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Why I didn’t love Thor: Ragnarok

It’s been a few weeks but the critic and audience reactions continue to come in: everyone is having fun with Thor: Ragnarok. Why they can’t remember the last time they’ve enjoyed watching a movie this much (hint: Spider-Man: Homecoming) and wonder when’s the next time they’ll see a movie this light-hearted again (hint: Black Panther). Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – the Marvel superhero formula continues to turn out grins and box office dollars.

But for some reason – likely partly due to the fact that Thor: Ragnarok was the fourth superhero film I saw this year – I walked out frowning. Before I dive in, let me say a couple things: This film is much better than the dull Thor: the Dark World. Second, I applaud director Taika Waititi for making a genuinely funny movie.  But overall, I feel like Thor: Ragnarok missed the mark, leaving it an almost success, which can be more infuriating than a failure.

Comedy and Death

When crafting a story, it is vital to pick a tone and stick to it. Tone can be described as the “attitude of a writer toward a subject or an audience.” Usually a tone is determined by the story’s content. For example, if I were to be writing about a mother struggling to feed her family, I would probably go darker than if I were writing about two young children experiencing a first crush at the carnival. There’s wiggle room in every scenario but general rules apply. Death = darker, sex = more adult, clowns = horror. You get the idea.

Let’s look at the main events in the plot of Thor: Ragnarok (warning – spoilers)

  • Thor loses Jane (the woman he gave up the throne for).
  • Loki abducts Odin, effectively killing him.
  • Odin’s death frees Hela, who bashes Thor and Loki across the galaxy before murdering most of Asgard – including three of Thor’s best friends.
  • Thor is broken and made to fight. He meets a fellow Asgardian struggling with alcohol abuse and PTSD and his friend, Bruce Banner, who has been a mental prisoner of the Hulk for years.
  • Thor escapes his bonds and returns home.
  • Thor loses an eye.
  • Thor is unable to stop Hela without completely destroying Asgard (which he does), banishing the survivors to wandering uncertainty amongst the stars.
  • (BONUS after credits scene) Thanos shows up and looks to butcher the remaining refugees.

Sweet mother of Mary, that’s a lot of heavy stuff. The tone: WACKY IRREVERENT COMEDY! Seriously, there is a joke is almost every scene of the movie and nothing is off limits. Odin being forgotten to die – joke. Valkyrie’s alcoholism – joke. By the end of the movie, I was surprised Thor didn’t do some weird pantomime with one of the Warriors Three’s corpses.

A lot of people Thor cares about die during this movie.

The problem with setting such a bizarre tone (apart from its strangeness) is its effect on the sense of consequence. You would think Loki killing Odin would be, at the very least, an evil act but Loki is regarded as at his most heroic in this film. That’s a larger disconnect than no one pointing out that Tony Stark was responsible for every death in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Serious, depressing events unfold in Thor: Ragnarok but we’re made to laugh and smile. Only occasionally does the movie ever try to be dramatic and even when it does, you know the scene will climax in a joke. This works fine for a comedy or even a dark comedy but Ragnarok isn’t trying to be just those things (it isn’t trying to be a dark comedy at all… for some reason), it’s going for the typical Marvel bundle of laughs, action and drama, only none of the drama works. It simply is not allowed to.

Too Many Plots

When I structured Thor: Ragnarok, I focused on the main plot – mainly Thor’s banishment and return to Asgard but the movie has more going on.  Subplots are fine in films if they meet two criteria. One – there aren’t too many of them. Two – they all exist in service to the story’s central idea.

Buried under all the jokes and laughs of Thor: Ragnarok is actually a really compelling commentary on the evils of imperialism. Asgard’s dark secret past is exposed, capped off in a wonderful line by Hela that was something like “where do you think the gold for this throne room came from?” Thor is stripped and made an immigrant, a refugee at the whim of those in power – much in the same way Odin and Hela must have done to countless civilizations in the past.

