Thor: Ragnarok, or Shakespeare for Schmucks

In a NYT review of Thor: Ragnarok, you can almost hear the writer, Manohla Dargis, desperately turning her notes over and over for something good to say.  The best that she can muster is that Thor is unable to deal with modern tech:

There’s a nice bit in Thor: Ragnarok, the latest Marvel blowout to feature the god of thunder, where he tries to start a jet using a voice-activated password. He needs to make a getaway — he’s neck deep in trouble and plot entanglements — so identifies himself as the “strongest Avenger.” No dice. Given his earlier stand-alone movies, Thor might have had better luck cracking the code if he’d copped to being the “most boring Avenger.”

Of all the comic-book-to-film failures, Thor’s is perhaps the most pronounced.  Thor comics are not for everyone, and no film reviewer would find it necessary to read 50+ years of back-issues as a prologue to banging out a column for the morning paper; even so, the problem is plain to the eye and ear: Thor looks like a god, but, when he speaks, he’s just a beer-drinking “dude with a cool hammer. And the more familiar and less godlike he becomes, the more evident it is that this series has never figured out how to make his myth fit with the modern world. So it’s made Thor a fish out of water and a recurrent punch line.”

This version of Thor just doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work for several reasons.  Let’s begin with the aforesaid password protections.  Sure, it’s funny.  I mean, I have so many passwords– we all do– and it’s nearly impossible to keep up, especially at a university, which commonly makes you change them every 6 months.  The upshot: I have one password for my work laptop, another for my company’s website portal, another for… well, you get the drift.  And that’s just here at work.  Never mind email, banking, and shopping, etc., etc.

So, ya, Thor, I feel ya.  But, umm, aren’t the Asgardians a super-advanced civilization?  Doesn’t Thor tell Jane in the first Thor movie that what we call magic, his people call science?  So, he’s a high tech wiz.

Now, I get that if I were sent back in time to, say, 1300A.D., I might be confused by milk churns and the like, but this Thor seems to be out of his depth in a particularly blokey way.  If he’s a high-tech geek, then he should have more in common with Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) than he does.  In fact, Tony should be picking his brain for tech!

But if he’s so advanced, why does he speak like, well, a high-school dropout?

Compare any of the recent Thor movies to Groundhog Day, in which Phil Connors (Bill Murray) uses his days of eternal recurrence to learn French, memorize poetry, and master jazz piano and chainsaw ice sculpting.  Moreover, he learns how to be a better, more thoughtful and empathetic human being.  He goes from jerk to genius.

But how has this Thor used immortality?  If Phil Connors is your yardstick, then it seems that Thor has wasted it.  Uncomfortable and unable to keep up with Tony Stark or even Doc Strange, Thor prefers to banter with granite-brained Australians or punch it out with the Hulk—another moron.

OK, we might counter and say that we live in a tech age in which few of us can build an iPhone.  Maybe Thor’s tech is so advanced that he doesn’t have to know anything?  But this is a variant on the same problem: How do you spend eternity?  Let’s admit to the possibility that everything in Thor’s world is done by magic robots.  That would still leave philosophy, literature, history, poetry, music, etc.  On those collective grades, Thor is flunking out of Eternity.Edu.

If Thor is an underachiever, the same can be said of the sword-and-toga set of Asgard.  In a realm in which immortality, housing, and foodstuffs are a given, it seems silly to live by hierarchies.  This should be a society that rewards intellectual and artistic achievement– think of a village of eternally curious Bill Murrays….

But Asgard is reliant upon traditional hierarchies. It’s got a king (who really needs an optometrist), a queen (who needs a hair stylist), and a prince who likes to party with the clever savages on planet Earth.  Sure, there are a few female warriors here and there, but, like Joan of Arc in the medieval era, they seem to be the exceptions that prove the rule of Asgardian patriarchy.  And let’s not even discuss the ice-giants, who, like the Morlocks in H.G. Wells’s Time Machine, are just licking their chops and waiting for the dinner bell….  The only guy in Asgard who seems to have a job and, thus, any sense of purpose, is a black security guard.

The other reason the movie doesn’t work is that nerds like me remember the original comic.  Thor is Stan Lee’s most poetic, most Shakespearean creation.   Just ask Kenneth Branagh, one of the great Shakespeare actors of our generation, who directed the first Thor movie:

I would say that it is Shakespearean, but it’s also global, I suppose. That we’re interested in what goes on in the corridors of power whether it’s the White House or whether it’s Buckingham Palace. And so Shakespeare was interested in the lives of the medieval royal families, but he also raided the Roman myths and the Greek myths for the same purpose.

