'Thor: Ragnarok' Is A Bold Commentary On The Insidiousness of Imperialism
Thor: Ragnarok contains one of the most sobering subplots in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so much so that we are forced to reconsider the God of Thunder's movie series as a whole.
Released to widespread acclaim, Thor: Ragnarok is pleasing audiences everywhere with its beautiful visuals and its screwball tendencies. However, it turns out that Thor: Ragnarok contains one of the most sobering subplots in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so much so that we are forced to reconsider the God of Thunder's movie series as a whole.
Note: This article contains major spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok.
Underneath The Comedy, 'Thor: Ragnarok' Takes On The Serious Subject Of Imperialism
Loosely based on Norse mythology (which originally contained a lot more sex and violence), Thor (#ChrisHemsworth) hails from a mystical realm ... and, let's face it, Marvel fans, who wouldn’t want to live in the #MCU’s Asgard? Like the idealized realms of The Lord of the Rings or other high fantasy tales, Asgard's people are a civilized, technologically advanced race. The realm is clean, bounteous and beautiful, and it’s always referred to in a hallowed, reverential manner such as in Odin’s voiceover in the first Thor movie:
“[W]e withdrew from the other worlds and returned home to the Realm Eternal...Asgard. And here we remain as the beacon of hope, shining out across the stars. And though we have fallen into man's myths and legends, it was Asgard and its warriors that brought peace to the universe.”
With Odin (Anthony Hopkins) standing as a seemingly wise and benevolent king who acts in the interests of the greater good, this positivity towards Asgard extends through the rest of the MCU's movies. Yet a series of tricky question presents itself here. In this world, who determined that Asgardians were the good guys? And how exactly did Asgard come to govern the Nine Realms?
Well, that’s where Thor: Ragnarok comes in.
In one fell swoop, the dark side of Asgard is thrown into sharp relief, when Hela (#CateBlanchett), Thor's long-concealed older sister and the Goddess of Death, returns and reveals a hidden truth about the realm: In the not-too distant past, Asgard gained its wealth and influence not by defending its borders well, nor through commerce or diplomacy, but by viciously ravaging the rest of the universe. Hela assisted Odin at the head of their crusades until she was imprisoned when her aggression surpassed Odin’s own bloodlust.
Some viewers may not be too surprised by this. Asgardian society and its aesthetics are modeled on the Vikings, so their inherent violence is not too much of a leap to make. Yet it’s the way that this realm is positioned almost as a post-colonial power that some audiences have found to be particularly striking. And, when we consider that director Taika Waititi is of Māori descent, things become start to become a little clearer. Indeed, Hela’s choice of words in Ragnarok’s third act are very interesting:
“Odin and I drowned entire civilizations in blood and tears. Where do you think all this gold came from?”
We've already heard about part of this history. In Thor: The Dark World's prologue, we're told about how, millennia ago, Odin's father inflicted genocide upon the Dark Elves to impose the "proper" form of Asgardian peace upon the universe. Yet Asgard was positioned as somewhat heroic for doing this. In light of these stark revelations, well,we can't help but reconsider the situation somewhat, especially in light of real post-colonial powers, particularly Britain and its disbanded Empire.
Certainly, in the same way that Asgard openly prizes its spoils of war, Britain still retains the wealth that it acquired through its decidedly dark dealings. Many valuable relics have been woven into Britain’s proud and respectable image, but the country's continuing ownership of some items — such as the Kohi Noor diamond and the Elgin Marbles — are controversial topics to this day. Somewhat coincidentally, its amusing to note that the majority of the cast affect exaggerated British accents for the Asgardian protagonists.
Painting Over The Past
The subtext of Ragnarok really does cause us to re-contextualize many other facets of the Thor trilogy, especially the actions of its principal figures. Case in point is Odin, who initially appears as benevolent, grandfatherly figure, yet because of Ragnarok, he's now shown to be a cleverly disguised, ruthless tyrant.
