I like to think of superhero cinema as not so much a genre itself, but as a mould. At no disrespect to superhero cinema, it’s rare to find films featuring caped crusaders or intergalactic heroes that break away from storytelling convention and craft plots built around fresh narrative structures or innovative character arcs. What we generally have is the same basic premise – acquisition of power, development of power, finalisation of identity based around power – retold again and again across various characters and settings and moods. When viewing superhero cinema not as a genre but as a mould for other genres to fill, I mean none of the above with any negativity.
So if we accept that superhero cinema can take on any number of genres with any given feature – if we look at Spider-Man: Homecoming as a high school coming of age film, at The Winter Soldier as an espionage thriller and Guardians of the Galaxy as a throwback sci-fi adventure – then we must also look at Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok as a take on the buddy comedy film, essentially a road trip one also. Viewed through this lens, Ragnarok is a through and through triumph, boasting the best and most satisfying elements of the comedy genre while also turning some of superhero cinema’s more frustrating elements on their head and twisting them into something new.
Ragnarok works fundamentally as a comedy film because Waititi understands the genre so well. He knows how to set jokes up and pay them off later, he knows how to construct set pieces around a joke and let his characters simply play off it. He has an undeniable knack for writing hilarious, truly memorable comedic characters, ones that may not exactly make an impact on his films’ plots but form key parts of their overall identities. I’m of course talking about Korg, played by Waititi himself. Korg is a walking joke machine, Waititi landing every line but also using the character to undercut the grander schemes at play in this ever-growing superhero pantheon. While Iron Man is off saving the world and Star Lord is guarding the galaxy, Korg is failing basic revolutions due to a lack of promotional material. You’ve got to love him.
What Waititi also understands about comedy is that humour is rooted in emotion, it’s hard to laugh with characters we don’t want to spend our time with. The film’s script – penned by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher L. Yost – has a sturdy grip on Thor and Loki’s relationship, not so much prioritising it as it is quietly moving it forward in the background. As they should be in a comedy film, a lot of these scenes are played for laughs: throwaway lines about Loki’s dress sense, a story about a snake prank from the brothers’ past, the “get help” sequence towards the film’s climax. These are all funny moments – played brilliantly by Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, finally allowed to really demonstrate their comedic chemistry – but they paint a bigger picture simultaneously, a story of two brothers’ turbulent relationship slowly fixing itself as a shared sister is lost to the darkness. Smaller stories like this, set to the backdrop of intergalactic warfare, are refreshingly endearing, and Ragnarok is perfectly weighted in that regard.
Stepping away from the small scale stuff though, Ragnarok also very smartly toys with what it means to be a superhero film. Thor loses his iconic all-powerful Mjolnir weapon in the film’s first act, a kind of castration of both power and character if you will, thus beginning an arc of self discovery, teaching lessons of sourcing your strength not from a lump of metal in your hand but from your own memories and the power within. It’s not about physical material possession, it’s about harnessing internal pain and twisting that into power. The film goes further still: blinding Thor in one eye during the final act, bringing him crashing down on that Asgardian bridge essentially weaponless and without clear vision, but set to the thunderous rhythm of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song to demonstrate the power he now possesses. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Infinity War for myself is how excited it appears to be about undoing all the interesting work Ragnarok does with Thor as a character.
Ragnarok doesn’t stop the deconstruction there through, reversing the general narrative arc and conclusion we expect from the superhero film. Returning to the three-act structure laid out at the start of this review, Ragnarok side-lines these character and plot beats, landing instead on something more akin to a “loss of power, acceptance of loss of power, redefining of power” format. Assigning his film the comedy genre, Waititi is essentially stripping the superhero format down to its core elements, reversing them, and then presenting them back to us. It’s perhaps shown best in the film’s final plot beat, where Waititi puts his entire perspective into action to wrap up his story. Where every superhero film wants to save the world, Ragnarok decides the best way to do that is to just blow the whole thing up. After all, who needs to see another world saved anyway? There’s plenty elsewhere we can turn to for that.