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Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Return of a "Dark" History (A Literary Review of Thor: Ragnarok)

Thor Ragnarok may be the coolest, slickest, funniest indictment of white supremacy that you're likely to see for a long, long time. 

Meta disclaimer: 

I so seldom catch movies on opening night, and even more rarely have the time to go home and write them up. Usually any review like this is weeks or even months behind the curve. I mean, no shit, I have a half written article about The Force Awakens here. I started it in good faith the night the movie opened and....well....shit came up.

The point is, I don't often catch the pop culture curve. I'm usually the one showing up six months late, wheezing, and saying "Have I missed anything?" And my ideas aren't exactly super ground breaking, I just try to throw in a sex joke or something. So this is me in rare form trying to type faster than the hype can get stale. I'm already seeing the first articles hitting that are making the points I wanted to make a week ago, so I lift my glass to their authors. and hope I can add something meaningful, or at least some eighties pop culture references or something.

And also spoilers, folks. Couldn't go where I go without LOTS of spoilers.

Though statistically liberal arts majors are likely to end up being "the boss" because of their broad base of reading and writing skills and ability to communicate*, the only actionable skills a Lit major has right after graduation chiefly involve literary analysis. Since my Creative Writing emphasis was lit heavy, I possessed two skills. (The other one was writing about writing.)

*(Turns out you really 
want someone who can read a hundred pages, find the connections with something else, and distil it all into a memo before lunch)

So of course I'm doomed to literarily analyze everything. Books of course, but I also literarily analyze comics–not comic books, mind you, I'm talking the three panel joke versions–they are surprisingly supple when it comes to poststructural and intentionalist lenses. I literarily analyze bars of soap, children's toys, facial expressions, my lunch...anything really.

And of course movies. Not just deep and confusing Nolan movies. But actually ridiculous giant robot movies too. The more ridiculous the better, to be honest, because it flexes the ol' lit-muscles to have to reach further into the bowels of incoherent vapidity to make a salient point. Plus, let's be honest. It's kind of hilarious to be able to do some halfway decent postmodernist and postcolonial theory on Sharknado. (We English majors have peculiar senses of humor. I own this.)

If I'm actually enjoying a piece of media, I'm probably analyzing it, even if that makes you think I'm a buzzkill who can't ever just relax and enjoy something. Thor was no exception. I was sitting in the theater giggling my ass off and remarkably surprised at how a frenetically paced goofy flick with a death scene that was basically "Welp...bye." was holding me rigid.

Here's the funny thing though. If you bring the thoughtful analysis to Thor, you'll notice topical commentary both grotesque and subtle. Unlike some of it's predecessors, and a disappointing number of MCU offerings to be honest, Thor Ragnarok has a lot to say. It might be a joke a minute, but there's a parable about the refugee experience, colonialism, and white supremacy that will liquify you far, far deeper than the Grandmaster's goo stick. And while T: R is not a morality play with characters who play nothing but their analogue, and certainly has characters (like Loki) who are layered and complicated with rich back stories as well as fitting into an extended metaphor, there are some artistic interpretations that fit quite well.

Some of the themes Thor touches on are as subtle as a brick. The Asgardians as refugees are disheveled, displaced, just want to escape death (literalized as a goddess) that is following them–ostensibly for some reason but mostly because they had the temerity to run. The line that they (not a physical place) are Asgard is repeated like a cudgel that can't be avoided. Valkyrie is a grizzled vet, with PTSD no less, who actually has a sense of what they're up against and how powerful it is. And The Immigrant song (the IMMIGRANT song–get it?) blasts not once, but twice through the action sequences.

But some of the metaphors are far more subdued: In the final battle one of the central tensions is whether the refugees will drown in the crossing over water. The resistance is led by someone who is both in character and actor from a typically marginalized group. The stinger scene and how welcome Asgardians will (not) be on Earth, the full force of how impossibly we treat refugees becomes fully apparent.

Other symbols are transparent to the point of invisibility at their core but slathered with so much laughter as frosting that they might escape cursory notice. When The Grandmaster (played brilliantly by Jeff Goldblum) engages in exploitation and human trafficking with a big smile and a manic affect, he reacts angrily, though hilariously, to his actions being referred to as "slavery." Much the same way that capitalistic exploitation of labor is fine so long as we never make those doing it feel bad. At the end, in the first stinger, the same character (a defeated slaver–wink wink nudge nudge–doyougetit?) declares what is essentially a civil war (where he got his ass kicked) to be a tie.

Perhaps the most obvious and also subtle metaphor is Hela herself, who not only marks the MCU's first woman villain, but arguably one of, if not the best. Naturally she too has symbolism both glaring and inescapable and somewhat muted. She walks onto the screen and declares herself returned and in control and can't really understand why no one is happy to see her. In one scene with Thor she indicts Odin as: “Proud to have it, ashamed of how he got it" and literally reveals how a sanitized history has covered up the real one. (No, like LITERALLY it covers it up.) She asks where Thor thinks all the gold came from. And in doing so she reveals that the nine realms were conquered and Asgard is a colonialist and imperialist power. Their prosperity has come at the expense of those they vanquished. She says that she will kill everyone who doesn't share her vision of Asgard's return to glory and power.

