Film

“Thor: Ragnarok”: Marvel From a Postcolonial Perspective

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For all its franchise-building, CGI-laden spectacle, and self-referential humor, Thor: Ragnarok is a tale of colonialism  a cosmic comedy that’s out to remind us of the centuries-long tendency to sweep colonial history under a gilded rug and refuse to learn from it. Don’t look so surprised: This may be a Disney–Marvel comic-book film  and, as such, pretty much designed by one of the world’s biggest corporations to generate piles of money  but these movies have become steadily more politically self-aware and socially conscious over the years. We will no doubt see even further how big blockbusters might benefit from nonwhite perspectives when Black Panther, Ryan Coogler’s forthcoming science-fiction saga set in an uncolonized pan-African paradise, opens next year. And while wall-to-wall gags are largely the defining texture of Thor: Ragnarok (which came out in theaters last week), there’s a lot more going on in this seemingly light-hearted romp. Its underlying thematic framework, only vaguely hinted at in the previous two Thor efforts but fully articulated now, is one of thorough historical and cultural critique.

Ragnarok director Taika Waititi, an auteur of Māori and Russian-Jewish descent, is one of New Zealand’s premier cinematic exporters, although unlike such Caucasian contemporaries as Jane Campion and Peter Jackson, his work bleeds the hues of indigeneity. Whether it’s as direct as a Māori Dennis the Menace–type kid (Julian Dennison) bonding with a reluctant white father (Sam Neill) in Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) or as abstract as the outsider experience of Wellington’s long-standing vampire society delineated in What We Do in the Shadows (2014), Waititi’s movies exist at the nexus of native and colonizer cultures, the dichotomy that forms the basis of modern postcolonial theory. While Thor’s bastardized version of Norse mythology may not seem like the ideal playground for this director’s specific sensibilities if anything, Nordic symbols and modern Odinism/Asatru tend to be co-opted by white supremacists, owing to their Germanic origins the malleable nature of Marvel’s cultural remixing proves palatable for Waititi’s sleight-of-hand abilities, resulting in a film that’s part superhero farce, part straight-faced treatise on postcolonial identity.

Ragnarok wastes no time kicking into high gear, opening with nothing less than the foreshadowing of the termination of Asgard, home to the alien warriors that we, the people of Earth, once canonized as gods. It’s a serious notion, but Waititi treats it primarily as an opportunity to introduce us to his winningly meat-headed version of Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Waititi strips the character of the Shakespearean seriousness of his previous Marvel-movie appearances (we’re a long way from the Kenneth Branagh–directed first Thor), instead imbuing him with the bumbling, mockumentary-style realism Waititi has practiced in his previous movies. It’s as if the God of Thunder had stumbled onto the set of The Office, draped in his regal garb. As the demon Surtur sits on his enormous throne in the fire-realm Muspelheim, dangling Hemsworth’s chained Asgardian prince from the ceiling and laying out his plan for the destruction of Asgard (the “Ragnarok” of the title), Thor keeps interrupting, inspiring gloriously awkward silences and pauses that wouldn’t be out of place in Michael Scott’s corner office.

This is the strange, satisfying world of Thor: Ragnarok, a film that undercuts the familiar tensions of its studio-sanitized genre and attempts instead to find pathos in unexpected places. The end of the world just doesn’t feel as important as it used to in the movies we see it threatened several times a year by Marvel product alone which is why Waititi’s decision to treat it as a foregone conclusion in Ragnarok feels so novel. Nothing’s going to stop the calamitous third-act destruction, so we might as well sit back and laugh as it approaches. But it’s this very loosening of expectations that allows Waititi to swoop in and not only prove an expert juggler of tones but also a thoughtful chronicler of cultural and historical anxieties of the sort not usually articulated in big-budget fare.

After Thor dispenses with the fire demon’s minions to the sounds of Led Zeppelin, Waititi swiftly introduces an Odinson family reunion. Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), God of Mischief, track down their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins, in an especially moving minor part), who’s been waiting to see them one last time before he passes into the eternal. They find him on a quiet cliff on Earth, overlooking the sea, barely making eye contact with either of them. It’s here that Waititi displays the full extent of his tonal deftness, moving easily into grave dramatic territory following the initial comic-book mayhem. In his final moments, Odin tells his squabbling sons exactly how “Ragnarok” will be achieved: Hela (Cate Blanchett), Goddess of Death and the sister they never knew, will be freed from her cosmic imprisonment as soon as Odin dies, and thereafter draw her destructive strength from Asgard itself.

