Let’s get this out of the way, as a disclaimer: I love Marvel Studios and I love the DC film universe.
I would call it the “DCEU”, but I guess that’s not even the official title of those films anymore. Regardless, this isn’t an attempt to bash Marvel Studios films. For what it is worth, I actually love many Marvel Studios films. I probably have more issues with Man of Steel and Batman v Superman than I do with The Incredible Hulk or The Winter Soldier.
With that out of the way, let’s discuss why I think it is a problem making Thor: Ragnarok – an adaptation of a very dark comic-book in Thor’s comic mythology – a comedy. As the 17th film in the studio’s superhero repertoire, let’s also discuss why I think this is becoming a Marvel problem more than anything else.
For the sake of total transparency, I haven’t seen Thor: Ragnarok. I’m genuinely excited for the film, even with my fair share of reservations. (I’m also cautiously excited for Justice League if we’re being completely fair). I actually really liked Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, an earnest superhero film with a lot of heart. The less said about Thor: The Dark World, the better. However, I have seen the film’s trailers, some clips and I’ve read a few reviews once the embargo lifted a couple days ago. What immediately stood out for me was the film’s tone, which is apparently lighter than any previous Thor film to date.
Now, I don’t mind humor. I think humor is actually important to lighten the mood, especially dealing with dark subject material. I think one of my favorite examples of a superhero film balancing a dark storyline with moments of sprinkled levity was Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. The film was set during World War I and had to end the film with Diana Prince losing faith in humanity. It could have been a grim affair. However, it was fun, full of boundless energy and an inspirational tone. I think that’s an important take away – the tone.
When it comes to these recent DC films in terms of tone, I think Wonder Woman was the first film to absolutely get it right. The problem with Batman v Superman is not that it was humorless – although more humor might’ve helped – it was that the tone was relentlessly bleak. I don’t want to get off topic, but YouTuber user Nerdwriter1 created a brilliant video deconstructing and analyzing what I thought was the fundamental issue with Batman v Superman and Zack Snyder’s filmmaking in general. Anyway, back to the topic at hand.
I think tone is incredibly important for any film. It sets the mood for the piece, informs the world and allows the characters room to breathe. I think Blade Runner 2049 is another great recent example of a film’s mastery of tone. The film’s director, Denis Villeneuve, knew exactly the kind of story he wanted to tell – and that is reflected in the film’s meditative tone, editing and pacing. With Marvel films, I feel like for the most part the tone leans more toward comedy as of late, often undercutting dramatic moments for sake of levity.
As an example, we all love the airport scene from Captain America: Civil War. However, that scene loses a lot of its dramatic impact – to see our favorite heroes forced into battle with one another – because characters such as Hawkeye or Black Widow break the mood with one-liner quips. If we’re discussing violating tone, Thor: The Dark World is an egregious offender of this. For a movie that dabbles in emotionally complex ideas – Thor’s own mother dies, et al – the film is so confused over what kind of film it wants to be. Is it a buddy comedy featuring Thor and Loki, an action adventure film, a rousing superhero film, etc. As a result, the film suffers tremendously.
If the DC films lean more toward bleak darkness, then Marvel films lean more toward comedy. I don’t mind superhero films that are fun. I just greatly dislike when executives or producers think all superhero films need to be fun. Superhero films need to have a tone that’s befitting of the character. That’s partially why Man of Steel didn’t fundamentally work. The gritty, realistic, grounded take might work well for Batman but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for Superman. In the same light, just because you haven’t found a way to make Thor’s films work doesn’t mean you need to make it a comedy, as reviews and trailers suggest. Especially when it comes to the “Ragnarok” storyline, a dark and depressing storyline from the comics.
For those unaware, the “Ragnarok” storyline came after the Avengers were disassembled in the comics. Thor departs the Avengers and in this particular storyline, he dies at the end. In a more conceptual way, it is somewhat similar to the “Death of Superman” storyline from Superman’s comic mythology. It would be no different if Zack Snyder or another filmmaker took that storyline and stripped it of its dark, complex ideas. I will always postulate it was too soon for that storyline to be included in Batman v Superman, however I will also concede it was done very well within the confines of the film. Well, at least in the Ultimate Edition version of the film.
