Thor Ragnarok - Cate Blanchett as Hela

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.

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