Thor: Ragnarok – Adapting Ancient Mythology in the 21st Century

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By Choi Hoe Chang (18S07A)

There is no doubt that Thor: Ragnarok is a ton of fun.

Director Taika Waititi married his eccentric energy with Marvel’s house style, enabling the “Marvel Formula” – filmmaking and storytelling style that puts emphasis on lightheartedness and spectacle –  to still stand despite the fact that this movie is the 17th installation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

For some context, let’s take a look at the previous Thor films. Thor (2011) and Thor: The Dark World (2013) were characterised by a much more grim atmosphere and colour palette. The movies were similar to Captain America and Iron Man in terms of tone, albeit much less successful. Thor films were always given mixed reviews by critics, and very few fans would name them as their favourite Marvel movies. In comparison to other heroes like Iron Man or Captain America, Thor was always falling behind.

Fast forward to Thor: Ragnarok. The third installation of the Thor series was instantly showered with praise from critics as soon as it was released. Many fans have declared Thor: Ragnarok as their favourite Marvel movie without any hesitation. How on Earth did this happen?

The obvious answer, that all critics and fans have already pointed out, is the series’ tonal shift. Thor: Ragnarok is a colourful and comical cosmic adventure, in clear contrast with the previous two films. Many observant fans have pointed out that Taika Waititi’s approach to Thor: Ragnarok was strikingly similar to Director James Gunn’s approach to Guardians of the Galaxy –  another Marvel series characterised by its wacky humor and colourful design. As a response to this, some critics and fans offer a plausible explanation: The success of Guardians of the Galaxy series served as strong encouragement for Marvel Studios to revamp the Thor series in its third installation.

Admittedly, this major tonal shift from the prequels was a bold move. Such drastic change could have potentially ended up displeasing hardcore Thor fans. Instead, they approved of this new take on Thor and applauded Taika Waititi. With the success of the potentially risky decision, it comes as no surprise to me that Thor: Ragnarok is doing well in the box office. However, what really intrigued me was how Taika Waititi interpreted “Ragnarok”.

As most of us already know, the Thor series draws its lore from Norse mythology. Let’s look at the tale of the mythological Ragnarok, as told by the old Vikings. According to the Poetic Edda – a compilation of ancient poems that are an important source on Norse Mythology – the majority of the Norse gods (such as Odin, Thor, Heimdallr, and Loki) die in an epic battle that will determine the fate of the cosmos. This clash of gods ultimately results in the collapse of the holy ash tree, Yggdrasil, and the entire universe becomes submerged under water. Eventually, the world will resurface and survivors will emerge.

An artist’s interpretation of the mythological Ragnarok, attested by Poetic Edda.

Clearly, the mythological Ragnarok is nothing short of an epic war – quite fitting, considering the brutal lives of the old Vikings. It has been adapted many times over the years, the most celebrated interpretation being Richard Wagner’s epic German drama Der Ring des Nibelungen.

However, Marvel and Taika Waititi’s version of Ragnarok deviates vastly from its predecessors. Odin dies of natural causes, and his death triggers Ragnarok by setting Hela free. Many prominent monsters from the mythology such as the World Serpent are completely absent from the film, although some others such as Fenrir – the giant wolf and one of sons of Loki in the original mythology – appear as Hela’s minions. Asgard is ultimately destroyed like in the mythology, but all other realms and Asgardians survive in the end.

The purpose of the film was evidently not in being a faithful adaptation of the Old Norse epic. Rather, elements from the original myth were simply borrowed by Marvel in order to facilitate Thor’s growth as a character.

Throughout the course of the film, Thor evolves into a completely different character. For instance, you might have noticed that Thor drops his verbose, dramatic speech from previous Marvel films, instead adopting a simpler, casual tone. You might also recall that one scene in the film – spoiler-not-spoiler alert: featuring Stan Lee as an eccentric cyborg barber – where he loses his iconic blonde locks.