That’s all great…but it’s not all there is. We also have a very brief arch involving Dr. Strange and his introduction to Thor and Loki. We also have Bruce Banner battling with the Hulk for control of one body. We also have Valkyrie struggling to come to terms with the loss of her girlfriend and battling her alcoholism/PTSD. We also have Loki searching for some new material/purpose. We also have a slave uprising on a gladiator planet. We also have Scourge struggling with his sense of loyalty. We also have Heimdall struggling to keep the survivors of Asgard safe from Hela’s tyranny.

Not to mention the fact that we have to introduce new wacky side characters!

There’s a lot going on and some of these plots work better than others. One which definitely gets short-changed is Valkyrie, who seems to pull herself out of complete human mess very quickly. Another is Hela who strangely has no subplot of her own (more on that later). People can praise the progressive nature of Ragnarok ‘s anti-imperialism all they want but… how come the women really had no time devoted to them?

It’s not just the ladies though. I’m really not sure how Banner’s struggle resolved itself. He became the Hulk again and then turned back into Bruce soooooo I guess it’s all good now? The inclusion of characters like Dr. Strange and Scourge took away from time that really could have been better spent elsewhere.

Especially Scourge – who the hell is Scourge and why do I care?

Endless Quipping

After Avengers came out, I started to hear how Joss Whedon had ruined Marvel dialogue forever.  His love of Bathos and Buffy Speak seems to have infested every Marvel superhero film since. Truth be told I never minded and I will tell you why: not everyone was witty. Not everyone had a one-liner waiting in the wings. I think back to the first two Avengers films and look at them as comedy compositions.

Iron Man was the wise-cracking sarcasm guy. Captain America was clueless in a hilarious way. Bruce Banner made often uncomfortable jokes about how he could kill everyone. And Thor was the straight man – he didn’t try to be funny or see the humor in his actions.

Well not anymore baby! This new Thor quips! He has one-liners galore and is always happy to diffuse tension through some snarky observation. In other words: he is much more Star-Lord than Odin-son. I know people found this new Thor funnier (I did too) but it came at the expense of his identity. If I wanted to watch Guardians of the Galaxy, I have two (soon to be three) films to choose from. I’ve got my snark fix. Thor was supposed to be my superhero Shakespeare and that is now completely gone.

In case any Marvel execs were wondering, the serious tone of Dark World wasn’t what made it bad. Comedy does not equal good, just ask Justice League.

Hela and the continuing Marvel villain problem

Before I go any further, let’s go back to Hela. Man does she make an entrance. First she breaks Thor’s hammer and then she murders the Warriors Three and takes over Asgard. Hot damn! What’s next?

Oh…oh that was it, I guess.

Hela is evil – for some reason? We’re never really told why other than she is very ambitious and aggressive. A conveniently hidden mural later helps flush out her backstory by essentially saying “See? This happened!”

Her grand plan is to use some magic fire… to bring back an army of the dead and a giant wolf… then sit in Asgard for a bit before eventually leaving – I think?

Hela’s undead army doesn’t appear particularly strong. In fact, they can just be shot by earth bullets. I have a hard time believing these guys were going to conquer anything.

We don’t care and that’s a real shame. Last time Thor had a sibling he turned out to be Marvel’s most compelling villain. We’re repeatedly told how powerful Hela is and early on we see it – she smashes the hammer but then… she makes pointed sticks.

Increasingly large pointed sticks and she can shoot them very fast. Yes, she is a super-charged evil version of Spyke from X-Men: Evolution.  Cool.

Hela didn’t need a lot of character to be effective. Heck, she could have enhanced the imperialism commentary if she went on about divine right and acted more racist/xenophobic but all we get is the generic “I’m evil!”

She’s the goddess of death, did she mention that? Someone should have told her that death is not innately bad – also she has no specific death powers so I call bullshit. At the end of the day, Hela is poised to take her place alongside the whip-guy from Iron Man 2 (not worthy of me remembering his name) and Red Skull from the first Captain America. Oh well, at least she was better than Dark Elf Man!

An Honest Question

If I were ever to meet Taika Waititi, I’d ask him this question: Did he ever really care about/like Thor to begin with?

