Watching Thor: Ragnarok is an exhilarating experience, like the adult equivalent of being at the playground and swinging so high the chains of the swing set buckle when you’re at the top. Director Taika Waititi brings an improvisational sense of humor and self-awareness to the film that was sorely lacking in the first two installments of the series, giving the god of thunder a haircut, a personality, and a great—if at times, too on-the-nose—soundtrack. Still for all his newfound outsider-y pluck, it’s difficult not to recognize Thor for what he is—an attractive, blond, blue-eyed white male—and as such, he has spent his entire life believing that he and his people, the Asgardians, are the heroes of his story. In Waititi’s colorful and feverish narrative, Thor and the Asgardians are forced to face their dark history of conquering other realms. Much like real-world colonizers, rather than acknowledging their atrocities, they repress their memories (by defeating Hela, Thor’s long-lost sister and the corporeal embodiment of Asgard’s oppressive past) and take their revisionist history with them to a new world.

While Thor: Ragnarok is not strictly science fiction, to paraphrase Carl Freedman, it does contain elements or tendencies of the genre which form a “complexly structured whole” (Freedman 181-182). Drawing from the Marvel comics of the same name, which drew from and expanded on Norse mythology, the movie is a gorgeous patchwork of sci-fi, fantasy, adventure, and drama steeped in mythos. Rather than positing a future unreal conditional (to borrow a term from English grammarians) or basing itself on a “what if” situation, the film describes the downfall of an empire—a very familiar scenario for any viewer with a basic knowledge of history. Also familiar is the theme of colonization, which we’ve previously discussed in works like War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells and “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler. In Ragnarok, Waititi (who is of half-Maori descent) presents an intricate story in which the oppressors are forced to confront their colonizing past and change the path of their future.

In the beginning of the film, Thor defeats the fire demon Surtur and believes he has sufficiently put an end to Ragnarok, or the apocalypse. While talking with his brother, Loki, and their father, Odin, in Norway, Odin warns that it is merely the beginning: “Tis upon us. Ragnarok—It’s already begun, she’s coming. My life was all that held her back, but my time has come. I cannot keep her away any longer” (Thor: Ragnarok). Odin explains that Hela, his firstborn child who is also the goddess of death, is coming and that it won’t be a happy family reunion: “Her violent appetites grew beyond my control. I couldn’t stop it so I imprisoned her, locked her away. She draws her strength from Asgard. Once she gets there her powers will be limitless” (Thor: Ragnarok). From his descriptions of his daughter, one would assume Hela is the villain in this situation, and Odin and his Asgardians are mere innocents who were once at her mercy. However, when Hela returns to Asgard she implies that Odin was just as happy to conquer other lands, although his scope for Asgard’s empire was narrower: “We were once the seat of absolute power in the cosmos. Our supremacy was unchallenged. Yet Odin stopped at nine realms. Our destiny is to rule over all others, and I am here to restore that power” (Thor: Ragnarok). While Hela is more insatiable in her quest for dominance, it doesn’t nullify the fact that Odin and the Asgardian warriors helped her to conquer nine realms or excuse them from their actions. Hela is quick to point out the Asgardian’s hypocrisy in a scene in Odin’s palace when she reveals older, more accurate artwork of their history hidden underneath the frescoes and murals portraying the fabricated stories: “Has no one been taught our history? Look at these lies. Goblets and garden parties? Peace treaties? Odin…proud to have it, ashamed how he got it” (Thor: Ragnarok). As an American hearing this statement, it’s hard not to think of the way early American history is portrayed and taught in schools, and the way events actually unfolded.

After Hela opens Thor’s eyes to the truth, the thunder god winds up on Sakaar, a garbage planet ruled by Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster, who imprisons whom he sees fit and forces the prisoners to participate in his games, which are basically akin to Roman death matches. Imprisoned and stripped of his power (literally and figuratively), Thor gets a taste of what it feels like to be the oppressed as opposed to being the oppressor, a role that he has (perhaps unknowingly) filled his entire life. In the end of the film when Asgard is destroyed, Thor and his people leave their planet, this time not in the role of colonizers but as displaced migrants, underscored appropriately by Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”

In an interview with Empire, Waititi said he doesn’t mourn for Asgard, because it “seems like quite a privileged place” (Nugent 1). By destroying Asgard and stripping the characters of their privilege, Waititi is creating a space for the Asgardians to acknowledge their colonizing past while moving toward a (hopefully) less oppressive future.

 

Works Cited

Freedman, Carl. “Science Fiction and Critical Theory.” Science Fiction Studies vol. 14 (2), pp. 180-200, 1987.

Nugent, John. “Thor Ragnarok – 12 Revelations From Director Taika Waititi.” Empire Online. 7 Nov. 2017. Accessed 30 Oct. 2018, https://www.empireonline.com/movies/features/thor-ragnarok-12-revelations-director-taika-waititi/.

Thor: Ragnarok. Directed by Taika Waititi, performances by Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo, Tessa Thompson, and Jeff Goldblum, Walt Disney Studios, 2017.