The only thing that could have made this more overt would be if she were wearing a red MAGA cap during her monologue.

But the family dynamic of the Asgardian royals is far more subdued as subtext for colonialism and white supremacy. Each presents a facet both of the complexity of colonialist nations (particularly the US) but also of the periods in history. And it brings out the real metaphor of the film–the tension between the distant past, the recent past, and the present. Hela represents a violent, tyrannizing distant past that has made the colonialist power great, and now seeks to destroy any who would challenge her vision. And when most of Asgard rejects her, she draws on that past (literalizing the rise of long dead armies who will execute her vision).  Thor is a young, well-intentioned and good hearted person who has benefitted directly from that violent past without knowing it and now comes face to face with it–and is shocked at its power (a moment literalized by the smashing of his hammer). Odin participated in the crimes, changed his mind, covered up the past, declared everything all better, and held Hela in check. Of course there is also Loki: a character who doesn't care as long as he gets his.

(Edit 11/12/17: Given how many comments have taken full fledged umbrage with this characterization of Loki, I will point out that even if you take out innumerable murders of total innocents in the MCU that he was directly or indirectly responsible for in the name of ruling Earth [colonizing Earth?], and only deal with the current source material, he still usurps his father's throne, trapping him far away and causing his death, falls in with slavers and even seeks to rise within their ranks without a significant moral objection to doing so, and tries to sell his brother out [again] but for being outmaneuvered. While I suspect that his MCU trajectory is headed for a full fledged redemption arc [5/19 Edit: Yep] given that he has not been the full-out antagonist for a couple of movies, and I have to tell you I personally really, really super high-key dig the character, his complicated, and often tragic, backstory of otherness, forced biculturalism, and conflict between occasional pangs of familial loyalty and being basically psychologically colonized bring him depth and layers, but they do not make him NOT fundamentally a character who makes VERY questionable decisions to advance his own power. He has his reasons and that makes him a GREAT character, but it doesn't make him a good guy, if that makes sense.)

The Asgardian royals create a powerful parallel to the political landscape US (and many colonialist powers) today. They got rich and powerful exploiting and subjugating other lands and peoples. The generation that changed its mind, and simultaneously changed the story and held some of the worst of white supremacy in check is dying and a new wave of white supremacy populism is on the rise. There are many who believes in their own exceptionalism without addressing (or even understanding) the atrocities of exploitation and human suffering that got them where they are, and they are suddenly confronted with the past. A past that has returned to claim its birthright for it is the TRUE heir to the throne. This white supremacy wants to remove or destroy anyone that isn't in agreement with it despite the inherent irony that the US (or other colonialist nation) is not really a place, but the very diaspora of people who would be removed. Even the wounded indignancy that it is being resisted is spot on. Those who believed in their history, institutions, and nations as forces of a greater good are shocked both at the truth of their past, at the power that past wields, and how easily those institutions they thought indestructible shatter in its hands. But a system that has been built on white supremacy and a country literally built with slavery and human suffering cannot simply say "Welp...bye," to its terrible history.

And, yes, there is even a huge contingent who frankly don't care what happens to anyone else as long as they get theirs, and they have deep and complicated reasons for doing so and often familial loyalty.

Perhaps my personal favorite persona in this parable is Skurge. More than Loki or Valkyrie his is a redemption arc that fits the extended metaphor, and almost perfectly represents a person with privilege (accurately cast as a white dude) who sees the rise of a power that doesn’t target him directly. He doesn't necessarily like that power (an echo of the "I have a real problem with that" that people in power admit to having about bigotry), but speaking out against it would cost him. (He doesn't exactly slip out the back and go join the resistance at the first opportunity either.) Here's a guy who imagines himself pretty badass and basically just wants to impress girls. He is offered power under the new regime because he is the "right kind of person." He goes with Hela despite lots of furtive glances that indicate his strong objections, but takes no no real action. However he comes to discover that not only is he the bad guy, but he's going to have to actually risk something or a lot of people are going to die. And lest you were beginning to succumb to the subtlety that is Thor, in a nod to both Chekhov and those who Skurge represents, he ends up turning a pair of U.S. M-16s (revealed earlier) on the undead army. Let us hope that the Skurges of our society who “have a real problem with what’s going on” but say nothing realize the cost of their complicity before it is too late.

The lesson here for writers is as heavy a bludgeon as Mjolnir itself–a story can be a fun, exciting, hilarious romp (and even have some non-trivial problems with pacing and fuck up actual mythology like woah) without necessarily being empty of meaning and subtext. Some of the subtler symbolism may not have been explicitly in the mind of the writing team, but given Taika Waititi’s background (a New Zealander with one parent Maori and the other a Russian Jew) it is nearly impossible to imagine the overarching postcolonial themes as unintended.