I love Waititi’s work but honestly I hope he never does another Marvel movie. His original stuff is much better.

The callous end to the Warriors Three, the complete rewrite of Thor’s personality, the dismissal of Loki to just comic relief, the immediate removal of Thor’s hammer for a recycled plot exercise (it’s just a more dramatic repeat of the first film), the inclusion of the Hulk – all of this, to me, says “I don’t really get this Thor guy but I know how to make an entertaining movie!”

Often times, when a director takes over a project they don’t care about, it goes badly. Think Godzilla (1998) and X-Men: The Last Stand levels of failure. Here we avoided that but I think it has less to do with Waititi’s love of the character and more to do with his skill as a comedic director.

Thor: Ragnarok, to me, ultimately feels like a much better version of Thor: the Dark World. It’s still a product, but this one was put together by somebody who knows what they’re doing. Kenneth Branagh remains the only director who seems to approach the material with love and a seriousness that comes from knowing it can be good as it is.

Sadly, I have given up hope that we’re ever going to see a Thor sequel that understands and respects the source material in its entirety. I can understand why Natalie Portman wanted no part of this bombastic, uneven mess of comedy.

Ridley Scott has Murdered the Alien.

Horror franchises age poorly. This is a general rule and there are few exceptions. While John Carpenter’s Halloween is hailed as a classic, not many outside of horror diehards await the next installment. Ditto with genre defining pieces like The Exorcist and Silence of the Lambs. Horror sequels suffer from one inherent problem: It is never as scary the second time you see it.

Now there are some ideas that are more open for exploration and can find new ways to frighten audiences. There are also some horror sequels that are carried by excellent casting, directing, and production design. Then there are some movies that abandon the horror in favor for fun, dumb or otherwise. The Alien franchise is a horror series that has done all three.

But it’s over now.

The lifespan of the alien as a horror icon has ended. Shortened by rampant commercialization and less-than-stellar sequels, the series showed a blip of life with Prometheus before flat-lining in Alien:Covenant.  Director Ridley Scott, channeling George Lucas, has returned to murder the creation that he gave life to decades earlier. Spoiler alert: I f*cking hated watching Alien:Covenant.

The Alien is No Longer Threatening

It is true that the alien design has not been scary for years. That’s what happens with eight movies, video games, and a toy line. It is simply too familiar to be terrifying in the way it was in Alien. That said, solid film-making can overcome this deficiency. But in order to do so, the alien must remain the primary threat. This shouldn’t be hard. After all, it was billed as the “perfect organism” in the first film.

Yet the traditional alien is the least threatening aspect of Alien: Covenant. Sure it still kills ‘people’ and is fast and strong, but let’s examine the other antagonists that the film provides. First off: David, the android from Prometheus appears to have scrambled his circuits and gone insane. He is deceptive, strong, intelligent, manipulative, and can blend into the party of good guys by virtue of looking exactly like one of them.

David more menacing than aliens
Is that Michael Fassbender a friend or a homicidal murder? Seems like an important and persistent paranoia-inducing question.

Alien: Covenant goes further to strongly imply that David created and can control the entire alien race. So really, he is the head of the snake, as well as a much more calculating menace.

In addition to David, we have his weaponized diseases that he took from the Engineer aliens of Prometheus. For my money, this thing is the perfect organism. It is a microscopic disease that travels quickly and is lethal upon contact/penetration with human skin. Sure, it could probably be burned up but no one ever seems to see it coming. They’re just fine until they start spurting blood and hatching monsters.

Alien Covenant Death of Alien
Not as bombastic looking but certainly more effective.

The alien comes across as nothing but a servant of a larger evil – a minion that is replaceable and expendable and, frankly, nothing more than a work in progress.  The perfect organism has fallen very far from grace. Remember that Family Guy sketch about “Bigger Jaws” – that is essentially what Alien: Covenant does. It has one-upped its monster to the point of obscurity.

