Before I can properly express my thoughts on New Zealand director Taika Waititi’s newest film, an epic sci-fi/fantasy action/adventure titled Thor: Ragnarok, I would like to tell you about an argument I once had with a friend of mine way back in the winter of 2004. The root cause of our disagreement was that I thought the song “Toxic” by Britney Spears was a stone-cold club slammer and my friend thought I was a complete moron for thinking so.
To me, the truth of “Toxic” was self-evident and pure. To my friend, its musical heresy was so flagrant it was offensive. I tried to explain to him what I thought made the song so great: The classic minor-key pop progression, the tasty guitar licks, the breathy vocals, the exotic bhangra flavor and Hindi film samples. All of those disparate components combined to create a killer grove that would visibly raise the temperature of any mid-George W. Bush era dance floor you happened to find yourself on.
“But can’t you see that all that stuff is just being used to trick you into liking that song,” my friend asked.
He went on: “It’s like those producers just made a list of all kinds of cool stuff that different types of people like and then threw it all into a dumb-ass package that you only think is good because there is something in there that you like. There’s a surf riff for Pixies fans, acoustic guitar that sounds just like that first J.T. single, ascending strings for people who like Italian disco and synth for people who like IDM.”
“Can’t you see how cynical it is,” he eventually implored.
Of course, I thought my friend was making a ridiculous argument and I told him so. Did he really think that there was something wrong with skilled practitioners of their craft studying and combining different styles and influences that a wide range of people already enjoy in an effort to make a moving and appealing work of art? My friend heard “Toxic” as a crass attempt to coerce different audiences into liking something that isn’t really that good. I heard “Toxic” as the perfect deployment of what egalitarian pop-art can achieve when executed in the highest caliber possible. At a certain point, realizing I wasn’t going to convince my friend that he too could bear witness to the bright, redemptive power of a decent dance track, I probably ended our argument by calling him a prude who didn’t like to get down, or something like that.
But, I have to confess, after leaving a press screening of Thor: Ragnarok earlier this week, the first thing I thought of was my friend’s almost 15-year-old views on the cynicism of pop-culture pastiche. That’s because as great as Thor: Ragnarok is, (and it is great), I couldn’t help but notice how almost every aspect of the movie reminded me of some other film or t.v. show or comic book or song or viral video or whatever. Thor: Ragnarok is a movie so drenched in call-backs, reminders, references and homages, even though I thoroughly enjoyed almost everything about the movie’s smart and fast-paced mixture of humor, action, inspired casting, extravagant set design and captivating shot selection, I couldn’t help but question if I actually liked the movie, or did I just like that it was reminding me of stuff I already like. I love what Thor: Ragnarok does, but I can’t decide if that love is toxic.
Take for example a scene about a third of the way through the movie in which Thor, (played dutifully as ever by Chris Hemsworth), having been robbed of his power and his hammer, finds himself stranded on a strange, alien planet, in need of rescue after being besieged by a band of junk-yard scavenging marauders. In a perfectly constructed action set piece filled with great jokes, thrilling visual design and shockingly brutal alien-on-alien violence, Tessa Thompson’s enthralling Valkyrie storms the screen, rescuing and then, (for reasons of her own) betrays Thor in one the most crowd-pleasing sequences in the entire film. It’s an awesome display of technical filmmaking and comedic timing, but, much like the rest of the movie, it also cribs almost all of its coolest elements from previous genre triumphs.
Do you like Han Solo? Well, good, because Thor: Ragnarok has Valkyrie, a character who’s motivation and attitude feels more like the Han Solo you remember than the real Han Solo did the last time he was in a Star Wars movie. Were you one of those people who fell in to a deep depression over what could have been after watching Jodorowsky’s Dune? Don’t sweat it, because the cosmos of Thor: Ragnarok is filled with more Moebius-inspired vehicular design choices than any actual Moebius comic book. You like Led Zeppelin? Killer, because we put Immigrant Song to better use than David Fincher did! Or, maybe you think that Te Kā from Moana was a pretty compelling villain who was somewhat underserved by a plot too focused on the relationship of the movie’s leads? Great, because Thor: Ragnarok has it’s own kick-ass volcanic demon who will only show up to bookend the proceedings, but at least this one has a giant sword. You like Game of Thrones? In that case, have a dead dragon and a giant dire wolf! You’ve seen The Raid? How about that, not in a building, but on a road made out of rainbows that is covered in aliens and zombie-aliens. You liked how in the first two Blade movies, Blade was all serious and 100% business, but then in the third one, he started cracking jokes and acting like a nerd? Cool, because heads up, this movie is a comedy, so we’re gonna to the same thing to Thor’s character. Speaking of comedy, though, are you the one person who liked Transfomers 5‘s funny version of Anthony Hopkins? We’ll even give you a little bit of that.
