Magazine | November 27, 2017, Issue

Cosmic Comics

Chris Hemsworth in Thor: Ragnarok (Marvel Entertainment)

In eternity you can only become more like yourself. From Aquinas to C. S. Lewis, this insight has played a crucial role in explaining the justice of eternal damnation. It also may help explain the trajectory of the two major superhero franchises, the Marvel extended universe and the DC world of Gotham and Metropolis, as their sequels and spinoffs accumulate in numbers that approach infinity.

DC and Marvel began with different approaches to the superhero genre and different ways of translating the strange hermetic worlds of their comic books to the big screen and mass audiences, and those differences have become more exaggerated with the insane multiplication of installments. And as time bends either toward eternity or toward the fifth Aquaman sequel, whichever arrives first, each brand seems destined to be gradually distilled into the ne plus ultra of its approach, the essential Marvel or DC movie, with nothing within its two-hour running time that doesn’t fit the architecture chosen at the franchise’s beginning.

For DC, which sells its stories about men in batsuits and Kryptonians with a doom-laden, self-serious, and quasi-Shakespearean atmosphere, the transition from Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy to Zack Snyder’s Justice League expansion pack has brought the company much closer to this endpoint. That’s because Snyder is basically the part of Nolan that would be left if the English director died unshriven, went to hell, and in the course of the descent had all his artistic nuance burned away, so that what remained was the thudding melodrama, the heavy mood, the badly lit cityscapes, and the feeling of being trapped next to a man with a megaphone constantly yelling, “This is very serious, people; it isn’t just a comic book!

Meanwhile, over in the Marvel universe, the decision to take a deliberately light tone — to wink, wisecrack, avoid self-seriousness, and generally follow the approach pioneered by Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man — has given us first action movies with a lot of comedy (the Joss Whedon Avenger films), then comedy-action movies (the Guardians of the Galaxy flicks), and now, with Thor: Ragnarok, a movie whose save-the-world action is almost completely ancillary to the entertainment value provided by the jokes.

This evolution is particularly striking because the Thor movies to date have been the heaviest of the Marvel-universe stories. They haven’t exactly been jokeless, thanks to the fish-out-of-water situations that their title character, the golden-maned god of thunder played with agreeable good humor by Chris Hemsworth, finds himself in whenever he’s off his Bayreuth-in-space home planet of Asgard. But with their armored gods and stentorian tones (and Kenneth Branagh in the director’s chair for the first installment), they’ve had more melodrama and less zip than the other Marvel stories — and, perhaps not coincidentally, have been rather less beloved.

In Ragnarok, though, Hemsworth plays a Thor who’s longer on silliness than godliness, and the plot he’s enmeshed in is basically a space comedy with some supervillain Sturm und Drang attached because the genre still demands it.

That supervillain, vamped rather than played by Cate Blanchett, is Thor’s sister, Hela, the goddess of death, who returns from a long exile to reclaim the place in Asgard from which her now-dying father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) ejected her once he got woke and stopped trying to conquer the known universe. Once she’s back, her powers eject Thor and his troublemaking brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, reliable) in their turn . . . which enables them to spend the bulk of the story in what amounts to a different movie, a candy-colored comedy set on the weird planet of Sakaar, while in the B-plot Hela kills off disposable Asgardians and kills time until the inevitable climax.

Sakaar is a space dump–cum–interplanetary Las Vegas run by Jeff Goldblum — I mean, sure, he’s playing somebody called the Grandmaster, but basically he’s just Jeff Goldblum, hanging out in a gold-lamé costume and lots of eyeliner and having a blast. Mark Ruffalo’s version of the Incredible Hulk is also on Sakaar, for some underexplained reason, dominating Goldblum’s gladiatorial arena before Thor gets hustled in to fight him. So is a drunk ex-Valkyrie in a breasty breastplate played by Tessa Thompson, and some sort of CGI monster with a strange silly little voice (it’s the director, the New Zealander Taika Waititi), and Hiddleston’s Loki of course, and really they’re all just hanging out, and I was pretty happy to hang out with them, and it was kind of a drag that the movie finally had to go back to the sub–Lord of the Rings action on Asgard and the inevitable computer-generated grand finale.

You can keep your Ragnarok, in other words: This movie is worth seeing because for a lot of its running time it’s really just Thor: Sakaar.

Is it a problem for Marvel that most of what makes its recent movies entertaining is the comedy that’s layered atop some totally boring and pro forma and repetitious time-to-save-the-world plotting? Since I’m not a comic-book guy, I’m the wrong person to ask. All I know is that we seem headed to a world where DC eventually ends up making a movie that’s just a long, painful wrestling match in a thunderstorm between Batman and a Superman who’s using his super vision to read Schopenhauer, and Marvel makes a movie that’s just a superpowered jokefest with no apocalypse or supervillain, that’s all Sakaar and no Ragnarok.

That combination is the event horizon of this superhero age, the comic-book-movie singularity — and God willing, we’re getting closer every day.

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