Killing Prometheus and Originality

I will say this right now: Prometheus was far from a perfect movie. It suffered from a litany of problems that are very amusingly laid out in this video:

That said, Prometheus also represented a bold new direction for the Alien franchise. An attempt to distance the films from the repetitive slump they had fallen into – you know, an evil company trying to exploit the aliens for military gain. Sure we still had the evil company, but this time they’re looking into how humanity evolved and attempting to understand its origin.

Perhaps I am in the minority but I found it profoundly refreshing to not see a traditional alien in Prometheus. As I’ve said before, the design is tired. Exploring another alien race and its relationship to the aliens may be a flawed idea, but at least it was one that was open to originality.

Alien: Covenant murders this promise with the same disdain that the third Pirates of the Caribbean abandoned all ideas established in the second. The Engineers from Prometheus – they’re dead now. Any unanswered questions remain unanswered because, well they’re dead.

Ruining the Engineers in Alien: Covenant
The much more human-like engineers only make a cameo in Alien: Covenant. I have a question: why did they ditch their super advanced technology for monk robes and stone buildings? For such an advanced race that specialized in advanced bio warfare, they sure were open to attack.

But the Engineers aren’t the only open-ended story path being squashed. Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw barely makes a cameo, being killed off-screen in a way reminiscent of Newt and Hicks in Alien 3. Dr. Shaw may have been a flawed character, but I spent all of Prometheus getting behind her and was genuinely curious to see where her character went.

After all, she is portrayed as an idealistic and naive scientist driven by her faith in Prometheus – a faith that is shattered by the horrific events she encounters. Logically, I could have seen her sliding into a homicidal streak more easily than the well-meaning but controlled David.

Alien: Covenant wasted Elizabeth Shaw
Instead, Elizabeth Shaw started trusting David (the android who murdered her husband) for… reasons, and then is betrayed and killed, used in David’s experiments to creation the perfect phallic monster.

Killing her off would have been more acceptable if it was to make way for stronger characters but, well, we’ll get to that in a minute.

For all its flaws, Prometheus opened the Alien franchise to expansion. Alien: Covenant was a film very determined to close off every avenue of that expansion, hastily answer the un-asked question of alien origin, and slam the series back to its tired roots of traditional xenomorph murdering space colonists.

The Lazy Writing of Bad Horror

I have been dancing around this problem throughout my review. Alien: Covenant is bad horror filled with bad horror cliches. Its cast is made up of so many characters – most of whom named – who exist without characterization. They are simply there to die. They don’t feel like people, instead serving as plot mechanics or set dressing.

Alien: Covenant does not have characters
The bizarre inclusion of James Franco (who dies immediately in Alien: Covenant) is actually one of the better handled characters in the film.

I’ll perform a test. The main protagonist of the film is Daniels (Katherine Waterson). She is our primary good guy. She is… a woman… who was a wife… and has short hair. I cannot name a single personality trait. She’s good? She kinda looks like a knock-off Sigourney Weaver?

She is the best developed of at least 13 named crew members. Even David cannot keep up with Ridley Scott’s disregard of humanity in this picture.

There is another character who I want to point out; Oram (Billy Crudup). Oram is a man of faith, someone who takes his religion very seriously. How do I know this? Not through his personality or meaningful plot action. Instead, I know this because the film tells me – over and over and over again. Literally every scene where someone says something about Oram, they mention his faith. And it is not important at all. Oram does nothing to contribute to the plot, eventually dying to face-hugger.

Poor writing Alien Covenant
“See this face? This is my religious face.”

I’m going to say this as someone who is not particularly religious: If you’re going to write about religion, treat it with respect. Do not tack it on as some afterthought. Perhaps Oram mattered in some version of the script but it just feels like his faith is there to take digs at. It is tacked on. If you want a better written religions figure – maybe try Elizabeth Shaw (whoops – too late for that).

The lack of characterization could have worked in a movie that was only interested in having fun, but Alien: Covenant takes itself too seriously. This is a film clearly far up its own ass with half-baked ideas of Paradise Lost and artificial intelligence. It postures and uses words, the best words, to sound smarter and inflate itself over all the other slasher films on the market.

