Road To Endgame: 'Thor: Ragnarok' Is A Superhero Comedy About The Horrors Of Colonialism

(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, "How did we get here?" In this edition: Thor: Ragnarok reinvents the God of Thunder through a Maori lens.)

Thor's first solo film, Thor, narrowly missed a coherent character arc. His second, Thor: The Dark Worlddidn't give him one at all. For a number of years, the God of Thunder was, at once, one of the most popular Avengers, and one of the least narratively interesting. That is until New Zealand's Taika Waititi was given carte blanche to re-imagine the character and his world.

Waititi's film not only course-corrects Thor's prior installments, it does so while leaning heavily into the delightfully bizarre Jack Kirby designs of Marvel's 1960s golden age. It's an oddball of a movie, featuring everything from a giant undead wolf, a naked Hulk and a kindly rock monster, to the best drag-inspired comic villainess since Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy. More importantly, it features Jeff Goldblum's The Grandmaster, a character so zany and eccentric that you momentarily forget he's a human trafficker who has people killed for sport.

Which is, in essence, the thesis of Thor: Ragnarok. It's comedy about the effects of downplaying colonialism, made by an unapologetically Maori filmmaker.

The God of Thunder 2.0

Even before Thor's (Chris Hemsworth) third outing, Waititi began messing around with the character. The What We Do in The Shadows director crafted a pair of comedic mockumentary shorts detailing Thor's absence during Captain America: Civil War and his flat in Australia with his roommate Daryl. Before we knew it, the God of Thunder had been entirely rewritten. Gone was his detached stoicism with the occasionally vulnerable flourish, now replaced by a bone-headed albeit well-meaning arrogance. He was now an amalgam of modern Earth-bound tropes — the privileged man-child, the self-assured "bro" — thus permanently bridging the two worlds he once straddled.

The absurdity of Thor's presence in the MCU usually stemmed from interactions between his old-world regality and the supposed normalcy of the modern west. Either one functioned normally in isolation, but the joke was always how these two worlds were disconnected, told mostly through fish-out-of-water scenarios. However, given how little of Thor: Ragnarok takes place on Earth, Waititi chose instead to lean into the absurdity of Thor himself and the inherent ridiculousness of Asgard, in order to comment on the western world.

Both Thor and Thor: The Dark World failed to put Asgard into any kind of contemporary context. The kingdom's technology may be futuristic, but everything underlying its fantasy is distinctly archaic, drawn from Earth-bound mythology and regal constructs. Its monarch Odin (Anthony Hopkins), for instance, makes constant reference to having conquered other realms; this is a universe at war, or at the very least, one shaped by its effects.

At its core, Thor is a franchise about a warring people led by a (once) warmongering prince, and yet war itself was mostly relegated to the margins. It's something neither Odin, the king of Asgard, nor Thor, the ruler incumbent, had substantially confronted until now.

The Asgardians 2.0

Anthony Hopkins' layered performances in the first two Thor films makes Odin far more interesting in retrospect. What we learn about him in Ragnarok re-contextualizes the guilt Hopkins ferries behind his eyes. We had thus far only been shown a selective history of Asgard, as told by Odin himself, like the time they saved Earth from the Frost Giants or when they stopped the Dark Elves from using the Aether, and their generally heroic place in the cosmos.

What we did not see however, were these tales from the point of view of the conquered, or why Asgard came into conflict with these peoples in the first place. This remains the case in Thor: Ragnarok — most revelations and realizations about Asgard lack this dramatic heft, since they come from the Asgardians themselves — but the film does take the series in new direction by having Odin, now on his deathbed, introspect his war crimes.

Waititi allows his Asgardian leads to have interior lives beyond their positions in the hierarchy. Thor, for instance, is now a cocky bastard who greets trouble with a wry smile, but his hardened disposition occasionally gives way to bumbling insecurity. His actions feel more heroic than before, but he's still the Thor of his introductory film, an arrogant, destructive warmonger, albeit with a naturalistic twist. He's like something out of the Asgardian The Office. Waititi taps in to Chris Hemsworth's timing and comedic innocence, framing Thor in a way previous films didn't seem to — in that his arrogance and heroism needn't be mutually exclusive.

Heimdall (Idris Elba) is now a rebellious warrior, rather than simply a gatekeeper. His old position is filled by Skurge (Karl Urban), a janitor rising through the ranks so he can collect junk from other worlds. He's a thief with a conscience, who falls in line with the murderous Hela (Cate Blanchett) before eventually finding the courage to rebel. And while minor players like the Warriors Three are swiftly done away with, Waititi also manages to course-correct a character who was already one of Marvel's most beloved:

The God of Mischief 2.0

Like the new Thor, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is similarly fleshed out in a way that rewrites his previous appearance. Usurping the throne while disguised as Odin in Thor: The Dark World was a strange narrative decision. At his core, the God of Mischief is prone to aggrandizing himself, so much so that he made both his redemption scheme in Thor and his conquest in The Avengers as public as possible. Ruling from the shadows simply would not serve his purpose.