I know that list of aesthetic similarities to other projects might seem uncharitable and sarcastic, but Thor: Ragnarok really is that committed to referencing, reusing and recycling any decent idea it can find. But, because the movie leans so hard into the inherently seductive power of the familiar and then pushes those familiar experiences into extreme but oddly logical new territory, Thor: Ragnarok does not feel lazy or derivative. Rather, it is celebratory and incandescent, a day-glo love letter in the form of a multi-million dollar fanfic.
This balance between what is known and what is new is no clearer than in Jeff Goldblum’s performance as Grandmaster, a deranged, candy-colored Caligula who serves as the movie’s main antagonist through its middle act. Even the choice of casting Goldblum in a supporting role in a sci-fi blockbuster feels pointedly referential. We remember Seth Brundle, Ian Malcolm and ID4. We know how much we love Goldblum’s stunted phrasing and forced laughter. But here too, Director Taiki Waititi allows Goldblum to deliver a performance so bizarre, unnatural and drastic that it feels more Goldblum than Goldblum. It’s a caricature of what we remember Goldblum being like in those older movies we love. Like almost every other aspect of Thor: Ragnorok, Goldblum’s performance feels more powerful because of how precisely it exaggerates things and ideas we’ve already consumed and approved.
But, all of this on-screen greatness does beg the question, just as my friend thought “Toxic” did all those years ago: Is Thor: Ragnarok actually a good movie, or is it just filled with all kinds of stuff that reminds us of good stuff we already like. That might sound like a reductive question, but there are moments in the movie where the references don’t play quite so well, and it’s those creaks around the edges of an otherwise air-tight action-comedy that really caused me to wonder what it was I liked about this movie so much.
Cate Blanchett’s Hela, (though wonderfully performed), looks and feels like a kind of half-baked cross between Loki and Maleficent, suffering from the same generic moral-mirror issue that plagues almost all of the Marvel movie villains. Also, amidst all the farce and fighting, the movie’s plot and momentum grind to a halt whenever Karl Urban’s Skurge is on screen. The movie seems to be overly concerned with reminding you that you are getting to watch an unmasked Judge Dredd pretend to play Call of Duty while also struggling with one of the most boring, predictable and obvious redemption arcs imaginable. In these and a few other instances, when the movie is obviously trying to leverage the power of fan-worship but can’t find a way to hyperbolize those elements, I started to really notice how much the movie draws from the well of my pop-cultural memory and I began to question the value of this approach.
I think the most telling detail about Thor: Ragnork‘s reliance on reference is that there is only one human character, (Mark Ruffalo’s manically bumbling Dr. Bruce Banner), who is able to wear normal Earth clothes for more than one scene. These clothes represent Bruce’s first chance to appear and feel human after spending 2 years living as a new, more chatty version of the Hulk. For the audience, this costume choice serves as a plain visual anchor within a cacophony of truly alien, unknown materials and fashions. But even in this case, when the symbolism and compositional utility is clear, those clothes themselves must also deliver unto us a reference: the cover to Duran Duran’s 1982 dance-rockbomination Rio. It’s kinda funny, I guess, but it also demonstrates that Thor: Ragnorak lacks any restraint and must cover every moment with overwhelming detail.
For the most part, the sheer volume, vibrancy and thrilling execution of these details in Thor: Ragnorak far outweigh any of the movie’s more diminished and blandly derivative segments. I suspect that most audiences will respond to this movie in an overwhelmingly positive fashion. The action is fantastically staged. Most of the characters are well-rendered with conflicts that come from their interactions and inner desires, all bolstered by compelling performances from every cast member. And, the movie is genuinely funny. You would not be wrong to call it a straight-up comedy. There is a lot to love about Thor: Ragnorak, and there are enough ideas at play within the dense script and visual that it will probably find a receptive audience beyond the boundaries of simple Marvel fandom. But, just as my friend felt he had to exit the dance floor upon hearing those first pitch-shifted string samples on “Toxic”, I would not be surprised if a certain segment of movie goers will see Thor: Ragnorak as the same old boring sci-fi emperor wearing a nice new ensemble of comedic and heavy-metal clothing, a movie that tries too hard to be liked by talking to you about cool stuff from your past that you had gotten over a long time ago.
The question is, of course, whether or not Thor: Ragnorak‘s vibrantly referential toxic tongue will pull you under.