How seriously do you take Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”?
If your answer is “dead seriously; I find no humor in Robert Plant belting out about Valhalla, the hammer of the gods and his quest to fight the horde,” then I have some very bad news: You’re probably not going to like the new Thor movie. On the other hand, if Zeppelin’s crusade cry — with its hybrid of silliness and badassery — leaves you with a strange euphoria, then, ding-ding-ding, you’re going to love “Thor: Ragnarok.” It’s not because “Immigrant Song” is in the film’s trailer and used in the actual movie (twice), but because it’s been the root of the film from beginning.
In 2015, Marvel asked Taika Waititi — known as a director for intimate comedies set in his home country of New Zealand, like “Boy” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” — to pitch as director for the next “Thor.” He created a sizzler reel, arranging 20 or so clips from other movies, ranging from action sequences to heartfelt comedy. Underneath them all: “Immigrant Song.” Executives loved the song so much they decided right then to use it. At this point, the film did not even have a story.
With those choices — of “Immigrant Song” and Waititi to direct — executives basically decided on a franchise reboot in everything but name. The third installment in the “Thor” series and the approximately billionth in a series of films and TV shows set in the Marvel Universe would take a radical departure from the epic, if languid, version of “Thor” presented before. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is not the self-serious old god of thunder. He’s decidedly jokey, playing with his lofty Norse god status with winking glee. Much of the dialogue was improvised and Hemsworth can be caught smiling slightly at quips in the background, unable to hold a straight face at times. Rightly knocked off his mountain, the Thor of “Thor: Ragnarok” is enjoyably human. “We basically just destroyed everything,” Waititi told Vulture of the mythology of his Thor.
Given all that, it’s not too surprising that the film’s plotline revolves around upending the old order in hopes of creating a new world of joy, despite a bedeviling past. The central villain is Thor’s long-lost sister Hela (Cate Blanchett), clad in all black as the goddess of death, returning home to reclaim the throne. In doing so she uncovers a history hidden beneath the glories of the empire. Hela helped Odin (Thor’s father, played with Shakespearean range by Anthony Hopkins) conquer many realms, but when Odin wanted to stop, her thirst continued. Odin locked her away. Now she’s back, scoffing at Odin’s version of history that showcases the valiant colonization of lands as peaceful. Odin left Hela, and her role as Odin’s “executioner” — in the movie described as a living instrument to brutally craft the empire’s manifest destiny — out of the pacified tomes.
There’s a provocative political point, kind of, here about the way history glosses over the effects of colonization. It proves clunky, though; the story has to move about to make sure Thor is united with the Hulk, to set up the next battle sequence and to guarantee the next Thor movie can make sense. Even when the plot falters, glimpses of relevancy peak through: People talk of starting a revolution and a lordly slaveholder (Jeff Goldblum) insists that his servants be called “prisoners with jobs.”
The burden of Marvel, in this movie and others in its vast repertoire, is the company’s greatest victory and its biggest curse. Tessa Thompson is hilarious, and undoubtedly a star, as a mythical warrior beating the crap out of people as fireworks explode. It’s everything “Immigrant Song” promises: the incredible thrill of action with a subtle nod to the ridiculousness of it. But, it can get a little tiresome. Yes, Waititi shows great skill in turning Thor into a comedy. But I’d rather him have hunkered down and use all those skills to create something other than a superhero movie.
Because even as the newest edition of the “Thor” movies destroyed the superhero movies of the past, it will not necessarily create a better future. It’s already made a lot of money. That means it will be copied. Sans the capable hands of Waititi, what will the next superhero-movie-that’s-actually-a-comedy be? My guess: not revolutionary joy.