Loki desires an audience, so Waititi has him use his father's position to build statues in his own honour, depicting himself with outstretched, welcoming arms. Loki even puts on plays retelling his supposed martyrdom (he's played by Matt Damon; Hemsworth's brother Luke plays Thor), in which Loki's dying words are presented as sincere, rather than the ruse they truly were.

It's fitting that Loki's theatricality translates to a love of literal theatre. This very showmanship eventual catalyzes his turn to good towards the end of the film. Once Loki is pre-emptively betrayed (before he can betray Thor for the umpteenth time), the sting of failure makes him re-orient his approach. His panache however, remains intact.

Loki never stops seeking glory. Like Thor, his regal haughtiness makes him who he is. Besides, having Loki retain his arrogance, rather than shedding it, offers more comedic and dramatic potential. This time, when Loki returns to Asgard, his outstretched arms are those of a holy saviour announcing his arrival. He steals the spotlight, even while ferrying Asgardians to safety as their country is razed to the ground.

The Golden Kingdom 2.0

Waititi's course-correction gave him the opportunity to go all-out with the Asgardian setting. Not only is the kingdom's history revealed to be a lie, with images of peaceful treaties papering over its violent conquests, but the film's villain is the very embodiment of unconfronted colonial history.

In the context of America, this historical whitewashing as it pertains to indigenous peoples is a far cry from the series' previously hesitant approach to critiquing American power. Lest we forget, the MCU began as U.S. military propaganda with films like Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which continues to be the case with Captain Marvel.

Hela, Thor's forgotten sister, led several of Odin's wars, each fought to make the nine realms fall in line with Asgard. And while we don't see the full version of Asgard's history from anyone else's perspective (save for Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie, though she's also Asgardian), what we do see is Odin finally admitting to his misdeeds. Asgard's history is bloody, and rather than curing the disease of colonial conquest, Odin simply locked away a symptom while keeping conquered realms quiet under his rule. That symptom, Hela, is intrinsically connected to the kingdom. Asgard is the realm from which Hela draws her power; so long as Asgard exists, so will the lingering effects of its violence.

"Where do you think all this gold came from?" asks Hela, recalling Laufey's assertion in Thor (2011) that Odin "is a murderer and a thief." This element of Asgard's story is one Thor never previously dealt with; as it turns out, looting, plundering and unconfronted imperialism are what made Asgard "great."

Despite its rich culture, the nation state of Asgard has crimes in its rearview that it refuses to acknowledge; a history swept under the rug is merely a history waiting to resurface. And so, with Asgard's citizens unprepared, and unaware of their own past, Hela returns from the mouth of Hel, bringing her fallen soldiers with her as she attempts to retake the throne.

Causing Ragnarok

The demon Surtur, ruler of the isolated fire-realm Muspelheim, considers destroying Asgard his destiny. Whatever his reasons — a missed opportunity to make him a victim of Odin's conquests; the film sorely lacks the perspective of the conquered — Surtur's prophecy, "Ragnarok," is one Thor prevents in the very first scene. Thor vanquishes Surtur, ensuring once again that Asgard will stay intact.

After being discarded on trash planet Sakaar, where he lives amongst slaves and revolutionaries, Thor returns to Asgard to free his people from Hela. His mission in both prior films, like the heroism in every Marvel movie up to this point, has always been about maintaining the status quo, something Thor finally upends here. And while the film's re-working of the character leaves little room for him to actually arrive at this conclusion — via character-driven realization, rather than being told by his departed father — Thor's first decision as king is to facilitate "Ragnarok" itself, unleashing Surtur in order to burn down the structures that have caused pain to so many.

"Asgard was never a place," Odin tells him. "It is a people." While this assertion exists to help Thor defeat the murderous Hela — destroying Asgard would mean draining her of her strength — the statement exists in direct contrast to what Thor has known to be true. Asgard, to him, has been nation state first and foremost, one whose sovereignty he enshrined through bloody conquest.

By divorcing Asgard's people from a physical place — like the Maori, who travelled to New Zealand by ship circa the 13th century, carrying their culture with them — Thor not only becomes the leader of an adrift refugee tribe, but causes the destruction of a hegemony whose violent past still ripples across the cosmos. Although, neither these ripple effects, nor the result of Thor confronting their source, are ever framed in any manner other than dialogue.

Neither Thor's realization, nor the wider effects of Asgard's removal from power, are dramatized; we're told, rather than shown, the effects of Odin's warmongering and the reasons his history is corrupt. The decision to destroy Asgard is one Thor neither fully wrestles with, nor one that weighs on him. The end result is a potent metaphor, though one mostly delivered through exposition.

Thor changing his entire outlook on his kingdom isn't nearly as dramatically challenging as it ought to be. However, the film manages to stay afloat throughout, owing to a wildly refreshing comedic sensibility.