In addition to Branagh, the Thor franchise is bolstered by two other world-renowned Shakespeare actors—Anthony Hopkins and Tom Hiddleston.  But these actors have little to do other than audition as mascots for the Minnesota Vikings.

Worse, the film seems intent upon jeering at its Shakespearean antecedents. After defeating a mountainous fire giant, Thor returns home to find that Loki has faked his own death, seized the throne, and exiled his grumpy step-father to a retirement home in New York City– the home is bulldozed, and its residents left to wander, a foreshadowing of the fall of Asgard, as it turns out.  But that’s for the final act.  At this point, Loki, disguised as Odin, is more intent upon getting others to love him.  Odin has a play staged to explain recent history to his people.  Loki is a Hamlet-like tragic hero, and his brother, the God of Thunder, is recast as his Horatio-like sidekick.   Upon Loki’s staged death, the other actors (and much of the audience) weep openly.  Meanwhile, Loki, disguised as Odin, eats peeled grapes and enjoys the adulation.  None of this surprises. We expect falsehood from Loki.  After all, he’s the God of Mischief, an immortal liar. Who better that the God of Fake News to falsify history?    But, as it turns out, this is only one in a series of lies, and only some of them have been spun by Loki.  We soon learn that Odin himself has been playing fast and loose with his own mythology, papering over the birth of his first-born daughter, the Goddess of Death, Hella.

So we have multiple fake and falsified deaths here—the death of Loki, the death of Odin (asleep but not dead), the supposed non-birth of Hella (another kind of false death), and the death of truth itself.


Suggesting that myth is nonfactual is no big deal.  All poets understand that history sometimes requires a coalescing of characters or a telescoping of time, that the daily grind of life is too trivial to discuss the tectonic shifts.  As the court fool Touchstone explains in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “the truest poetry is the most feigning,” but the truest poetry is also the most open and applicable. Poetry aligns itself with history to explain history.  Its truth overshadows not just the life it describes but also the life to come.

But in Thor: Ragnarok, myth has no extended purpose.  Loki’s Hamlet-like tragedy is exposed as a lie, and the show is over before the actors can bow for applause. That might work, were myth-busting consistently applied.  But a few scenes on, Odin stands Duke of Gloucester-like on a beetling cliff.  In King Lear, this is the moment when the Duke, blinded physically and metaphorically to the truth, thinks that he’s leaping to his death.  He falls no more than a foot or two but, in the act of attempted self-annihilation, his despair is miraculously exorcised.  In Ragnarok, however, the eye-patched Odin, reveals that it is Thor who is truly visionless.  In a flash of insight (yes, the metaphors here are hackneyed!), Thor, now bereft of his magical Mjolnir, learns that being a prince does not require a hammer, no more than to be king requires a scepter, or a people a kingdom.  To defeat Hella, Asgard must be destroyed, but its people will go on.

Or will they?  After all, what binds a people more than its own myths, now exposed as a series of Shakespearean lies?  This is a quandary that is never explored. Instead, the film dips back into the Shakespearean honeypot.  We’re back in King Lear’s Gloucester subplot.   The Duke has two sons:  Edmund (the Loki-like bastard) and Edgar (the Thor-like hero).  Edmund has lied, cheated, and seduced his way up the social ladder. He has the kingdom itself in his grasp, until he is defeated in Arthurian single-combat by his virtuous brother, Edgar.  As Edmund bleeds out, he has a sudden change of heart. Despite a lifetime of evil, he confesses to Edgar that he has ordered the immediate deaths of the imprisoned king and his daughter, Cordelia. If Edgar hurries, he can save them both! Edmund’s confession, however, is utterly ineffective.  The princess dies, and Lear himself dies moments later of a broken heart.

How does Hollywood handle this moment of cosmic heartbreak? In Thor: Ragnarok, Loki becomes, like the hero of his own play, the man who saves the state.  And he doesn’t even have to die!  The tragic hero who lives– that feels like a Loki-like cheat.


Not content simply with undermining the power of myth, Thor: Ragnarok also does its best to mangle the majesty of poetry.  If you actually read the comic, you’ll see that Thor is a Shakespearean.  His native language is Elizabethan—filled with lots of thees and thous.  Here’s an excerpt from Thor #154 (1968):

Though thou be truly pure of heart – in thine innocence, thou art fair misguided! The true guru thou seekest doth lie within thyselves! Heed you now these words: ‘Tis not by dropping out – but by plunging in – into the maelstrom of life itself – that thou shalt find thy wisdom! There be causes to espouse!! There be battles to be won! There be glory and grandeur all about thee – if thou wilt but see! Aye, there will be time enow for thee to disavow thy heritage – yea, thou mayest drop out fore’er – once Hela herself hath come for thee! But, so long as life endures – thou must live it to the full! Else, thou be unworthy of the title – Man!