More importantly, Thor loses many of his key defining features borrowed from Norse mythology in this film. In retrospect, these losses were necessary for him to evolve beyond his traditional depictions. Thor loses the Mjolnir, but realises his true potential as the God of Thunder. He loses Odin and many of his warrior comrades, but finally fixes his rocky relationship with Loki and makes many new friends. He loses his homeland Asgard, but manages to save the Asgardians and become their new king. This is a complete departure from the previous films, previous interpretations, and of course the original mythology itself. The character development of Thor was clearly the key emphasis and achievement of this film.

Thor Odinson, as seen in Thor: Ragnarok. The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has allowed the Norse God of Thunder to become one of the most beloved superheroes of all time

However, was it necessary for Marvel to “waste” the mythological Ragnarok like this? Indeed, the sheer scale that Ragnarok entails would have enabled Marvel to present an unparalleled cinematic sensation. Unfortunately, the mythology had to be bent and twisted beyond any recognition in order to accommodate Taika Waititi’s vision. The apocalyptic and warlike atmosphere of the mythological Ragnarok would have been completely incompatible with the comedic and light-hearted style of this film. It is by no exaggeration when I claim that the director’s style and the subject matter being compatible was the key to this film’s success.

If you are not convinced, let me give you a counter-example. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, directed by Guy Ritchie, is another mythological-adaptation-blockbuster that came out this year. This film was definitely much more faithful to Arthurian Legends than Thor: Ragnarok was to Norse mythology. Set in medieval England, King Arthur treated us to the world of Arthur Pendragon and Excalibur, knights and witches, medieval castles and ancient forests – you get the point. Despite the undeniable charm and astonishing aesthetics that the film offered, King Arthur was still lambasted by film critics.

The most common complaint was that the director Guy Ritchie’s style was simply not aligned with the magical and epic nature of Arthurian legends. Guy Ritchie, if you are not familiar with him, is best known for British crime films such as Snatch (2000) or Sherlock Holmes (2011). His style is optimized to depict British gangsters storming the back alleys of London, not to follow the epic journey of a prophesied hero. There were definitely some alterations in the legends here and there to match Guy Ritchie’s storytelling and filmmaking style, but not enough for the critics to be convinced by a street gangster Arthur Pendragon running around in Londinium.

Poster for the film King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Despite the charm and entertainment that this film offered, critics were not impressed by Guy Ritchie’s interpretation of Arthurian legends.

Personally, I found King Arthur incredibly enjoyable. But I had to agree with film critics that Guy Ritchie just was not the right guy for the job. The failure of King Arthur lies in its inherently flawed premise, and perhaps more importantly the lack of extreme reinterpretation – which Taika Waititi exploited to create Thor: Ragnarok – to compensate for it.

Now imagine Taika Waititi, best known for his character-centric comedies such as Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) or What We Do in the Shadows (2011), attempting to film an epic struggle that will bring the end of time. You could bring up the fact that Taika Waititi also directed Moana (2016) to prove that he has the capability to do mythological epics. Perhaps, but the bulk of Moana was about the growth of Moana as a character, and less about the epic aspect of the journey.

If you are still wondering if Thor: Ragnarok could have done the mythological Ragnarok some justice instead of regretfully down-scaling it, fret not. As fellow Marvel fans are already aware, this was a necessary sacrifice in order to set up for Avengers: Infinity War (2018).

The highly anticipated third installation of Avengers saga will feature the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in an epic battle against Thanos the Titan. Thus far, over 30 major characters have been confirmed to be part of Infinity War, and Marvel has promised that even more iconic characters from the comics will be introduced in this film. As a matter of fact, all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has thus far been created for the purpose of setting up for Infinity War.

Ironically, it is expected that Infinity War will be much more resemblant to the mythological Ragnarok than the rather humble interpretation we saw in Thor: Ragnarok.

Overall, Thor: Ragnarok is deviant from both its prequels and its mythological source material. Despite this, it is still a very solid piece of entertainment, and a fine example of character development. Ultimately, Thor evolved in the same way his colleagues did in their respective stories. Tony Stark pulled out the Arc reactor from his chest in Iron Man 3, and Steve Rogers dropped his shield in Captain America: Civil War, and Thor Odinson lost his Mjolnir in Thor: Ragnarok. But they are all still the heroes we know and love, and so much more.

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