A Postcolonial Comedy

Marvel had recently begun to step outside the traditional Hollywood worldview. Doctor Strange was a tale of accepting non-Western philosophies, while Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 featured another villainous manifestation of western colonialism. The logical next step in this new direction was Marvel hiring a storyteller from a postcolonial culture (Waititi was also the first non-white director they handed the reins).

Waititi himself is an advocate for course-correcting colonial history. For instance he supports changing Australia Day, which celebrates the arrival of British colonizers at the cost of Australia's indigenous peoples. This perspective on the past is woven into the very fabric of Thor: Ragnarok, all the way down to its jokes. The Grandmaster, like Odin, sugarcoats an oppressive reality for the sake of his own comfort. He refuses to use the word "slaves" because it irks him more than actually owning and exploiting enslaved peoples.

Postcolonialism is the theoretical framework focusing on the nexus of colonizer and colonized cultures. The film isn't explicit about the dichotomy between Asgard and the other realms (one of its narrative failings), but the subtext of Asgard's colonial history, and how the Valkyrie fit into it, is a dynamic familiar to many.

The Valkyrie are imbued with an indigenous sensibility, identifying themselves by a tribal name, as well as tribal tattoos not unlike the Maori ta moko. Tessa Thompson's Scrapper 142 — a woman of mixed Afro-Panamanian descent cast in a traditionally blonde white role — is the unnamed lone survivor of her warrior clan. She's now known only as "Valkyrie." Her loss of identity once the Valkyrie were wiped out by Hela (the shadow of colonialism) gives 142 a generally defeatist outlook. This makes her to turn to drinking, not unlike the problems of alcoholism plaguing displaced indigenous communities in New Zealand, the United States and elsewhere.

This dour set-up however, makes her return to Asgard feel all the more victorious. She accepts her ancestral role once more, donning the traditional Valkyrie garb as she steps out onto Asgardian soil for the first time in ages. And she does so while backed by celebratory fireworks, in a ship bearing the red, black and gold of the Australian Aboriginal flag.

The Waititi Effect

Thor: Ragnarok is a distinctly Waititi and distinctly Kiwi film through and through. It features not only New Zealand comedy's signature deflation of grandeur (which the director wields deftly in his other works about culturally displaced characters), it also features the director himself.

Waititi voices Korg, an imposing rock creature and one of the Grandmaster's gladiators. Though rather than turning Korg into a hyper-masculine warrior, Waititi instead opts for a "type" rarely seen in an American cinema: a soft-spoken Maori bouncer. And what a joy he is.

By allowing Waititi to leave his fingerprints all over one of its key properties, Marvel was able to craft a story that felt both authentic and fresh, owing to a narrative perspective usually unseen in mainstream American cinema. Even the little details feel drawn from cultural corners Hollywood doesn't normally look to; the parade celebrating the Hulk as the Grandmaster's champion, for instance, is modeled on the Hindu festival of Holi, which commemorates the victory of good over evil with coloured powder — which the film even reflects on its posters.

Ragnarok is a Marvel film that remixes Marvel itself, often to farcical effect (as is Waititi's signature). Thor imitates Natasha's romantic lullaby from Avengers: Age of Ultron to calm the Hulk down. A neurotic Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) heroically jumps out of a plane — a familiar Marvel action beat in The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, multiple Captain America films and even Black Panther — but he lands flat on his face with a "thud." Even outside of these singular callbacks, the film sees Marvel using the details of its world to comedic effect, leaning on its comicbook inspirations without ever poo-pooing the source material, as was once expected of superhero films.

Ragnarok has colour and pizzazz on par with Guardians of the Galaxy films, however its sets, creatures and costumes have the distinct alien geometry of Jack Kirby's designs, trading in slightly amped up versions of the familiar — a staple of western sci-fi — for a world where everything feels new. Angles, circles and distinct polygons in larger than life permutations, simply because.

This is what Thor: Ragnarok feels like in totality. A movie that, after franchise entries by a British Shakespearean auteur and an American Game of Thrones director, was handed to an indigenous New Zealander known for a vampire mockumentary, simply because.

Waititi had no doubt proven his skill at balancing character and lore, but bringing him on required stepping outside the traditional Hollywod hiring pool. In the process, the world's premiere American franchise delivered a space-set comedy in which the Hulk suplexes a giant wolf, but also one in which a literal God, upon seeing the colonial horrors his people have wrought, alters his legacy by destroying it entirely.

Thor: Ragnarok shifted both the in-world status quo, as well as the status quo of Marvel's creative worldview. It was the first shift in who gets to tell these stories on the global stage, and thus, whom these stories are about. It's also one of the few Marvel movies to prioritize meaning by actually dramatizing it, rather than letting its themes hang in in mid-air while it favours disconnected action.  

This creative shift would go on to reach its zenith in Black Panther, a film that expands on several of Thor: Ragnarok's themes. Not only that, Rangarok also made Thor one of the most delightful characters going in to Avengers: Infinity War, and in the process, one of the most tragic as we approach Avengers: Endgame.

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Expanded from an article published April 24, 2018.