There was a time when it seemed like Marvel Studios was going to be a true platform for auteurs. The first ‘phase’ of Marvel moviemaking largely left its franchise in the hands of directors that could be trusted to stick to the script. Sure, you couldn’t necessarily argue that tossing the keys to the director of Elf or a guy known for Shakespearean dramas is a safe choice (though you probably could make that argument about Joe Johnston, of The Rocketeer and Jurassic Park III), but these aren’t filmmakers known for individualistic flourishes.
But The Avengers felt quietly revolutionary. A full-fledged commitment to an ongoing franchise (at the time, a potentially risky prospect) helmed by Joss Whedon and exhibiting all his trademark banter. When ‘Phase Two’ hired directors like Shane Black, Patty Jenkins, James Gunn and Edgar fuckin’ Wright, as a fan of superhero action and auteurist filmmaking it was easy to be excited.
Then Phase Two …happened. Iron Man 3 was a promising beginning, boasting all the stuff you’d expect from Shane Black (self-deprecatory comedy, violence, Christmas). But Edgar Wright and Patty Jenkins left their projects after “creative differences’, and Whedon publicly griped about his experience making the second Avengers, pointing the finger at unnecessary studio interference. (You can make a case for Guardians of the Galaxy as an expression of James Gunn’s artistic style; I don’t see it, but okay.)
The real problem, though? Marvel’s Phase Two films were just ‘okay’. Without the novel thrill of the first slew of films, they managed to avoid the mediocrity of Iron Man 2 but consistently swallowed up their storylines by hastily shuffling pieces around for the next film. They were, in a word, safe.
Phase Three is different, as exemplified by the latest – and second-last – of the phase, Taika Waititi’s Thor Ragnarok. Thor Ragnarok is half Taika Waititi film – funny, digressive, unpredictable – and half Thor film – mired in tiresome Norse mythology and following the MCU formula note-for-note, down to the megalomaniacal but generic villain and the monotonous third act special effects ejaculation. Thor Ragnarok works because of the Waititi half – it’s just an awesome, frequently hilarious time at the movies – but also because the studio’s managed to perfect the art of balancing their director’s autonomy without unbalancing the consistently of their multi-billion dollar franchise.
That fifty-fifty split isn’t just tonal. Thor Ragnarok splits its time pretty evenly between two locations.
First: Asgard, Thor’s homeworld, where Thor (Chris Hemsworth) wrenches back control from his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who’s been impersonating their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) shortly before his sister, Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett) wrenches back control for herself with an army of undead warriors and a hail of knives.
Second: Sakaar, a psych-disco trip of a planet ruled over by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) and stocked with gladiatorial champions like the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and grizzled mercenaries like Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson). Thor and Loki end up stranded on the planet after a Bifröst Bridge battle with Hela, and must return to Asgard to prevent … RAGNAROK (basically, Asgardian apocalypse).
(There’s also a brief foray to Brisbane masquerading as New York City to remind audiences that Doctor Strange is a Thing now.)
Most everything that occurs on Asgard is stock Marvel movie: feints at backstory (presumably to satisfy comic fans), epic battles, the works. But even Idris Elba and Cate Blanchett’s best efforts can’t elevate what’s a pretty stock storyline. But it’s Sakaar where Thor Ragnarok shines. Taika fills the film with his trademark sense of humour, recognising that Chris Hemsworth – no matter how his impressive he looks with his shirt off – is a better comic actor than he is an action hero. Waititi even has a prominent (and hilarious) role as a rock monster named Korg. Most Marvel films are funny, but during Ragnarok’s Sakaar scenes, it’s a straight up comedy. So it’s inevitably a disappointment when we cut from Goldblum hamming it up or Hemsworth trading banter with Ruffalo for Blanchett spitting grand pronouncements about destiny and power and whatnot.
What makes Ragnarok shine is that it understands this, and refuses to allow the obligatory plotting or action to overshadow the good bits. You can imagine the behind-the-scenes conversations between Waititi and his studio overlords where they try to temper his mischievous approach while he resists the paint-by-numbers formula and – unlike in Phase Two! – we end up with a reasonable compromise. Would I prefer a no-holds-barred explosion from Waititi’s subconscious? Sure! But I dig that there’s enough flexibility in the Marvel Cinematic Universe nowadays to allow for something that’s at least fifty percent Kiwi absurdism.