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[Article] – 5 Ways ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ Subverts MCU Tropes

 

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Posted November 5, 2017 by

 
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The final instalment of the Thor trilogy has finally hit theatres and it is a fast-paced ride down the bi-frost. Arguably the franchise’s most divisive entry, Taika Waititi’s ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ is suffused with hilarity and a light-hearted approach that most of us really need this year. Fans have long-awaited the return of Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston and Idris Elba as Thor, Loki and Heimdall, who are joined by new cast members Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban and Jeff Goldblum.

Don’t expect a game-changer from ‘Ragnarok’; it is too faithful to its comic book history to bother with that, but what struck me about the film, aside from its refreshing tone, were the subtle subversions Waititi and the film’s writers snuck in. We are used to the MCU formula, which this film whole-heartedly embraces; but where past films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have stuck to the straight and narrow this one takes a few unconventional detours that add to the viewers’ enjoyment.

It doesn’t get more eccentric than this

Here are the five stand-out moments in ‘Ragnarok’ that went against the MCU grain [Major Spoilers Ahead]:

5) The Immigrant Song

As in the case of James Gunn’s ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1’, indie director Waititi imbues the film with a unique feel, in his case an ‘80s buddy comedy set to an overwhelming score of synth-pop music composed by Mark Mothersbaugh (of Devo fame). Within the first fifteen minutes of the film, a truly iconic moment takes place – as Thor readies himself to face off against a giant, fiery adversary, the opening strings of Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Immigrant Song’ break out. If ever there was a song that truly belonged in the MCU, it would be this one. The band are notoriously protective of their music, unwilling to allow films to use their original material, but they are a little more relaxed now and this allows for the uncanny, yet perfect, meeting of song and visual. I liken this choice to JJ Abram’s attempt at bringing ‘Star Trek’ to the masses with his 2009 reboot, it eases even the most reluctant viewers into this eccentric world.

Despite the film’s idiosyncrasies, at its heart, ‘Ragnarok’ is about our protagonists being displaced from their homes. The film ends surprisingly with the destruction of Asgard (or so we assume anyway), leaving the homeless Asgardians heading to Earth. Marvel has consistently made oblique references to real world problems, but the juxtaposition of ‘The Immigrant Song’ with the storyline seems to be making the refugee issues faced on Earth part of mainstream cinema.

4) The Warrior

We are used to Thor being a warmonger, what with his introduction on screen in ‘Thor’ leading to death and destruction on Jotunheim. But banishment and subsequent encounters with beings far sinister have mellowed his ways. The Thor we meet in ‘Ragnarok’ uses his wits and his charm alongside his power. Valkyrie (Thompson) on the other hand is all brawn – talk about passing the baton.

Most of us are familiar with the Valkyries of Norse mythology, and the singular Valkyrie who is an intrinsic part of the Thor comics. In the film, Valkyrie is a warrior through and through, taking down an entire mob without as much as a scratch on her, and while completely drunk. Later, she effortlessly overpowers Thor (and Loki) and bravely faces off against enemy ships. She’s a no-nonsense character who spends plenty of screentime being a badass. The filmmakers handled her character brilliantly by not sexualising her in any way and avoiding her being rescued at any point by one of the (male) characters – something of a trope that virtually no action film or television show tries to avoid.

The Best of… Valkyrie

And because Valkyrie is such a battle-worn warrior in the film, I’m in two minds about her missing romantic sub-plot. It seems during the film’s promotion Thompson and others confirmed that Valkyrie is bisexual – a scene confirming this was finally cut from the theatrical release. While I prefer female characters’ romantic interests being left on the drawing room floor, getting the hopes of LGBTQIA+ fans up in the lead up to a film only to disappoint them is becoming Marvel’s go-to pre-film ploy. Now that’s a trope that should have been subverted.

3) The Lullaby

If you haven’t watched ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ you will have spared yourself plenty of grief, but I’m guessing since you are here you put yourself through that torment. There was plenty wrong with AoU, not least its under-utilisation of Thor. What irked many fans, however, was the writing of Black Widow, at that point the sole female member of the Avengers. Her character became the mommy figure and an unlikely romantic sub-plot was thrust upon her.

To foreshadow both the above points, the fabulous opening battle scene ends with Black Widow implementing the ‘Lullaby’ on the Hulk, to bring him back to his Banner state. Despite this appearing to be an effective formula, no other (male) character utilises this method to stop the Hulk’s succeeding rampages in the film. Not one. So, imagine my surprise when Thor, trapped in an arena against a charging Hulk, tries to employ the Lullaby. Though he doesn’t succeed since Banner has been the Hulk for far too long, and Thor’s forgotten the words, it is a surprisingly tender moment given to one of the macho-er characters in the Marvel universe. Kudos to the filmmakers for incorporating it into the film and subverting its use.

