With Thor: Ragnarok continuing to hammer its way through the box office, Marvel Studios has another hit on its hands. Ragnarok is another success for the movie-making formula that has come to define the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That formula: explosive action + witty banter = heroics with a heart. But should all of Marvel’s movies be aiming for laughs? And are they taking those laughs too far?
As a long-time Marvel junkie, I’ve been one of the MCU’s biggest fans since the first Iron Man movie a decade ago. Since then, I’ve been first in line to watch a whopping seventeen films, plus ten television shows and counting. And I’ve loved nearly all of them! Marvel Studios has managed to distill the best part of the comics into their films – the idea of a single shared universe, where events in one story affect all of the others. And Marvel films feel like one connected story, thanks to a consistent tone and style, maintained under the watchful eye of Kevin Feige and company.
The epitome of this Marvel style, Thor: Ragnarok is a colorful, hilarious romp filled with kooky characters, awesome effects, and knock-down, drag-out fights. It’s a great movie that had me smiling for two hours straight, and a redeeming return for the character after the bland Thor: The Dark World. So why, the entire time I was watching, couldn’t I shake the feeling that there was something inherently wrong with the film?
The problem was that I wasn’t watching a superhero movie. I was watching a comedy. An action-packed comedy, to be sure, but a comedy nonetheless. Every Marvel film has had plenty of funny moments, of course. Ragnarok’s brand of humor is nothing new. Maybe that’s part of the problem. Where the laughs used to be a pleasant surprise, now they’re par for the course. These are the kinds of jokes we’ve come to expect. But more than that, it feels like the purpose of humor in Marvel films has changed. Jokes used to be intended as comic relief amid more serious or dramatic moments. Now, comedy seems to be the goal in and of itself.
As Marvel has moved into “Phase 3” (post-Avengers: Age of Ultron), the films have leaned more and more into the humorous style James Gunn established in Guardians of the Galaxy. Ragnarok Director Taika Waititi perfectly captures the irreverent spirit of Gunn’s films, complete with the vibrant visual language he established for outer space in the MCU. A man made of rock and a bug with blades for hands are right at home in a universe with a gun-toting raccoon and a sentient tree. More importantly, Ragnarok matches Guardians’ humor to a tee. The tongue-in-cheek quips come just as fast and furious from Thor and company as they did from Star-Lord and Rocket.
That all sounds like a good thing, and in many ways, it is! But unlike the Guardians, Thor isn’t meant to be a comedic character. In previous films and the comics that inspired them, Thor is presented as a noble warrior – brash and egotistic, but fiercely loyal and driven. He’s been capable of humor, certainly, and his arrogance has always been good fodder for a joke. But now he’s suddenly a comedian? One could argue that he’s picked up a sense of humor from his time on Earth. In some ways, this version of Thor is a natural progression for the character. But in my opinion it’s an overcorrection for the dullness of the franchise’s previous outing. The constant jokes suck the drama out of the film. Thor’s primary purpose in Ragnarok is to make us laugh, and his emotional arc suffers as a result.
That goes double for the Hulk. He’s played almost entirely for laughs. The Hulk we’d seen up until now was a force of nature – raw emotion and rage personified. Here he’s just a big dumb brute. We finally hear the Hulk speak more than a word or two, and every line elicits a laugh at his or Thor’s expense. His other half is no better. Bruce Banner wakes up on an alien world to find he’s lost two years of his life trapped inside a monster. We get a brief moment to see the emotional impact of that realization, and then proceed to laugh it off as quickly as he and Thor seem to.
What I find even more frustrating is that Hulk’s role in Ragnarok is directly inspired by the comic Planet Hulk, one of the most highly regarded Hulk storylines in recent memory and a personal favorite. Korg, Miek, and the planet Sakaar itself are all pulled from this story, in which a stoic, intelligent Hulk rises from slavery to become a gladiator and then a king. What we got in Ragnarok was a far cry from that version of the green goliath.
I’m not one of those fans who treats the comics as dogma. Comic books don’t always translate directly to the big screen. I’ve always admired Marvel Studios for their ability to capture the essence of the source material – the key themes and character elements that make their heroes work – without directly adapting any particular story. But I think this time they strayed a bit too far from what makes these characters great in pursuit of laughs.
From the demon Surtur being made the butt of jokes, to the unfulfilling deaths of the Warriors Three, genuine pathos take a backseat to humor. The worst offender comes at the very end of the film, during the climactic moment of Asgard’s destruction. Thor, Loki, and an entire ship full of Asgardians look on in horror as their entire world literally explodes. Meanwhile, Korg cracks a joke. What should be the most emotional moment of the film is undercut for a cheap laugh. It’s indicative of Ragnarok’s, and to an extent the entire MCU’s philosophy – superheroes should be fun. But Marvel is underestimating its audience if it thinks we can’t handle genuine drama without constant comic relief.
Much of what made the first Avengers movie so great was the interaction between established characters with distinct personalities and worldviews. Now the MCU’s heroes seem to be in danger of blurring into a single quip machine in the vein of Tony Stark. If every character makes jokes no matter the situation, then the audience can’t take anything seriously.
Don’t get me wrong. I much prefer the Marvel approach than the self-serious take on superheroes of the DC Cinematic Universe. But if the MCU is going to stay fresh for another decade, the movies need to respect the characters enough to allow them to breathe without constant comic intervention. If Marvel wants to be in the business of making comedies, that’s their prerogative. But when Thanos finally arrives on Earth in Avengers: Infinity War, I for one would like to experience the gravity of that long-anticipated moment uninterrupted by sarcasm or snark.