Thor: Ragnarok & The Snowman

October 20, 2017
Thor & his buddy
Thor & his buddy

At the beginning of this week I was looking forward to The Snowman, based on a gripping crime novel by Norway’s Jo Nesbø. I had fewer expectations for another Scandinavian saga – Thor:Ragnarok, the third installment of the popular Marvel superhero franchise. By the end of the week my expectations had been trashed so effectively it was as if Thor had pummelled them with his hammer.

Some may argue that crime fiction and superhero comics are merely different varieties of cultural trash, but great crime writing – from Raymond Chandler to Georges Simenon to Jo Nesbø – is hugely superior to so much contemporary ‘literature’

It’s harder to make a case for superhero comics despite the undeniable talents of illustrators such as Jack Kirby. Those capes and leotards don’t lend themselves to pathos and psychological complexity – which doesn’t mean creators don’t keep trying. Ultimately it’s more satisfying to have characters leaping tall buildings in a single bound and tearing fruit machines apart with their eyeballs.

And so it was devastating to find what Tomas Alfredson and a trio of writers had done to Nesbø’s novel. No screenplay needs to slavishly echo its source – quite the contrary! But the changes should have a sense of cinematic necessity. In The Snowman, the story has been dismembered in the same way the murderer sets about his victims.

Pieces of the original plot float around like bits of meat in an unappealing stew. The changes add nothing to the story while throwing away all the ingenuity. There are images in the book that are inherently cinematic but most of them have been ignored by the filmmakers. There is an artistry to Nesbø’s murders, but Alfredson thinks it’s better to have heads blown off with a shotgun.

The screenplay clings to the bare names of characters, while rearranging their personalities, their motivations and their roles. Everything vaguely threatening is underlined by creepy music. Meanwhile the film seems to have been put together by a Scandinavian tourist committee – from endless snowy scenery to a gratuitous burst of Sigur Ros. It’s a waste of a first-rate cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Charlotte Gainsbourg and J.K.Simmons.

How surprising then, to find that New Zealand director, Taika Waititi, has managed to find a completely new way of re-energising the inherently absurd superhero genre – by turning it into a comedy.

It was always intriguing to imagine how Waititi, known as a director of Kiwi cult movies, would deal with the huge budgets and CGI fixations of a Hollywood blockbuster. These films are often dictated by the studios, with mere cyphers as directors, so Marvel and Disney deserve credit for allowing Waititi to exercise a high degree of creative control.

It may be they realised the superhero film was becoming too dark, too pretentious, and too repetitive for box office comfort. Ever since Tim Burton portrayed Batman as an troubled soul, there has been a tendency to squeeze as much angst as possible out of each character. Perhaps the low point was Zack Snyder’s DC comics extravaganza, Batman v. Superman (2016), in which the Man of Steel was a depressive and the Caped Crusader a psychotic sadist.

Waititi has turned the genre on its head. His version of the Mighty Thor is a polite, dim but diffident character who doesn’t insist too much when anyone calls him “Lord of Thunder” rather than “God of Thunder”, even though it’s an irritation. His brother, Loki, was recently trying to destroy the world, but Thor is willing to let bygones by bygones. His banter with the Incredible Hulk turns the story into the weirdest of buddy films.

There are elements of slapstick and deadpan humour, along with an outrageous number of Kiwis (and Kiwi gags). The director includes himself in the persona of stone man, Korg, sounding like a Maori guy from the suburbs.

Waititi figured out pretty quickly that Chris Hemsworth must have been in the gym when everyone else was in acting classes. So while he may look like a sculptured hunk, when he opens his mouth Hemsworth is either declaiming or muttering in an indeterminant accent. This is hopeless for drama but has great comic potential. As a result, Hemsworth’s Thor manages to raise a laugh even in mortal combat with his sometime mate, the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) or his evil sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett).

The battle scenes and CGI are just as spectacular as any superhero flick, but we wait in anticipation of the next joke. The music, chosen by ex-Devo frontman and Wes Anderson collaborator, Mark Mothersbaugh, is the perfect foil to this less bombastic approach.

Waititi has brought the gods and superheroes down to earth by embracing the inherently ridiculous nature of these films. Instead of a story so bad it’s unintentionally funny, he has made the entire movie into a costume farce. In place of the odd one-liner, he has produced a comic script that just keeps rolling. In doing so he has turned the genre on its head, producing a livewire entertainment that will force future directors of superhero films to hesitate before turning out another grim, grey, doom-laden epic. Thor: Ragnarok may be not simply the end for the realm of the Gods, it may be the turning point for a genre that had become an ongoing parody of itself.

Thor: Ragnarok
Directed by Taika Waititi
Written by Eric Pearson, after a story by Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost & Eric Pearson; based on Marvel Comics by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Tessa Thompson, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Anthony Hopkins, Karl Urban, Taiki Waititi
USA, rated ?, 130 mins

The Snowman
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Written by Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan & Soren Sveistrup, based on a novel by Jo Nesbo
Starring Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Chloë Sevigny, Val Kilmer, J.K.Simmons, Charlotte Gainsbourg, James D’Arcy, David Dencik
USA/UK/Sweden, rated MA 15+, 119 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 21 October, 2017