Three fingers of analysis when two will do.
Pages of this magazine – and, I think, this very issue – have been devoted to righteously criticizing the ubiquitous use of nostalgia as a marketing and/or story angle, especially when it comes in the über-popular eighties flavor.
It can be effective, no doubt. A bunch of us are in our thirties or forties and it’s bitchin’ to be reminded of the idylls of youth, though I’m not sure spewing out a three-page laundry list of inconsequential references makes for engaging or particularly entertaining reading, and attaching a track from the “Bring Back the 80’s” Spotify playlist to the beginning of every. single. scene in the first episode of your kid adventure series is enough to make a person click out of there faster than a DeLorean heading back to the future. When done well, though, it’s a whole other (Ender’s) game.
I sat through Thor: Ragnarok this weekend with a big ol’ dopey grin on my face and it wasn’t just because it wears its comedic aspirations on its sleeve. Taika Waititi’s particular aesthetic hits way more personal sweet spots than the other retro-infused properties flooding our feeds these days. Truth be told, I actually wasn’t super cognizant of the eighties – I was six in 1989 – but the roller rink my middle-school YMCA camp would take us to was decorated like Duran Duran was still in their heyday, or at least the DJ spun like they were.
The summers I spent cruising around the worn floors of the Roll-O-Rama were the same ones I spent discovering and devouring comic books. Sometimes I’d read them sitting off to the side of the rink, my mouth working a plug of banana taffy and my feet rolling back and forth beneath a ketchup-smeared table. I’d swap with my friends once I finished an issue and then we’d compare and contrast the powers of our favorite heroes. We were young enough not to care about the condition of the books, just the content. We hardly ever had two issues from the same team, let alone the same story arc. The before and after of each chapter was filled in by our imaginations, informed as they were by the sound of The Bangles and the smell of fry-grease.
Thor: Ragnarok is as big and bright and colorful as the memories of my skating days. It’s a perfect fit for a film featuring a place like Asgard, where the main road to and from is an intergalactic rainbow highway. The score is full of synthesizers, but in the hands of composer Mark Mothersbaugh, of Devo, it’s so solidly retro it comes back around to futuristic. It’s what we thought the future would sound like when we were little and now that we’re exploring the outer bounds of the universe, the sonic present is exactly what we always knew it’d be. There’s a whole planet where the inhabitants paint colored shapes on their faces like they’re living Patrick Nagel illustrations and where, a direct elbow to the audience’s ribs, a guy puts on a t-shirt with a Patrick Nagel illustration printed on the front.
The whole thing is just plain fun, from the sound to the sets to the costumes to the lighting to the special effects to the actors’ actual, genuine laughter. Smiling and laughing are some of the hardest things to pull off as an actor. Like a sociopath who mimics emotion precisely but not quite authentically, an actor laughing on cue often carries a slight chill of unreality, bare as it may be. It’s why watching a Saturday Night Live cast member naturally break can result in cathartic giggles for the viewer and why she feels annoyed when the same cast member forces the break in a retread of the sketch the next week. I’d wager all or nearly all of the comedic bits in Thor: Ragnarok heavily feature improvisation. I saw Chris Hemsworth crack a real grin at least half a dozen times, letting his smile be both Thor’s and his, which means it’s true twice. He was far from the only one.
It’s these scenes of actors cracking each other up that ignite the warmest fires of nostalgia in me. Everything feels conversational. There’s none of the too-quick pattering of slick, predetermined bon mots that’s the specialty of so many modern comedic scripts. These characters are surprised by what the others have to say. They’ll get tripped up before laughing, or even ask for further clarification of an idea. They spin off in wild, absurd directions, talking about riding hammers in order to fly, or a trickster’s meanest trick being when he turned into a snake – not because snakes are scary, but because they’re very cool, and who wouldn’t want to hold one to admire it? But then the cool snake turns out to be your baby brother who says, “Ha, it’s me! Your brother!”
That was my friends and me at the roller rink: eating junk, reading comic book stories piecemeal and riffing on each other’s ridiculous ideas about supersonic farts being someone’s superpower, probably. We were still young enough to believe we’d change the world someday and, gliding (flying) through lasers, we’d each ask it to “Take On Me” at the top of our lungs. Out of all the comic book movies and nostalgia bombs being tossed around these days, only Ragnarok took me all the way back there and made me feel it all over again. Feeling it all over again is kind of like laughing for real in a movie – it means it’s true twice. I guess the world is still going to have to take me on.