Appreciating 'Thor: Ragnarok' and Its Joss Whedon Jabs
[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok.]
The first time Thor tries placating the Hulk with a familiar old lullaby in his new stand-alone feature, Thor: Ragnarok, the joke is on him: "The sun's getting real low," he says in the most soothing tone he can muster. His eyes go wide, his cheesy, disarming smile wider. Chris Hemsworth hams it up. Neither he nor his director, the charmingly puckish Taika Waititi, make an effort to suggest gravitas here; the moment is all about Thor stepping way out of bounds. The verse has profound emotional meaning for Mark Ruffalo's Hulk and for his alter ego, Bruce Banner, as regards their feelings for its author, Natasha Romanoff. Thor thinks he has this one in the bag, and Hulk rewards his exaggerated chutzpah with a beatdown.
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The second time Thor tries that line on Bruce, post-Hulk, the joke is still on him, but less so. The third, fourth, umpteenth time, the joke is on the line itself. We get the sense someone involved in Thor: Ragnarok's architecture didn't think very much of this holdover dialogue from Joss Whedon's Avengers: Age of Ultron; perhaps Waititi, or perhaps one of the four screenwriters responsible for the film's story, including Stephany Folsom, who was denied credit for her work on the script by the WGA. (It certainly feels like the kind of gag Waititi would write into his own movies.) If you take Thor: Ragnarok at face value, the joke is simply part of the package, comic relief in a blockbuster thoroughly shaped by its humor. It's the funniest Marvel movie released to date, though comedy being subjective, you might disagree. (If you do, you're wrong.)
But Thor: Ragnarok stretches the joke out so far that taking it at face value is impossible; we're not talking about a one-liner as much as we're talking about naked satire. Humor, after all, isn't absent from the Marvel brand, dating all the way back to 2008's Iron Man, which left plenty of room for snappy witticisms and zingers alongside superheroic drama. Nearly 10 years later, as the Marvel machine lumbers onward, humor has become an integral part of the MCU's identity onscreen, and is even used as a mirror for critiquing its direct competitor's DC movies, which by contrast is far more dour. But making people laugh isn't the same thing as being able to laugh at yourself, and Thor: Ragnarok, for better or worse, is all about laughing at Marvel's own hubris.
For clarity's sake, that laughter is for the better. Marvel has stumbled beyond the point of taking its product too seriously, and Waititi's film is designed to let the air out of the studio's puffed-up image and give his heroes more room to breathe. Goofing on Avengers: Age of Ultron's brawny, peak-Whedon faux-poetry is only the start, but as starts go, it's a good one; "the sun's getting real low" gives the impression of depth but spins into nonsense the more it's repeated. Thor repeats it enough times, and each time with increased oblivious enthusiasm, that he unravels the phrase completely. The payoff is hilarious, but driving pompous screenwriting into the ground is easy. Skewering an entire movie empire's aesthetic is a much greater challenge.
(For the record, Whedon himself has stated he really likes Ragnarok, tweeting Oct. 26: "Here's the thing: @TaikaWaititi has made a modern masterpiece. Epic, hilarious, gorgeous, heartfelt, and hilarious. I'm SO HAPPY #hilarious")
In addition to dumpstering Whedon's style, Thor: Ragnarok pokes healthy fun at Marvel's lofty conceptualization of heroism; part of the parody is aimed at Thor, part at the company's general approach to hero's journeys, which happen to make up a huge percentage of the MCU's narrative features. Tony Stark, Peter Parker, Steve Rogers, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, Scott Lang, even Thor and Bruce Banner; they each learn, and occasionally relearn, what it means to be a hero in either their stand-alone films or Marvel's ensemble movies (the two Avengers pics and Captain America: Civil War). By now, Thor has a pretty solid grasp on how to be a hero, but he's still Thor, and so he can't help but brag about it. "That's what heroes do," he smugly admonishes his comrades and co-stars whenever opportunity presents itself. None of them ever ask to be lectured about a hero's duty. He just tells them, because he's generous (and egotistical) like that.
In your workaday Marvel flick, "that's what heroes do" would be a pre-fight invocation, a signal to the audience to buckle in for butt-kicking heroics. In Thor: Ragnarok, it's a setup for slapstick and awkward pauses; in the very first scene, Thor, confronting the fire demon Surtur, summons his hammer, Mjolnir, but he gets his timing off. Rather than fly into his open hand as soon as he runs his mouth, he waits, abashed, for the weapon's grand entrance as Surtur impatiently stares him down. (Mjolnir, the symbol of Thor's province, isn't safe from mockery, either. Thor tries to explain to the gladiator Korg how spinning Mjolnir around in a circle really fast lets him fly, but he ends up only leading the easily confused rock monster astray instead.)
Waititi means to tease Thor specifically, but the running jabs about heroism feel like overarching commentary on Marvel at large; contextualized next to the Age of Ultron spoof, it's hard to read Thor: Ragnarok's repertoire of wisecracks as anything other than gentle ribbing. Waititi razzes rather than sneers at Marvel. He's having fun here, and it shows. But his idea of fun entails some good-natured roasting, and though he reserves a portion of japes for Marvel, it's Whedon who is subject to the film's sharpest farce. Never send to know for whom the sun sets low; it sets low for Whedon.
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