Oh, one other character to mention – David. I loved Michael Fassbender‘s David in Prometheus. He is complex; a seemingly well-meaning creation who is disregarded by others and abused by his creator. Mary Shelly would have been proud by how well her creation was adapted into a futuristic setting.

In Alien: Covenant, David has ‘gone insane.’ This is the rationale used to justify his behavior. It is also lazy writing 101. Going insane is the overused excuse to get a character to do something that goes against earlier characteristics/motives. In Iron Man, the villain goes insane to switch from scheming business tycoon to rock ’em sock ’em robo-fighter.

It does not add to David’s character to make him pure evil – it detracts from it. He is no longer complex, he is just crazy. He hates humanity but loves its art and creation? Sure?

Alien: Covenant is a perfect example of how not to write an effective horror movie. If people don’t care about the characters then none of the horror can be particularly effective. I don’t care that the alien tore off a woman’s head – I’m still trying to recall who exactly she was.

10-insane-facts-you-probably-didn-t-know-about-heath-ledger-s-joker
For as often as it’s used, insanity is rarely done well in film writing. When it is, the results are truly memorable characters.

Ridley Scott is clearly bored with the alien concept and using it to explore other ideas. The problem is that he seems to have no qualms trashing a universe that has evolved past him. Yes, he directed the first film (and kudos for that) but the series has grown so much since then. If he truly wants to explore AI – then by all means make a film exploring that concept, but leave Alien out of it.

Perhaps he just wants people to see his movies but doesn’t trust his name anymore. Exodus: Gods and Kings was one of the last ‘original’ projects he did and most people remain blessedly unaware/unaffected by the lifeless mediocrity that was that film. Regardless, I have only one request for Mr. Scott: Leave alien and don’t come back. Maybe someone else can give it life. This is what you’re doing to your franchise:

Colossal Mistake: Failing to Fully Explore Abuse

I really love giant monster movies. I especially love the ones that are more than just giant monster movies. Yeah, Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla features a giant radioactive dinosaur but that film also nails a commentary on post-war Japan and the horrors of nuclear war. Peter Jackson’s King Kong, while maintaining the original’s Beauty and the Beast storyline, also manages to deliver biting criticism on the idea of zoos.

Colossal is a film where Gloria (Anne Hathaway) discovers that she is directly controlling a giant monster on the other side of the globe. Yet for all the grandeur of that premise, it is much more a film about dealing with different types of abuse. Gloria is a mess, she drinks, she lies, she cannot maintain any kind of self-sustaining lifestyle. When her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) throws her out, Gloria returns home and must try to put her life back together. When she returns, she meets Oscar (Jason Sudeikis); a “nice guy” who is anything but.

Colossal Oscar abuser
Sudeikis’ Oscar is a compelling character – a perfect union of writing and acting that does an excellent job exploring one kind of abuser.

The abusive relationship between Oscar and Gloria is the primary focus of the film. Oscar manipulates Gloria, setting himself up as her tether to sustainable living. He gives her a job, fills her house with furniture, spends free time with her. On the surface it does not sound bad, but Oscar uses all of this to control Gloria. When she attempts to do something (or someone) he doesn’t like, he gets angry and violent. In the case, the violence is not just against Gloria. Remember that giant monster thing? Yeah, turns out Oscar’s one too – only he has no compunctions against murdering people to keep Gloria in line.

Oscar is a piece of work to say the least and Colossal shines best when it is fully exploring the nature of his abuse. On this level, the movie is certainly a triumph. That said, when exploring Gloria – the movie ultimately falls flat on its giant face.

Gloria the Monster

Gloria is an abuser too. Her relationship with Tim is far from healthy. Since she cannot hold down a job, she is dependent on him. This in itself is not necessarily bad, but Gloria abuses this dependence. The beginning of the film makes it clear that she is not job hunting. Instead, she goes out drinking with friends all night – using either their money or Tim’s to sustain her alcoholism. Whenever confronted on this, she lies or gets angry at Tim for confronting her.

colossal-movie4-740x376
Gloria enjoying her typical nighttime activity.