The character was self-evidently designed to expand vocabulary; instead, Marvel Studios has turned Thor into a muscle-bound carpenter who brings a hammer to a knife fight.

The comic is worth investigating in another regard.  In Spider-Man, Parker’s foes are dark reflections of himself.  The same can be said of Thor’s friends, also known as the Warriors Three.  Each character is a magnification of some aspect of their leader.

Hogan, the grim warrior (left); and the portly coward Volstagg (center), Fandral, the lover (right).

The most important of the three is Volstagg, modelled on Shakespeare’s Falstaff.  This from Wikipedia:

Volstagg, like Falstaff, is fat, vain, boastful, and cowardly, but also boon companion to the prince (Hal or Thor). He seems to know more about raising a mug (his favorite weapon, evidently) than raising a sword (of which he actually knew very little). Ironically, whenever his courage fails (at the slightest sign of danger), Volstagg’s innate clumsiness would somehow seize victory from the jaws of defeat. … Volstagg inadvertently saves his companions’ lives on at least two occasions by stumbling onto the one weapon capable of saving the day (and later claiming that his initial cowardly retreat was all part of a vast master plan).

But Falstaff is far more than just a coward and a braggart.  Prince Hal, the future Henry V, inherits the crown, but he learns from Falstaff, Nym, and Pistol how to rule.  In the words of William Hazlitt: Falstaff (and I would add, his followers) expresses the “true spirit of humanity, the thorough knowledge of the stuff we are made of, … what a poor forked creature man is!”  That sounds rather sad, and perhaps it is, but, compared to Prince Hal, Hazlitt had no doubt: “Falstaff is the better man of the two.” And while we can’t know what might have been, the feeling I get is that the Prince’s perspective on life is damaged and incomplete without his delinquent admirers.

In Thor: The Dark World (2013), the Warriors Three serve as Thor’s comrades and confidents.  They have his back, and he trust them because they are capable.  But in Thor: Ragnarok, Volstagg gets one line of dialogue (Who are you?) Hogan is given a similar tag, and poor Fandral has no lines at all.  These “heroes” die without honor. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige explained why the Three had to go: “we want it [the movie] to start with a bang.”

This might have worked, had the Warriors Three been given noble deaths.  But to have a noble end, you need the opportunity to have a noble act.  These guys die before they even know who they are up against.  Marvel might have at least first established the Warriors Three as an important and elite force in Asgard.  Their deaths might have then suggested Hella’s overwhelming might and the hopelessness of rebellion.  (Think Death Star without the sabotage.)  But in this film, the Warriors Three have no such collective role, and so their loss means nothing.  They are killed off as a bit of cinematic house cleaning.   In Shakespeare, the banishment of Falstaff matters, not in terms of the country’s military capacity, but in terms of the king’s humanity; in Ragnarok, killing off Volstagg and his friends means nothing.  No one even bothers to tell Thor that they are dead.

Sure, corpses aside, Thor Ragnarok, is funny; it’s entertaining; in the coliseum of Sakaar, it kicks ass.  But with the passage of time, this movie will fade from view because it is obsessed with its own moment. Future generations, I suspect, will continue to listen to Led Zeppelin, here gloriously matched to moments of bloodlust, but they will just as likely experience no frisson in a Stan Lee cameo or a Jeff Goldblum soul patch; future generations will scratch their collective heads over passwords, dick jokes, and our current obsession with men who drink beer but magically retain six-pack abs; future generations will wonder why Marvel opted for the non-miraculous.  Having cut itself off from the eternal, Thor Ragnarok is far worse that bad; it is forgettable.

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Jeffrey Kahan is a is a well-established Shakespeare scholar with about two dozen books and editions to his name. He is also the co-author of Caped Crusaders 101 (MacFarland, 2nd ed., 2010), and is a co-editor of The Dark Man, a journal dedicated to the works of Robert E. Howard, and an associate editor of The New Ray Bradbury Review. He teaches a class on superhero comics and has twice appeared as a speaker at Comic-Con, as well as at New York’s Big Apple and other comic conventions. His newest book, Shakespeare and Superheroes, will be published in 2018 by ARC Press. He works in California but lives in his own world.

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