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.


Expanded from an article published April 24, 2018.

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