Without fail, upon the release of a new Marvel movie, critical cynicism reaches a new peak. Make no mistake, Thor: Ragnarok has gotten good reviews. But even the favorable reviews seem skeptical this gigantic Marvel experiment. An otherwise positive notice at Vox notes the “current glut of superhero TV shows and movies.” The writer isn’t wrong- it feels like there’s too much of everything at this point- but the phrase is a microcosm of critical feeling about Marvel movies: there’s too many of these things, and we’re tired of watching them.
It’s an understandable feeling, but audiences don’t seem to agree. The three Marvel Cinematic Universe movies released this year (including Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming) are all in the top half of all the franchise’s opening weekend totals (17 in all), which suggests audience interest is still high. And when people see the movies, they’ve told other people they like them; all three are now in the franchise’s top ten grosses (and Ragnarok will likely rise into the top half), suggesting word of mouth continues to be strong for Marvel’s movies.
Of course, if you’re looking at my use of the movies’ popularity as an argument for their quality and about to tell me that popularity isn’t an indicator of quality, I’m way ahead of you. A lot of movies make a lot of money and are still bad movies. What I’m pointing out is the discrepancy between the appetites of audiences and critics. Critics want to be thoughtful about movies, and many people in the general populace couldn’t care less about thinking about movies.
One of the reasons it’s hard to be think critically about a Marvel movie is that many of them have been tied to setting up the next one, especially a lot of them between the first Avengers and the second. Movies that don’t stand alone don’t stand up well to critical thought. But the three Marvel movies released this year suggest Marvel may be changing its model, and critics and audiences both win as a result.
For one, Marvel appears to be relaxing its grip on the tone of its movies. Thor: Ragnarok is the most extreme example of this yet. Taika Waititi, celebrated in indie circles for What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, strikes a much lighter chord in this direction than any Marvel director yet. Even James Gunn with his Guardians movies and Peyton Reed with Ant-Man were a little more beholden than Waititi to the Marvel tone, which allows for humor but never allows it to be the point of a scene. Humor is the whole point of Thor: Ragnarok’s entirety.
That’s not to say Waititi doesn’t take these characters seriously. There are real arcs to all the main players: Thor (a Chris Hemsworth who finally gets to really let his comedy chops loose) gradually comes to accept his role as Asgard’s protector, Hulk (a manic Mark Ruffalo) finds belonging, Valkyrie (a scene-stealing Tessa Thompson) regains her purpose. These are legitimate plotlines given weight by a director who cares about these characters. But part of their growth involves flying into a wormhole named the Devil’s Anus. The humor is baked into the plot, which makes for a movie with joy and delight at its core.
Marvel also appears more willing to allow its movies to function on their own without constant callbacks to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s not to say Thor: Ragnarok is completed devoid of references to the other Avengers. But Ragnarok’s plot appears to be unconnected to the main thrust of Marvel’s current phase, allowing Waititi to tell a complete story from beginning to end. The movie’s themes are the better for it: a nation-state’s value lying in its people and not its land, a hero learning to take ownership of his fate, coming to terms with the sins of our fathers, etc. None of these would have been better served by a movie beholden to other plots outside of its own, without a true beginning or end.
Of course, if you know anything at all about the comics, it’s not hard to draw the lines from Ragnarok to the rest of the MCU. Hela (Cate Blanchett, devouring the CGI scenery), Thor’s sister, is the goddess of death, and upcoming MCU villain Thanos commits many of his most heinous acts in the comics to impress Death. Also, apparently Thanos and Hela recently made out in the comics. So the lines are there, but unlike in previous MCU installments, you aren’t forced to look at them. Ragnarok feels like a movie that shapes the MCU rather than one shaped by it.
The best way Marvel shows in Thor: Ragnarok that it is learning is Tessa Thompson. Of course, there’s the fact that she’s a black actress integral to the plot, which is a nice change of pace from blockbusters in general, not to mention from the largely white, male MCU. But the comic-book character her role is based on, Valkyrie, is a blonde, blue-eyed woman from a clan filled with blonde, blue-eyed women. Seeing as all of these characters are derived from Norse mythology, their complexion and hair color makes sense. So Marvel’s decision to cast Thompson in the role feels like a deliberate statement about what they value in their characters (at least going forward), and it’s not their race.
Waititi surely had a lot to do with the decision, as did the fact that Thompson has proven herself to be among the best actresses of her generation already in multiple roles. But whoever’s decision it was, Marvel had to approve it. They also had to approve Waititi’s conscious effort to include the aboriginal people of Australia in the production crew and cast, seeing as much of the film was made there. This isn’t Marvel’s normal way of doing things, and the willingness to allow modifications to their process is encouraging.
Marvel could keep doing the same thing and would likely make a lot of people happy and continue making a lot of money. But they are gradually changing how they function as a creative organization, and it’s showing in the quality of the movies. Critical cynicism may never go away, but if Marvel continues in this direction, it will undoubtedly decline. And we will undoubtedly win.