In which I alienate Marvel fans, all of China and Stephen Universe fans!
I took my boys to see Thor: Ragnarok yesterday since they had the day off from school. I recently sat through Iron Man and totally enjoyed Wonder Woman, but I am not a big fan of comic book movies. Tim Burton’s Batman was cool, but in the past ten years things have really gotten out of control with comic book movies. Wonder Woman was an exception, but when I watch these movies usually I feel like I’m not really seeing a story acted out, but loosely strung-together action sequences. Everyone’s flying through the air and kicking the crap out of each other and completely destroying entire cities. The action just goes on and on, and lately they seem to take themselves way too seriously with the whole moral ambiguity thing (forgetting that moral clarity is what makes superheroes). As I said about Rogue One, I would much rather see an action/adventure/fantasy story about some new material instead of a comic hero or Star Wars.
I was actually interested in seeing Thor: Ragnarok because I was trying to figure out who this Thor is, having seen only clips of the other movies, including all the other ones he’s in. I am a fan of Norse Mythology but Thor is a comic book, and the Thor and Avenger movies seem to criss-cross Norse myth with regular crime-fighting superhero stuff, and so I wanted to see what it actually was about. I am not worried about my kids getting the wrong idea about things. I want them to have taste, but they are pre-pubertal boys, and they like superheroes and action movies. That’s just fine.
Movies just look fake these days
What I found was a bizarre mix of fantasy, sci-fi, comic book action, too much action, comedy, drama, family drama, mythological action, and a cameo by Dr. Strange. And there was of course the over-the-top villains, and the fight scenes that went on too long where everybody was flying through the air and the obligatory hard rock (in this case Led Zeppelin, which never would have happened when I was a kid). As I predicted, also, this movie and most movies that I see these days look fake. I know the CGI is so good that I don’t know when I am seeing it, but most of it just looks like Spy Kids to me. I don’t know enough about film to say why, but there is too much contrast (in the photographic sense). All the sets and costumes look like plastic with a heavy layer of shellac, like even the actors are CGI. When I watch a movie from before 2002, I feel like I’m seeing something real, not a cartoon.
This is not a review, just an analysis of what the hell’s going on with movies these days. Go ahead and see it. It’s fun, but from a filmic perspective it was just confusing to me. It finally occurred to me that what I was seeing was something like a Kung-Fu movie or a Bollywood movie. Thor: Ragnarok couldn’t really decide whether it was fantasy, sci-fi, or strict action, or comedy. Despite some good acting, it seemed strung together in order to show us cool stuff. Maybe that’s just action movies, but action movies from a few years ago had real stories. There is a story in Thor: Ragnarok but it mainly serves to bridge one action sequence to another. The action sequences are so over the top that they are predictable. They keep going over the same top over and over again.
Why wouldn’t the movie play like an Asian film when it makes most of its money in Asia?
Of course the resemblance to Kung-Fu movies is not incidental: these movies make most of their money in Asia. If a movie can’t make money in Asia, often it doesn’t get made. It seems plausible to me that Hollywood is not just borrowing actors from China, but also filmmaking techniques. Now I’m not saying Chinese audiences are unsophisticated (maybe they are, but I can’t substantiate that), or that Americans can’t appreciate this style of film (I do know plenty of unsophisticated Americans who just want to see stuff blow up in movies), but thinking of something like Thor: Ragnarok as a Kung-Fu movie did a lot to explain the strange mix of technology and fantasy found in the film.
I can’t quite put my finger on what bothers me so much about seeing Norse Gods flying spaceships, but it seems silly to me, almost like the filmmakers don’t think I’ll notice, and I’ll just wait until the next action sequence to forget how weird that is. I guess Thor: Ragnarok didn’t have to decide whether to be fantasy, action, sci-fi, or comedy because nobody cares except people like me, and I still paid $7.50 to see it.
On the other hand, these movies are getting better (or more watchable). Wonder Woman was really a good movie with a good story and good actors, and grimy sets that looked like they weren’t quite CGI. Kids’ movies just keep getting better and better; there will never be another Dark Crystal, but Zootopia, Frozen, and Moana were all excellent films. I am in the target audience for those films, whereas I doubt I am for Thor: Ragnarok. I would rather see another King Lear than see another Superman movie.