In the mid 70s when Illya and Alexander Salkind were getting their Superman movie off the ground (pun intended), they pulled off quite the coup by hiring the Godfather author Mario Puzo to write the screenplay. Because his novel was turned into a very compelling and profitable movie, the Salkinds had confidence they’d get a script befitting their vision of the Man of Steel. What they got, though, was a 500 page comedy treatment reminiscent of the 1960s Batman Series.
David and Leslie Newman were then brought in to revamp the script and reduce the size. The end result of the Puzo/Newman screenplay, however, was still a very silly movie. One scene, for example, had Superman swoop down on who he believed was Lex Luthor but was, in fact, 70s iconic bald TV detective Kojak, complete with his trademark lollipop and catchphrase, “Who loves ya, baby?”
Director Richard Donner finally drew a line in the sand. Believing superheroes should be played straight, he declared his belief that if they, the producers of the film, didn’t take the source material seriously, then neither would the movie-going audience. So Donner hired a third writer, Tom Mankiewicz, to rewrite the script and give him what eventually became the blueprint for all Superhero movies to follow: Superman The Movie.
I’ve often used that story when writing about the general tone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Snarky heroes, quick with the one-liners, taking a familiar ‘rise, fall and rise again’ path to eventual victory over the bad guy, all against a backdrop of bright colors and snappy CGI action. Save for a few, each hero can be seamlessly replaced with another in the course of a film without slowing the pace or anyone really noticing. Thor and Captain America were the two lone exceptions until Thor: Ragnarok. But now, even the God of Thunder has been given the Tony Stark Snark touch.
Putting aside Guardians of the Galaxy and Spider-Man, two franchises that bring their humorous elements from their comics, I felt certain Marvel’s films would start drifting towards a more serious take on their superhero properties. It seemed evident with Captain America: Civil War. At some point in pre-production, the producers seemed to have said, “this wise-cracking formula is wearing thin, we need to be a little more serious with the source material.”
Halfway through the production: “Aw man, this serious stuff is boring as hell, let’s make it funny again.”
But near the end of the production, the tone shifted a third time: “Damn, we were right to begin with, this slapstick shtick has run it’s course. We’ll make a billion dollars, but years from now people will say Marvel ruined the superhero genre.” It wouldn’t be the first time.
Warner Brothers ruined the genre not once, but twice. In the late 80s, producers of the Superman franchise were led to believe people craved silliness from their heroes because a few comedic lines went over well in the first two installments. Believing they’d been given a license to be funny, they proceeded to ground the Superman franchise for 20 years. In the mid 90s, Joel Schumacher doomed Tim Burton‘s gothic Batman universe with silliness, something he later apologized for.
Chris Nolan‘s more recent Batman trilogy flipped the script, as did Bryan Singer‘s X-Men series and the first two Spider-man films. Those movies, especially the The Dark Knight, gave audiences a more serious take on the source material. Iron Man soon followed and, while it was more humorous than the other superhero films of that time period, the film wasn’t banking on that to be a success. But like the Superman and Batman series of decades past, someone in the Marvel realm believed it was LOLs that made Iron Man a hit, so Marvel has followed that model ever since, often turning up the funny to sophomoric levels.
DC films, on the other hand, continued down the more serious trail blazed by Nolan. While Singer’s 2006 Superman Returns was satisfying enough for both audiences and critics, they believed the character could take a more realistic turn. Enter Zach Snyder, a director who’s used his films to seemingly ask: What if these superheroes existed in our own real, flawed, fucked up world? What would be the social, religious, and political implications of god-like beings and vigilantes living among us? While Marvel films are escapism, a peek inside real-life comic books, comics don’t exist in the realm of DC. We’re not spectators, we’re involved.
Which brings me to Thor: Ragnarok, a thoroughly enjoyable comedy about comedians pretending to be Superheroes. Formerly one of Marvel’s straight-laced defenders from evil, Thor’s now on the standup circuit in Asgard. Hilarity ensues.
It’s two year after the Battle of Sokovia and Thor has been unsuccessfully searching for the Infinity Stones. While a prisoner of the fire demon Surtur, it’s revealed Thor’s father Odin is no longer on Asgard and the realm will soon be destroyed in the Ragnarök, a prophesy of events that will lead to the deaths of Odin, Loki, and Thor. Of course, Thor kicks Surtur’s ass and believes he’s prevented Ragnarök.
When Thor returns to Asgard, he finds his enemy and brother Loki fronting as Odin. Thor recruits him in his search for Odin who they find in Norway, thanks to Dr. Strange. Odin is dying and his death will get his babygirl Hela a get out of jail free card. At one time Hela was the leader of Asgard’s armies but got too ambitious. Can’t have a woman running shit in Asgard! Long story short, Odin passes, which releases Hela who goes on a reign of terror. Thor’s jimmies get rustled and his hammer gets destroyed and she chases him and Loki to outer space to die. Hela jets back to Asgard, and, in true Jason and the Argonauts style, resurrects the ancient dead she once commanded and sets out to expand Asgard’s empire.
Meanwhile Thors crashes on the planet Sakaar, is captured by a bounty hunter, and forced to become a gladiator for the Grandmaster, the planet’s ruler. Thor recognizes one of the other gladiators as Valkyrior, Thor’s version of Amazons who were killed defending Asgard from Hela years earlier. In one of the film’s most effective sequences (it was funny) Thor is forced to fight the Hulk who he almost defeats but Grandmaster has the fight rigged for Hulk. Thor attempts to convince Hulk and Valkyie to help him save Asgard, but they politely decline. Of course, the eventually agree, lead a rebellion, head back to Asgard, and defeat Hela. Thor becomes king and take his people to Earth.
Great SFX and more than a few belly laughs make for great escapism. There’s no social or political commentary here. There’s no parallels to our reality so there’s no real conversation starters over drinks afterwards except how funny it was in some parts and pathetically campy in others. All of that seems like a good idea now as box office numbers continue to trend upward, but I feel like I did when the James Bond and Terminator series were rebooted as slapstick comedies. Oh right! That never happened because the stewards of those properties know any success from such a move would come back to haunt them later.
You can’t put Abbot and Costello or the Three Stooges in tights and call it a Superhero movie. All Thor: Ragnarok needed was the “bam” “pow” images to pop up during fights and William Dozier‘s 1960s vision of Superheroes would have been complete.