How Thor: Ragnarok Narrowly Missed Being an Unequivocally Brilliant Film
As a fan of experimental and cult cinema who generally finds most contemporary CGI-heavy action movies tedious and redundant, I’ve got to hand it to Marvel: they’ve been making some genuinely entertaining, visually stunning, and intellectually complex films lately. Both installments of Guardians of the Galaxy were aesthetically gorgeous, and the sequel even featured a white male character whose mission to seed the universe with colonies of himself is ultimately rejected on moral principle.
So when Thor: Ragnarok opened this weekend to what’s being described as “Hulk smash” box office popularity, I had every reason to look forward to it, and on most fronts it delivered. The casting is impeccable, from Westworld’s Tessa Thompson’s breakout as Valkyrie to Jeff Goldblum in the sleazelord role of a lifetime. The sets and costumes are stunningly reminiscent of the classic 1980 remake of Flash Gordon. Taika Waititi’s direction is golden, and the script is peppered with exactly enough dick and butt jokes to make 2 hours and 10 minutes fly by.
So what’s wrong with it? To be honest, not much. It has almost everything you could possibly want in a comic book adaptation: an affably hot superhero with an equally compelling asshole brother, a righteous soundtrack, and a delightfully indulgent amount of screen time devoted to the Incredible Hulk smashing stuff. And Cate Blanchett is glorious in her role as Hela, the goddess of death who acts as Thor’s arch nemesis in the film.
Hela, we are told, is Thor’s sister, the eldest daughter of Odin. Long ago, she helped her father build his empire, only to be sealed up in a prison by him when her ambition surpassed his own. Her return to Asgard upon Odin’s death represents the fulfillment of an apocalyptic prophecy known as Ragnarok that will ultimately bring about the destruction of Asgard and most of its inhabitants.
There is a moment near the film’s climax that comes tantalizingly close to giving us Hela’s side of the story: she breaks through the murals in the domed ceiling of her father’s palace to reveal hidden images depicting the history from which she has been erased. For a split second, I thought the film was about to delve into Maleficent territory, revealing a deeper complexity to the matronly, witch-like goddess who has been cast in the role of the greatest villain in Asgard’s history.
If the filmmakers had wanted to do this, there is ample storyline in Norse mythology to draw on. Hela is based on the underworld goddess Hel, whom mythologists (including Jacob Grimm) have proposed might have been derived from an even more ancient Indo-European goddess with parallels to dark mother figures like Kali.
In the ancient myths, Hel’s destruction is understood to be cyclical: death and decay as a necessary and crucial component to resurrection and rebirth.
In Thor: Ragnarok, this complexity never comes. Instead, Valkyrie redeems herself by joining forces with Thor to destroy Hela, thereby reestablishing the rule of patriarchy as the natural order of things without ever delving into the unruly cosmic significance of what Hela actually represents.
It would literally only take a sentence or two of screen time to hint at this context, and it would not have been a significant breach of canon to do so. The film adaptation modifies Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s storyline, for instance by making Hela the daughter of Odin rather than a previous incarnation of Loki, as she is both in the comics and the ancient myths. So it’s not that they couldn’t have easily done this. They just didn’t.
Why does it matter?
Because aside from perpetuating Marvel’s obvious and oft-discussed problem of presenting clichéd, one-dimensional villains, it also represents a missed opportunity to rectify Marvel’s also well-documented problem with representing women.
Because there is a direct relationship between the narratives about women and femininity that we absorb and perpetuate in popular culture and our attitudes toward women and femininity when we encounter them in real life.
Because a film that prides itself as having the most diverse cast in Marvel history and is garnering praise for the introduction of two strong female characters simply has no excuse for not getting this right.
As a culture, we are obsessed with heroism and irrationally terrified of the loss of ego that comes with death; a toxic combination that leads us to terrorize the world with oxymoronic concepts like “preemptive warfare.”
Our violently oppressive, patriarchal tendencies and our revulsion toward the goddesses of humanity’s ancient past are one and the same.
Thor: Ragnarok was in the perfect position to use storytelling to plant a seed of wisdom and understanding and ultimately failed to do so.
Don’t get me wrong. It was an entertaining movie—and obviously still worth watching for Jeff Goldblum alone—but unfortunately it failed at being an unequivocally brilliant film.
(Here’s hoping Black Panther gets it right.)