In the above clip from The Dark World, #Thor questions Odin’s increasingly aggressive tactics and even implies that Odin is no different than his murderous opponents. The King replies: “The difference, my son, is that I will win.” Sure, Odin was grieving at the time, but in light of his brutal past, it's seems like this line belies a far more sinister and aggressive side to him than, say, that of a grief-stricken husband.
This gulf between the public and private personas of Odin are somewhat reminiscent of Winston Churchill. The prime minister is heavily honored by the British for leading the country through the Second World War. However, in this continuing river of praise, many awful truths about Churchill are overlooked and not discussed.
This brings us to another huge aspect of Asgard in Ragnarok: the revisionist whitewashing of its history. In the climax, Hela gestures towards the golden grandeur on display and muses: “Proud to have it, but not proud of how you got it.”
Asgard's shames are very literally exposed in the film, since Odin has painted over a record of his and Hela’s misdeeds and replaced it with a sanitized, idyllic mural of Asgard and the royal family. By erasing the unpleasant past, Odin has effectively decreed that there is no nastiness within himself — or within Asgard — and thus, he's instilled a nationalistic pride in his citizens, especially with the wonders on display in his kingdom.
Odin has painted over a record of his and Hela’s misdeeds and replaced it with a sanitized, idyllic mural of Asgard.
We even see the history being revised once again in the first act of Ragnarok, when Loki (disguised as Odin) has staged a play for his subjects. It depicts Loki's supposed death in the Thor: The Dark World as a heroic and noble act, which conveniently omits his treacherous and vicious part in the tale. Yet as we know, the darkness still remains in Loki, as it does in Asgard as well.
We only have to consider how other races like the “monstrous” Frost Giants are “othered” in the first Thor movie to still see Asgardian bigotry lingering on from their days of imperial subjugation. Again, Odin displays another distinct form of narrow-mindedness when he remarks of Jane Foster (#NataliePortman) that:
“She does not belong here in Asgard any more than a goat belongs at a banquet table!”
With such prejudice and violence beneath Asgard’s shining veneer, it’s no wonder that Thor grew up as a egotistical, warmongering prince, and the ever-conflicted Loki (#TomHiddleston) defected from their society.
'Asgard Is Not A Place, It's A People.'
In Ragnarok, Hela ultimately stands as the embodiment of Asgard’s dark past, who yearns to re-embrace the old ways of the realm and revive its talent for conquest. "Make Asgard Great Again," as it were.
Following his adventures with the Avengers and many other races, Thor is a hero that has learned compassion, humility and respect. It's telling that during his escape, Thor actively encourages his newfound gladiator friend Korg to lead a revolution and overthrow the Grandmaster's (#JeffGoldblum) long-established slave trade on Sakaar.
Plus in the film’s climax, Thor recognizes that Hela and Asgard’s brutality can’t be banished or beaten into submission, so he actively unleashes Surtur upon his home world, allowing Asgard's acquired riches, and its sway over the universe, to be eliminated. Asgard only survives through its remaining citizens, but aside from #Thor and his friends, they are not soldiers. And, with the newly-crowned Thor hoping to peacefully settle them in Norway, the implication is clear: Asgard may start again, not as a colonial power, but as a supportive community. Only then can a morally sound Asgard potentially emerge.
Naturally, this discourse on imperialism isn’t the main thrust of Thor: Ragnarok. The film is a comedy blockbuster first and foremost. Even so, it is surprising for a film like Ragnarok to feature such an overt conversation. As mentioned earlier, many of these issues are being debated to this day, and the film industry alone is still struggling with cases of privilege and racial insensitivity. Therefore, these undertones in Ragnarok feel prescient and very welcome.
Of course, this isn’t to say that #TaikiWaititi and his fellow filmmakers believe that Thor and his fellow Asgardians are inherently bad guys. Moreover, this probing of Asgard's imperialism simply adds a slice of realism to this fantastical story, and gets us to consider some prevailing issues from another perspective. Cinema may function as a means of escapism, but it can — and should — be a place where we wrangle with new concepts and encounter different types of people from all corners.
If Thor can entertain you with his adventures and his magic hammer, he can grapple with some real world issues too!