Yeah, I said it: imperialism primer.
Marvel’s latest superhero caper is a howling delight. The hammer breaks. Loki plays Tom Hiddleston with such impish aplomb that I can’t help falling in love with him and his greasy curls. The cinematography is Gladiator-meets-ESPN. Hulk Green powder contrasts with dusty pastel streets, supercharged fighting arenas, and giant piles of Intergalactic Garbage.
The plot, for all its popcorn-and-M&M friendly Marvel pulp, is actually quite funny. Surly goddess of death Hela foils maneless comedienne Chris Hemsworth. There are Bruce Banner penis jokes and melty sticks of death. After-credit scenes abound. All is good in the Marvel hood, right?
Yes and no. CGI and bumbling gods aside, Thor: Ragnarok’s true charm, for me at least, lies in how it is able to (partially) absorb the politics of today, and turn it into a compelling story. I mean, for starters, for all of Thor’s poetic waxing about the integrity of Asgard, it’s really nothing more than a brutish, conquering empire.
The benevolent picture of royalty the Asgard palace ceilings depict gives way to more ancient murals that speak of bloodshed and conquest. The mythical Valkyrie that Thor speaks highly of goes from elite warrior force to political family pawn. Heck, as Hela even quips, “where’d you think all this gold comes from?”
It’s a shaky thing to process. And for me at least, it’s what separates this Marvel movie from the others preceding it. The gods we are taught to admire or love — Thor, Odin, Loki, in this case — are not as much gods as they are the ethically questionable profiteers of bloody power struggles.
The tales they spin on truth, justice, and freedom, strike more as propaganda (hello there, America!) than they are principles to uphold. Asgard turns from utopia to warmongering colonial centre. And if Asgard and all that it stands for is a sham, where does that leave Thor and his perceptions of duty, family, and justice? Where then do his godlike thunder-powers emanate, and what specifically is he an heir to?
There is a scene towards the end of the film where Thor is out cold, about to be strangled to death by Hela, wherein he meets Odin in a dream-vision. He asks Odin what is to become of Asgard, given that its fate is tied to power, death and destruction. Odin (later reiterated by Heimdall) responds perhaps with the best line of the whole film: “Asgard was never a place, but a people.”
Its power and identity — and Thor’s thereby — stemmed from this and no more. Asgard the planet-world implodes because of the sheer destructive power of the forces of Death (Hela) and Ragnarok, leaving only debris. His “throne” becomes a junkyard ship cockpit. Remaining despite it all are masses of people, huddled together, refugee-survivors in spite of everything.
And through these crucial final shots, Thor: Ragnarok, if for a moment, becomes less superhero movie and more subversive political message. In it, I find Syria, find Mogadishu, watch as Marawi struggles to stand alone on its own two feet. I see a hegemony beginning to crumble.
To end, call me crazy all you want, but I think Thor: Ragnarok rocks precisely because it backs into something so utterly and subversively political. It is the collapse of an empire, the correction of history, and the emasculation of gods (shoutout to the Endowed Hulk). Korg’s chipper nod to organized resistance shakes even the strongest demigods.
From there? Maybe Thor learns to lead according to the ideals he once thought Asgard stands for. Perhaps Loki takes up the fight against the war on drugs by getting on Duterte’s good side like he did the Grand Master’s. Surely Asgard becomes a meritocratic refuge for the marginalized and oppressed, right?
Well, no. The Avengers, Thanos and the hyped Infinity War awaits. Asgard, for all our talk of imperialism and subconscious politics, is but another cog in this grand cinematic plan. Thor is still a king. The themes are accidental. The buck stops here.
Incidental or not though, Thor: Ragnarok’s Lean-esque struggle for freedom is something we rarely encounter in mainstream film. For that alone, it’s got flying colors from me.