The old guard’s fading from existence leaves the new generation to deal with the consequences of a past they know little about a suppressed evil that comes charging back out of the nothingness to exact vengeance on a home state that was never taught of its own wrongdoings. Upon her return to the Asgardian throne, executing warriors and civilians along the way, Hela reveals the full extent of the nation’s imperial history: Under Hela’s leadership, the citizens of Asgard were a fundamentally warring people, who built their towering palaces through the wiping-out of “inferior” realms, oppressing other alien races and calling it peace. Odin eventually grew wary of Hela’s expansive bloodthirst, but his solution was not to undo the damage they inflicted together; he merely suppressed it, glossing over the land’s legacy of violent conquests with Renaissance-style mythical murals and images of himself spurring galactic harmony.

As Hela continues to bring down this carefully constructed historical façade, she also reveals a long-buried image of Odin adorned in the horned headdress an emblem of Death itself she now flaunts. This kind of benevolent white-bearded patriarch has personified knowledge, commandment, and, quite simply, “God,” in every culture from Nordic to Graeco-Roman (Zeus/Jupiter) to Hindu (Brahma) to modern Christianity. It’s the well-trodden story of the apex deity who straddles the universal order between love and violence before pivoting to kindness — not unlike the Western colonizers and slavers who simply ignored the strife of the cultures they oppressed, instead granting them nominal freedom and assuming that equality had been automatically achieved. Thor has spent the last four years (in franchise time) “bringing order” to the Nine Realms, but it’s during Ragnarok that the crown prince learns the part his own throne played in this universal discord. Like most on Asgard, he is ill-equipped to deal with the existential challenge of reckoning with a kingdom built on blood.

After being discarded by the vengeful Hela on the trash-planet Sakaar, Thor meets a new character, Scrapper 142, a stumbling, drunken scavenger played by Tessa Thompson (a performer of mixed race, like Waititi). 142 is given no individual name, but is associated with her tribe, “The Valkyrie,” and further identified by the cultural tattoo she bears — a trait similar to many native Pacific Islanders. This Valkyrie is all that remains of the pre-colonized Asgard, part of a race of female warriors who all but perished during Hela’s original reign. She lives in self-imposed exile, her homeland having erased her struggles from the history books by erasing its own atrocities, but she’s also, for the purposes of the protagonist, Thor’s only ticket off Sakaar. Thompson’s Valkyrie is given perhaps the film’s most complete and resonant character arc, returning to a nation — traveling on a ship bearing the red, yellow, and black of the Aboriginal flag — she has every reason to hate, in order to save its people.

Odin, for his part, comes to understand the extent of his wrongdoing in his twilight years, and speaks to Thor from beyond the grave: “Asgard is not a place. It never was. It is a people,” not unlike Waititi’s own Pasifika ancestors, who carried their culture with them not by land but by sea. “Ragnarok,” the end of the world as the characters know it, is inevitable. Their kingdom was built on a foundation of lies, and those lies continue to fuel death, destruction, and suffering all across the realms, both as a far-reaching consequence of their universal meddling and in the form of the embodiment of Death itself. The suffering shall continue unless this system of cosmic control is completely burned to the ground. Suddenly, even this funniest of Marvel films starts to have stakes that feel real and consequential.

This up-ending of the Marvel status-quo bears a striking resemblance to Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), in which America’s security apparatus is excoriated upon the discovery of the full scope of its drone and data-mining practices. That scathing indictment of American government is mirrored here, but broadened all the more, to fit the parameters of Western culture itself — a modern social structure with a history of oppression and racial supremacy whose ripple effects are still being felt. It’s in this understanding of the true nature of Asgard — an empire built on half-truths, violent culling, and the skewing of historical fact — that the destruction depicted in Thor: Ragnarok feels almost cathartic, coming at the hands of purifying flame.

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