Masters of the Ragnarok: Thor and All Those Rad 80’s Callbacks

If you’re a comic book movie fan of a certain age, you couldn’t help but notice how Thor: Ragnarok pushes all your nostalgia buttons for the 1980’s.  (Box Office Mojo attests that 63% percent of Thor fans were over the age of 25.  Non-teen movie fans, represent!) From the sweet synth-heavy Mark Mothersbaugh score to the side-scrollery end credits awash in purples and pinks, the movie seemed tailored to give the Member Berries crowd some serious conniption fits.

The special effects, in particular, recalled bygone scenes created using more practical methods.  When Thor unleash his lightning powers, I can’t be the only one who immediately thought of Big Trouble in Little China.  Or saw the aliens of Sakaar covered in makeshift, vaguely tribal costumes made of junk and thought of Australian sci-fi, specifically the hub-cap festooned denizens of the Mad Max deserts.  A lot of the time, I wondered whether the props were made of spray-painted foam panels or whether they were only designed on a computer to look like it was practical.  Scenes like the Devil’s Anus were framed to look almost exactly like it was a matte painting, eventhough  advances in CGI mean you don’t, technically, have to hold that shot.

It’s a movie that I never thought I wanted: an 80’s-style sci-fi epic cleaned up for modern audiences.  We got a little taste of that retro flavor with Turbo Kid, but this was that same indie conceit blown up to a huge budget made for mass audience appeal.  As the Nerdist parody trailer shows, creative color grading and a generous application of the scratchy film filter can reveal how close Thor: Ragnarok comes to being a well worn VHS tape that you’d rent from the local Hollywood Video.

For some reason, the movie that kept coming to mind was Masters of the Universe.  Thing is, I hardly even remember that movie beyond the clips that aired in the excellent Electric Boogaloo documentary that charted the rise and fall of Cannon Films.  And yet, I couldn’t help but insert Masters of the Universe in workplace conversations about Thor: Ragnarok to the point where co-workers began actively shunning me, rolling their eyes, and trying to switch the subject to favorite comedic bits.

Could it be because both share the same Jack Kirby DNA?

An entry of Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed over at the venerable Comic Book Resources site once inquired whether Masters of the Universe was originally a Fourth World movie.  (Full disclosure: the writer of this post once was a writer for a subsidiary of CBR.).  The legend goes like this: He-Man was originally supposed to be Orion, and Skeletor was originally Darkseid.  Some believe that a Fourth World script was re-written to accommodate He-Man and friends.  The answer?  After careful consideration, writer Brian Cronin determined this urban legend to be false.  This should be the end of it, right?

Not necessarily.  Maybe it wasn’t a Fourth World remake… but it was definitely a Jack Kirby tribute.  From MotU director Gary Goddard, in response to comic book creator John Byrne on the subject:

As the director of Masters of the Universe, it was a pleasure to see that someone got it. Your comparison of the film to Kirby’s New Gods was not far off. In fact, the storyline was greatly inspired by the classic Fantastic Four/Doctor Doom epics, The New Gods and a bit of Thor thrown in here and there…. You might be interested to know that I tried to dedicate Masters of Universe to Jack Kirby in the closing credits, but the studio took the credit out.

So, in a weird way, Dolph Lundgren may have already played a version of Thor some time in the 80’s.  He-Man gets to hang out with Monica from Friends and Lieutenant Tom Paris in New Jersey, while Thor hangs out with Natalie Portman and pals in New Mexico.  It also shows how far we’ve come as an audience to accepting Kirby aesthetics in movie form.  Masters of the Universe was a flop on release, and perhaps audiences weaned on Ralph McQuarrie’s worn-down and functional designs weren’t yet ready for the outlandish and otherworldly.  With Thor, it’s Kirby overload — weird, cosmic, and exciting.