And it works! It works well. At no point did this ride stop being hilarious and fun. A writer shouldn't be afraid to be topical just because they want to reach a wide audience. The idea that one must pick either a good story or political relevance is a false dilemma.

In the end, Thor cannot defeat Hela. Her connection with Asgard is literally her strength. She is too powerful and that power is woven too deeply into Asgard's history. He can only leave her to Ragnorök, and it is only the swing of Surtur's sword that literally destroys Asgard to its foundations that (maybe?) defeats her. We face the same dilemma when surrounded by systems, institutions, laws, and culture all rooted in white supremacy–they cannot simply be unwoven and detangled without shattering those foundations from which they are intractable. And yes, if we do this, it will feel like the end of the world.

The important thing to remember is that it is WE who are Asgard.


  1. "Of course there is also Loki: a character who doesn't care as long as he gets his."

    ..well, no - Loki is the adopted outsider stolen from his own defeated culture as an infant & raised within the colonial framework & made to feel inadequate for his unexplained differences - think the Aboriginal kids stolen from their families and raised among white folks.

    Loki's attempts to consolidate his Asgardianness & place within the family by turning on his own culture and trying to destroy it have been explored at length in earlier films; this film finds him having ousted his 'father' and taken his place, and sees him ultimately choosing to ally himself with Asgard and his adoptive brother. If his motivation were indeed simply greed, he would have allied himself with Hela at once, positioning himself in allegiance with the new power. Together they would have been immediately devastating. But Loki DOESN'T hate Asgard. He loves it in spite of himself, and wants to be loved and respected and accepted by the Asgardians, as we see from his first, hilarious scene.

    Loki, like writer/director/scene-stealer Waititi, is balanced between two cultures, two heritages. I'm not saying he's a stand-in for Waititi, because he has his own complex backstory and narrative, but it's silly to dismiss him as simply greedy. Loki is conflicted about his loyalty to the culture that raised him, the culture that devastated and subjugated his own people - but ultimately he does side with the colonisers, because that is the only home and family he has ever had.

    1. I really love that Loki brings this much conversation to the table about otherness and biculturalism, but my personal take is that his actions throughout the MCU make him at best a sympathetic villain. I'm not always sure, beyond maybe Hiddleston's spectacular charisma or the mythological trickster, why he is seen as an anti-hero or somehow a misunderstood good guy. [Though maybe I missed something really essential in that by not having seen Dark World.] He is responsible (sometimes directly) for any number of murders of innocents and even takes in with slavers. Mostly to sate his own appetite for power (or greed). I think he probably steered clear of Hela not because of his love of Asgard, but because she and he both wanted the same thing and she would have kicked his ass.

      Certainly he is a complicated villain, and he has a bit of a redemption arc in Ragnarok (one I could have talked about if I'd wanted to drop another paragraph into an already long article). I also suspect he's getting a fuller redemption in the broader MCU. However, I remain unsold that he must be handled with kid gloves and hasn't done anything too terrible.

    2. How could you possibly claim to know everything there is to know about Loki's character if you missed one of the movies with him in it? Loki has been pretty firmly established as a anti-hero at this point.Loki does not have an appetite for power, he has an appetite for recognition and acceptance. And seriously? You watched that movie and thought he wanted the same thing as Hela? He was on the throne for 4 or 5 years, and he practiced non military isolationism and focused on improving Asguard...and watching theater. How is that the same thing as what Hela wanted? And he took up with slavers for self preservation, because he feared Hela would kill him, not because he was power hungry. he was thrown into the same desperate situation as Thor, but managed to put himself in a place of (shaky) security rather than becoming a slave himself.

      Further more you criticize him for killing innocents and taking up with slavers, but Valkyrie WAS slaver and killed innocents herself. She was a direct participant in Asguard's imperialism before her sisters were all killed. Is she a villain too? Has Loki done terrible things? Yea, but no worse than any other character in the MCU. Thor himself was a power hungry innocents killer at one point, i already made my statements about Valkyrie, on the human side Tony is responsible for the thousands, black widow murdered men women and children in cold blood, hawkeye was an assassin for a seriously morally ambiguous organization, scarlet witch straight up tried to murder the avengers for something tony indirectly did to her, and the guardians of the galaxy are a mess of their own. You cannot write Loki off as nothing more than a power hungry villain when so much of what you condemned him for, our heroes are also guilty of.

    3. Wow. While I would need a flowchart to hit all the reasons this mischaracterizes both what I said and the basic differences between villain, anti-hero, and hero with a dark past, I'm not exactly getting the feeling of good faith, cordial communication and I'm not willing to open up for another round to try. So I'll just wish you the best with/in your firmly ensconced Loki feels.

  2. Yes, you need to see Dark World, where he does "die" to save his brother. Joss mishandled him badly and didn't understand the character at all.