic. I’m a big fan of Grant Gustin as the Flash, (I’m still confused as to why DC won’t cash in on a known fanbase and revenue stream and don’t Smallville me, if they wanted to do the movies, they could, at this point with CW’s ridiculous viewing schedule, they could totally fit a full-length movie in there), so I was not excited about Ezra Miller. I still think he’s a weak part of the movie, bordering on annoying, but someone seems to have watched Spider-Man: Homecoming and realized you could dump the origin story but keep the wide eyed kid part of the narrative to try and do something different. The most annoying part about his Flash is the effects they used. They’re rubbish. It didn’t look like the Speedforce it was weird and odd and I didn’t like it.
Unsurprisingly, I loved Wonder Woman, and she has the best line: “Children, I work with children” because not only does this in one line (and again, I bet it was a Whedon thing) sum up her entire relationship forever with the Justice League, but it came as the period of a scene with some much needed humor amongst the too-stodgy male characters. I was also happy to see her take the reigns of Justice League, acting as the heart and center as she so often does. Likewise, the scenes between her and Batman are short, but powerful, especially when he accuses of being a coward, and not doing the heavy work of being in the public eye. I know a lot of people don’t like Affleck as Batman, but I really like him, even in the awful Batman V. Superman. He does a good job of showing the Dark Knight once he’s old, twenty years in, and broken in more ways than we’ve ever seen on the screen before. Justice League, rightly, also shows that as much as he can be a judgemental ass, as he was in Batman v. Superman, he’s also willing to die for the cause, and do what’s right. I hope rumors that he’s quitting aren’t true, I’d like to see him get his own film. This is the interesting Batman to me, and I’d like to see what stories he tells. I think DC is making the right decision in not forcing an ensemble movie again soon, and I look forward to the singletons that are to come, but to my surprise, Justice League made me look forward to the next time the gang gets back together.
All of this is not to say that there aren’t disappointments. Jesse Eisenberg should never be allowed on film ever. Like ever, ever. Certainly not anywhere near this franchise. He’s awful, he can’t act, and his Luthor is trash. On the flip side, I wanted more of Jeremy Irons as Alfred, but that’s always the case, and something to look forward to with Batman’s stand alone film. The flashback battle of Atlanteans and Amazons is a great set up for Aquaman, but also a huge tease as we see the Green Lanterns fighting alongside them all but there’s no mention of them afterwards. Also, Justice League has a glaring absence– Martian Man-Hunter, who would have been a much better fit to the opening than Cyborg who is not a character I’ve never found interesting or worth putting in a movie. That said, Ray Fisher did more with the character than I expected, but I still think leaving out Martian Man-Hunter, who is a founding member of the Justice League was a bad move.
Overall, I think I benefitted from my double feature. While the two hour plus, and two hour lengths made for a long day, it was nice to spend the day with old friends. So if you have some time to spare, I recommend heading out for a double feature.
Dr. Karra Shimabukuro, I loved parts of your article, but couldn’t disagree with you more when it comes to Momoa’s portrayal of Aquaman, as well as the quality of the film as a whole. Granted, I am not here to criticize your opinion because I respect it, but I think they missed the mark on so many characters, especially Aquaman. Again, though, I still think you wrote a great article.