In addition to this, the film also shows us that Gloria is further abusing Tim by taking advantage of their apartment when he’s not home. Gloria’s plan in the beginning of the movie is to placate her boyfriend out of their apartment and invite her friends in so that they may resume drinking (likely Tim’s liquor). It only falls apart when Tim announces that he can no longer cope with her destructive lifestyle and wants her to move out.

This opening is fine. What happens next creates the problems. Gloria never repairs/admits her abusive role with Tim. Instead, she continues to shut him out throughout the film, choosing instead to reveal her monstrous secret to the people she spends all night drinking with (clearly the responsible ones). This is what helps cement Oscar’s hold over her in the first place.

Tim tries to contact Gloria and talk with her. He scolds, clearly still angry from their bad relationship. He does, however, have one crucial exchange of dialogue with Gloria when he apologizes for always lecturing her and genuinely seems to care about how she’s doing. This shows a painful truth of abuse: It ultimately turns both people ugly. Tim appears not to be the lecturer of choice but by habit – his role in Gloria’s pattern of self-destruction.

We’re never sure about Tim because the movie is not interested in fully exploring his relationship with Gloria. We do know that he cares about her – maintaining contact after she returns home. We do know that he comes for her at some point, worried about her developing home situation. We do know that he lectures her, but with seeming regret that their relationship is not different.

Tim Gloria Colossal abuse
Tim and Gloria’s relationship is a good example of abuse that has become habitual. It has been going on so long that neither person involved is healthy.

The biggest failing comes at the film’s climax, when Gloria flies to South Korea to follow through her plan to neutralize Oscar. She shuts Tim out again through all of this (Tim is expressing worry and concern, even attempting a confrontation against Oscar) but that’s not the problem. The problem is her final phone call. Here is the dialogue (I’m paraphrasing) :

Tim: “I’m worried about you. You owe me an explanation as to what’s going on.”

Gloria: “No I don’t, you threw me out. You said I was too ‘out of control’ – well now I’m more out of control than ever!” *click*

In this final exchange, Gloria resumes her form of abuse. There is no scene in the movie where she really admits and attempts to discuss her problem with Tim. In this last exchange, she abandons her responsibility and throws her problems on him. Worse, she implies that everything that happened to her at home is somehow Tim’s fault.

Gloria never hits Tim but it is clear that she is the source of emotional abuse in their relationship. She is the self-destructive one who cannot handle her emotions and thus decides they are not her responsibility. By not having Gloria ever acknowledge and confront her own history of self-destructive behavior, it completely ruins the redeeming/empowering arch that the film’s writers were attempting to communicate.

Unearned Ending

The failings of Colossal hit me as someone who was a victim of emotional abuse. They also irk the hell of me as a writer. Anne Hathaway does such a fantastic job of playing Gloria that I want to be rooting for her at the end. It also seems like writer and director Nacho Vigalondo wants her story to be empowering, a rise of an abuse victim against the abuser.

And it almost is! That’s the infuriating part. Gloria and Oscar are done so well but the failings of Gloria and Tim ruin it. This, as is, is not the story of a victim rising up but rather the tale of one abuser getting the best of another and then presumably continuing her abusive journey. Who’s the next Tim? Who knows but there is reason to think there will be another.

Gloria Colossal abuse
Nacho Vigalondo clearly understands that Gloria is a monster but appears unwilling to fully explore what that means.

If you’re a writer and you want your protagonist to fix their flaw and be likable at the end, you have to make sure they earn it. Otherwise it feels like you’re forcing an unnatural ending that the story does not support.

Abuse is a complicated subject to tackle as a writer. Believe me, none of my numerous blog posts or short stories have done it justice. It is crucial to understand these basics: there are multiple types of abuse, men and women can be abusers, and abuse is a disease that infects everyone. If you’re not going to tackle all appropriately then be prepared for me to tear your work apart. We need a better dialogue on this serious issue, not half-baked ideas of female empowerment.

Colossal could have been an achievement. Instead, it is an entertaining giant monster movie wishes it was something bigger.