Marvel needs to stop resorting to comedy in order to make its properties work. It all started with 2008’s Iron Man, which went into production without a completed script. That worked because Robert Downey, Jr. has a knack for improvisational comedy. However, that shtick was also discovered to be hit or miss – take, for example, Iron Man 2. One of the more successful Marvel films – Captain America: The Winter Soldier – works because it has a solid script from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. The Winter Soldier also works because it has a very consistent tone, one that doesn’t betray its characters or its themes or ideas.
I haven’t seen Thor: Ragnarok yet, so I fully admit to being biased. However, this is what I am afraid of: a potentially great comic-book adaptation is neutered because Marvel wants its films to appeal to the largest audience possible. I feel like James Gunn’s successful Guardians of the Galaxy helped strengthen the mold for Marvel’s films, a mold that was already partially created with Iron Man. The same way Iron Man 2 didn’t live up to its predecessor, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 proved the same. In my mind, that film is hardly as successful as the original. The film is too reliant on jokes that zip by so fast you hardly have time to register some of them. It often feels like several important character beats, such as a supposed meaningful interaction between Drax and Mantis, is cut short by Gunn’s incessant need to fit in a joke every five minutes.
As I was reading through the early reviews for Thor: Ragnarok, a sound bite from Rotten Tomatoes caught my eye, from Entertainment Weekly critic Chris Nashawaty:
Ragnarok is basically a Joke Delivery System – and on that score, it works. The movie is fun.
Really? Do we really want our superhero films to be a “joke delivery system” now? They don’t need to be relentlessly bleak like Batman v Superman, but not every superhero film needs to be filled to the brim with endless jokes and humor. I saw another review from BirthMoviesDeath which called it “Monty Python but with way more capes”. Maybe that reference will make sense in the context of the film, but I fail to see how that comparison bodes well for a film featuring a titular character that is hardly buffoonish. I think only the Marvel films can get away with such a comparison. If a DC film was called “Monty Python but with way more capes”, it would be deemed an insult.
I’m afraid this is becoming a crux for Marvel Studios to fall back on when they aren’t sure how to adapt a property for mainstream audiences. Although, to be fair, I haven’t genuinely loved a Marvel Studios film since The Winter Soldier. I thought Civil War was entertaining, but a lot of the film’s dramatic heft was undercut by, you guessed it, inappropriately placed humor. I enjoyed some of Doctor Strange, but overall I feel like the film was greatly missing a Second Act and the film overall suffered for it. Although, to be fair, I did enjoy Spider-Man: Homecoming a good deal, but that is also because the film’s tone was fitting for that character. It also wasn’t afraid to be dark and emotional when the story required it.
I hope Marvel Studios starts to look at what 20th Century Fox is doing with its X-Men franchise as a proper example of how to handle their superhero properties. Deadpool was appropriately an absurdist, fourth wall-breaking action comedy. Logan was a slow burn Western and a terrifically moody send-off for Hugh Jackman’s famed Wolverine. The New Mutants looks like it will be the first genuine superhero horror film – not counting Pitof’s Catwoman – and I am really excited to see what Josh Boone does with that genre mix.
It seems like Fox truly understands that not every film needs to be the same. It took them a couple years, some failed attempts (I’m looking at you, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and new management to figure things out, but it seems like they are finally headed in the right direction. I think Warner Bros. is still figuring out their DC film universe. After a couple of missteps, they finally achieved great success with Wonder Woman – a wonderful film that had a tone perfectly matched with its titular character. I’m excited that they are branching out beyond their cinematic universe. If the comics can do “Elseworlds” stories, so can the films. I love the idea of multiple Batmen existing at once. I think audiences are smart enough to differentiate one version of a character over another.
In any event, even after watching the film’s initial teaser trailer I was hoping Thor: Ragnarok was going to be more than just a “joke delivery system”. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the film on its own merits, but I wanted more from a film called Thor: Ragnarok. I’m sure mainstream audiences will love it, but the real question is: for how long? If all of Marvel’s films start to look, sound and act the same – and they already kinda do – then when are audiences and comic-book fans going to start getting tired of the same ‘ole shtick?
They may never tire if box office performance and critical consensus is any indication, but I honestly believe the superhero movie may be in dire need to evolve. I think 20th Century Fox understands this, and I think Warner Bros. is starting to understand this.
The question is: When will Marvel?