Thor and Banner make an unlikely Dynamic Duo

Thor doesn’t try to beat Banner out of the Hulk in this film, not as Option A, anyway, and that is the biggest subversion of the Joss Whedon trope I can think of. There is a camaraderie built into the story that works well with Banner’s temperament, and I am glad they went down this route for ‘Ragnarok’. Black Widow’s superpower isn’t that she is a woman, Joss Whedon, it is that she’s got mad skills (yes, I am still bitter).

2) Hela of a Villain

Finally, the MCU has a female villain. It has only taken nine years and sixteen films for them to realise that women can be bad guys too. Last year, ‘Iron Man 3’ director Shane Black revealed that the original villain for that film was supposed to be a woman, but studio executives weren’t having it because it would affect toy sales. I was as baffled as the next person by this confession since I cannot imagine that many little, or big, kids lining up to buy Guy Pearce’s Killian Aldrich action figure.

On the back of that revelation, Hela’s unabashed villainy is refreshing. She is the second secret evil sister to emerge on our screens this year, after ‘Sherlock’ season 3, and has her eyes set on universal domination. Hela isn’t defined by her familial ties, but is hungry for the power that she was introduced to by her father Odin. Despite her curtailed screentime, Blanchett portrays her with the requisite amount of Machiavellian apathy. At no point does Hela back away from a fight. Yet another woman in this film is able to defeat the mighty Thor and absolutely none of the characters, or the script, bats an eyelid about it.

What especially works about Blanchett’s Hela is her fighting style; she is fantastic in hand-to-hand combat and bests Thor at it. Blanchett studied some martial arts for the role and it pays off in making her look Hemsworth’s equal, which is not an easy feat by any means. By not relying solely on supernatural powers, she becomes a stronger and more compelling character.

1) Curb Your Masculinity

The Mighty Thor of the comics would probably not recognise the Thor on screen today. Hemsworth, despite embodying all the standard masculine traits of an action hero, ably circumvents expectations by embracing his comedic abilities. Waititi specifically wanted to showcase this side of Hemsworth’s skills and it pays off by making Thor even more relatable.

Once Thor’s crutch, Mjolnir, is destroyed, Thor is at the mercy of Hela and every other bad guy that comes his way. When he is captured by Valkyrie and Goldblum’s Grandmaster, he is unable to fight any of them. Worse, he is tied to a chair and cannot stop a sinister Stan Lee from chopping off his golden locks. Most of this horror in ‘Ragnarok’ is played for laughs but it undercuts the kind of machismo we are used to in most Hollywood films. Thor is effectively rescued by Valkyrie and he, surprisingly, does not hit on her at Warp speed. Whatever flirtation he hints at is subtle and he does not carry it any further when she doesn’t react to it. Also, Thor saying that he wanted to be a Valkyrie when he was a child is the ultimate in trope-busting – we are conditioned to believe only men can be our idols ad heroes, yet here is Thor looking up to an army of women warriors.

Considering what Thor is put through during the film, it would not have been amiss to name it ‘Thor and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day’. There is plenty of action in the film, some absolutely marvellous battle sequences that intersperse the heavy exposition scenes, but, most of them are balanced out by Thor’s use of his wit and intelligence. Against a powerful enemy like Hela, Thor’s military genius is more important than his fighting skills.

Aside from Thor, it is important to mention Skurge, Karl Urban’s character. Skurge could easily have been Hela’s right-hand man, taking down the armies and Thor at her behest while she sat languidly on Asgard’s throne. Instead, Skurge is written and acted as a conflicted man, attempting to make the most out of a bad situation. He goes down all guns blazing – and I loved that – but he is at the mercy of Hela’s commands and does precious little other than follow her like a loyal handmaiden. Hela gets to be cool throughout the film – he just gets the one scene. Now that could be the new normal.

Not a Skurge upon Asgard

‘Ragnarok’ is by no means a perfect film, but the over-exposition and reliance on comedy work hand-in-hand with its alt-Marvel cinematic style. It is a pleasure to sit back and laugh uproariously at a comic book film that is true to the meaning of the word ‘comic’. Despite these elements, Waititi and team were still able to slip in plenty of progressive angles into a franchise that seems to constantly toe the line in a number of departments. No wonder the film has already surpassed all other MCU instalments for a ‘Fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Have you seen ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ yet? Let us know what you thought about the film in the comments below!

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Lestat de Lioncourt
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