*Spoilers for ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ and ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’*
To be necessarily clear, Thor: Ragnarok is a far better film than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. There is no debate. But that’s not the question here.
The question is of value — something that’s rather subjective and, thus, changes from person to person. In regard to both of these films, I personally see a difference in what value they add to the superhero genre, and in what value they hold as films in general. There’s no doubting that Thor: Ragnarok has great value if only considering the fact that more people now know who Taika Waititi is. The film is also stunning to look at, a visually beautiful and coherently composed comic book movie — a rarity among the miles of grey muck that have become a staple in the very universe that I’m about to make a case for.
But when thinking about which film I value more, I quite easily gravitate to Batman v Superman. Again, to be clear, it’s not a good film. It’s a perfect example of sloppy storytelling. But I find myself hooked by the story Batman v Superman wants to tell more than the story Thor: Ragnarok does. The third Thor film is rather clean, generally well-executed storytelling — yet I feel so little depth in its ideas. With Batman v Superman, I’ve yet to mine all of the intricacies behind its ugly mask.
Thor: Ragnarok is not without its share of fascinating ideas. Introducing Hela as Thor’s sister and revealing that Odin did not come to Asgard in peace, but rather as a conqueror, present brilliantly complex conflict for both the story and for Thor, our main character. Smashing Thor’s hammer in the first act is a necessary kind of superhero deconstruction, asking who this character is without his most powerful weapon. And using biblical and immigrant imagery, to the tone of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, sets up the climax to be gripping and emotional.
But Ragnarok gets lost in its second act and fails to execute what it wants to do with its third. The planet of Sakaar has the ingredients to carry the story’s thematic concerns along through the film’s middle — a dictator who subjects his people to Roman-like arena death battles while most live in poverty. It had the chance to be a mirror to Asgard and to help Thor learn what he must to be able to come back and dethrone Hela.
But the film’s greatest asset, its comedy, also washes over this potential. While moments such as Thor and Hulk bantering in Hulk’s room or Korg being the one of the most hilarious characters in the MCU are entertaining, they’re given too much time. The film tips overboard in its improvisation without considering what that might do to the development of the story and to the arc of Thor.
To be brutally honest, I feel as though the second act flatlines in hindsight. It’s fun, but once we get to the third act and realize that Thor has to defend his people, take down Hela and make the choice to leave Asgard behind, we realize that the second act wasn’t enough — not even close to enough. Thor taking on Hela should’ve held so much more weight; this is his sister and, if he can love Loki like a true brother, he should be much more conflicted about Hela. It shouldn’t feel as though we’re watching Thor “beat” her, but more so overcome this part of his family that naturally leans toward ruling rather than leading. Thus, the thematic imagery at the end, of the people of Asgard fleeing across the bridge, doesn’t hit home emotionally.
In essence, I find only so much value in Thor: Ragnarok as a superhero film. It’s hilarious, but even the jokes fall flat once the story does.
While the way in which it tells its story is muddled, on a conceptual level, I see a consistency of interest in what Batman v Superman wants to do throughout its entirety.
The opening does so much work, driving home the character motivation of Bruce Wayne with harrowing, 9/11-esque visuals. It perfectly juxtaposes the two characters and sets up the dynamic between Batman and Superman — a man and a god.
Throughout the film, in every layer, this is what’s at stake. Bruce Wayne fears the power of a god, that, at any moment, this god could wipe out millions of lives. Each moment with Bruce Wayne is gripping as his character traverses an arc of growing anger. On the other hand, Superman grapples with the fact that he’s provoking so much fear. He’s a character who believes in good and is challenged when he sees that his efforts for good don’t inspire more of it in mankind. Some have contended that Zack Snyder’s portrayal of Superman goes against who the character is and, to be fair, I’m not aware of who exactly the character is in the comics. But there’s a logic to the direction of his character in this world that Snyder created.
This tension is extended to Holly Hunter’s Senator Finch and to Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, as both are concerned with the same thing — Superman’s power — but tackle that concern in different ways. Luthor’s backstory, having a German father who “had to march in a parade and wave flowers at tyrants,” which is heavy with implications, informs this intensely vengeful distaste for a figure with such tyrannical potential. Seeing Luthor force this god to his knees by threatening his humanity — his mother — is the kind of superhero imagery I want; it’s visually brilliant on an aesthetic level, but even more so because of its thematic level.
In regard to Superman’s humanity, Batman v Superman’s climax, the Martha moment, is horrendously executed. It’s terrible, and there’s no defending how it was portrayed. But it’s unfair to write off the concept there as equally terrible because it’s consistent with the story’s development. The only way Bruce can overcome his anger for Superman is to see him as Clark, to see him as a human being. So while the execution is poor, the idea is admirable. And to have man actually best god is even more admirable.
And, once Batman and Superman have reconciled, to then have man and god face the devil — Doomsday, who is created by man — is another sign of thematic consistency, and becomes even more engaging when it’s god who sacrifices himself for a mankind that never truly believed in him.
It may sound like I’m touting Batman v Superman as a brilliant movie, but I’m not. I’m simply admiring the deep fascination and care it has for story and character, regardless of how bad its storytelling is. That’s where the difference is for me. In Thor: Ragnarok, I see adept storytelling, but so much less care for character and story. While its execution is cleaner, it feels more hollow.
In essence, I’m admiring ambition. I value the attempt of Batman v Superman more so than the success of Thor: Ragnarok. I want superhero films that genuinely want to do something great with its characters.
Featured image via Warner Bros.