The Contemporary Relevance of Thor: Ragnarok

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The main thing that many people will likely respond to coming out of Thor: Ragnarok is the film’s comedic tone. It represents a huge departure from the previous entries, particularly the overly serious Thor: The Dark World, and leans into a comedy heavy script and a “fun first” sensibility. This very sensibility will likely draw the ire of people who think that superheroes are serious business and that Marvel films are already nothing more than quip-laden diversions. However, it seems to me that Ragnarok is a film with a lot on its mind and it seems worthwhile to dive into some of that here.

Odin is a curious fixture in the Thor movies. In the first one, he is basically just an all seeing Christian God figure who happens to be dressed like a viking. However, the second movie pivots on his characterization and depicts him as a petty, shortsighted man who is motivated by fear and is more interested in winning a war than saving his people. Ragnarok opts to try and reconcile these characterizations to some extent by revealing that Odin has sanitized not only his own history but the history of all of Asgard. As it turns out, Odin and his (up until now secret) daughter Hela built up Asgard’s golden empire via an incredibly destructive path of violence and imperialism. The paintings in the halls of the throne room that at first seem to depict Asgard’s history are revealed to be lies. We see later in the movie that the real, violent history of Asgard is represented by different pictures that lie just underneath sanitized fiction.

It is hard not to read the film as a cautionary tale against sanitizing a nation’s history. The fact that Odin removed all mention of Hela from Asgard’s history and locked her away meant that nobody knew she was coming or how to stop her. We also see Odin’s sanitization of history come back to haunt Asgard in the form of Hela’s army, which she literally acquires by reviving the corpses of the soldiers that Asgard previously used as its imperialist armed forces. She acquires these soldiers from a secret tomb that is hidden under Odin’s treasure room (which we also learn is filled with lies of its own). In today’s world, where Neo-Nazisim is on the rise and god awful media outlets like The Daily Wire still run pieces about how Christopher Columbus was a great man, the film’s message is an important one.

What the film does not do, however, is given credence to people who want to keep statues of confederate generals up because they view the statue as part of their history. Not only is this a nonsense argument, ignoring that fact that statutes serve the function of memorializing and do not act as historical record, it is the one the film engages with. When Loki is ruling Asgard in Odin’s place, he takes a stab at historical revisionism of his own. He puts on plays that recount the events of The Dark World from a pro-Loki perspective. Guess what else Loki uses at a tool of revisionist history and manipulation? That’s right, a giant gold statue of himself. The film is clearly arguing in this scene that statutes serve the agenda of history revisers, not history preservers.

The film’s second main thematic through line is embracing change. Not only is the film a total stylistic and tonal departure from what came before but Thor also loses his iconic hair style, cape and hammer. Similarly, Bruce’s dynamic has inverted, so that Hulk is the dominant persona rather than himself (this is symbolized beautifully in a sequence that plays out the usual hulk transformation in reverse, with Hulk trying to stay angry to avoid becoming Bruce). Both Thor and Bruce have to learn to embrace these changes throughout the film in order to come together and save Asgard. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Thor tricks Loki (yet another clever reversal) and, before leaving him behind, tells him about the importance of embracing change.

So, we have a film that is arguing for the embrace of change and the honest confrontation of history that seems especially relevant in a time where people seem fear change and confronting history. There is a common narrative around the Marvel films and their aversion of stakes and meaning. Sometimes these criticisms are fair but that doesn’t mean that the film isn’t engaging in a thematic discussion that’s worth having. Thor: Ragnarok is one of the best times that I have had in a movie theater in years but nothing about being fun, energetic and full of spectacle precludes being intelligent and having plenty to say.