Most of the movie-going public agrees wholeheartedly—Thor: Ragnarok is great. Better than great. It’s I-just-ate-eleven-ice-cream-sundaes-and-don’t-have-a-stomach-ache great. It’s sort of like condensing delight into electricity and synth and lots of screaming. That’s basically what happiness is, right?
But here’s the best part; there’s way more going on in Ragnarok than psychedelic gladiatorial verve. This movie, which keeps being distilled down to “Thor and Hulk’s buddy road trip comedy” has a very keen eye turned toward Asgard’s history… and what was celebrated, and forgotten, and buried.
SPOILERS for Thor: Ragnarok follow.
There are so many reasons to love this movie, it seems criminal. While broadening Marvel’s galactic scope much in the way that Guardians of the Galaxy does, Ragnarok is better at balancing the darkness and the light, the zany and the familiar. Every single actor, those both new to the universe and comfortable within its parameters, is on perfect form and clearly enjoying the ride. The film is stylistic dynamite, and the clear ad-libbing throughout only heightens the atmosphere. (Apparently director Taika Waititi came to Marvel with a two hour and forty minute first cut that the studio shaved down to ninety minutes in expectation of needing to shoot new material. They later added back forty minutes of that initial cut, as Marvel had come to realize that the playful, improvisational sense of humor was the essential component of the film’s success.)
And while it puts the characters from Thor on a brand new stage, the story itself blends perfectly with what we have been told about Asgard’s royal family so far. Not just in the sense of continuity, but in a real thematic sense that puts Asgard’s place in the galaxy into perspective. Or rather… Ragnarok dismantles that place with purpose.
This makes the film’s setup quite important. Thor has left Earth post-Age of Ultron to find the Nine Realms—the ones Asgard is meant to watch out for—in chaos. On returning home with an item that should prevent Ragnarok (that’s Asgardian for “doomsday”) from ever coming to pass, he finds that Loki has been dressed up as Odin this whole time, and is enjoying his newfound power by forcing citizens to watch a play that showcases his supposed sacrifice in The Dark World, where he appeared to die in his brother’s arms. Despite Loki’s previous desire to have populations kneeling at his feet, the God of Mischief has given up his schemes and designs in favor of indulging his own narcissism and grandiose whims.
It’s a telling place to start because the actions and dynamics of Thor’s family are very much what Ragnarok means to address—and it begins with the acknowledgement that without any family to define himself by (or in opposition to), Loki barely functions. As Loki professed in the very first Thor film, he never truly wanted a throne; he merely wanted to be counted as his brother’s equal. It’s important to put that into perspective and also to focus on one particular aspect of Loki’s character that becomes even clearer in Ragnarok—while he may be a self-preservationist of the highest order and a purveyor of mischief and half-truths, Loki’s most prevalent wish is for people to openly love and/or praise him. This is one key aspect in breaking down how the princes of Asgard do not live up to the All-father’s idea of unassailable leadership, an issue that powers many of the events in the Thor films, as it does in Ragnarok.
Thor forces Loki to show him where he’s been keeping Odin all this time, and after a brief runaround on Earth, they find their father at death’s door on a Norwegian cliffside. He admits to them both that he’s been keeping one hell of a secret: Thor is not his firstborn, and the brothers are about to meet their elder sister Hela, Goddess of Death. Apparently, Odin locked his daughter away when her power grew too difficult to keep a lid on. His life-force has been the only thing keeping her imprisoned, and following his quiet death, she shows up in all her glory and commands her brothers to kneel, as it’s her turn to take over. After she crushes Mjolnir to tiny pieces, Loki calls for the bifrost to escape her, and both he and Thor are knocked off the bridge while Hela makes her way home.
Here’s where everything gets really interesting—Asgard has no memory of Hela. When she arrives, no one knows who she is, or understands why she would be on their doorstep following Odin’s demise. After massacring the entire Asgardian army (including the Warriors Three—R.I.P. Hogun, Volstagg, and Fandral), she makes it to the throne room with a disgruntled Asgardian warrior named Skurge, and finds murals on the ceiling of a happy royal family… one that she has been utterly erased from. Tearing down those images shows the old story beneath it, one of Odin using his daughter as his right hand to subdue the Nine Realms and establish Asgard as the superior might overlooking them all. She apparently became furious that he wouldn’t expand their reach even farther, and now intends to continue conquering the galaxy with an army of the dead at her disposal just as soon as she gets her hands on the Bifrost sword, which Heimdall has dragged off for safekeeping.
While Hela wreaks havoc at home, Thor and Loki are deposited onto a trash planet somewhere on the outskirts of the galaxy called Sakaar, where Loki gains favor with a quirky but megalomaniacal ruler known as the Grandmaster (brother to the Collector, who we met in Guardians), and Thor is abruptly captured by a mercenary known as Scrapper 142. She sells him to the Grandmaster for his gladiatorial fights, the central entertainment of the planet. Thor is set to fight the Grandmaster’s main champion, who turns out to be none other than the Hulk, but trying to get through to his old friend doesn’t quite work out the way Thor hoped. He finds out that the Scrapper who sold him used to be a Valkyrie on Asgard, member of the world’s only elite female fighting force, but that she hasn’t been back in ages—in fact she hasn’t been back since all the Valkyries were slaughtered by Hela when she attempted to break out of the prison constructed for her by dear old dad.
Eventually, Thor convinces Valkyrie, Hulk (who is currently in Bruce Banner form), and Loki to come back to Asgard and defeat his sister. That plan involves getting the gladiators to revolt, leading to a rebellion on Sakaar to overthrow the Grandmaster and distract him from their escape. Loki leads the gladiators to Asgard with a large ship to help rescue the citizens as Thor figures out what he can possibly do to stop Hela, whose power is growing by the second. That’s when he realizes that the only way to do so is to cause Ragnarok, giving up the realm of Asgard to keep its people and the rest of the galaxy safe. They set out towards Earth as a refugee race, and Thor finally steps in to rule the Asgardian people with friends and family at his side.
For all that Ragnarok seems like an exuberant romp through the Marvel galactic-sphere, its conflict is powered by the lies told by empires when they decide that they would prefer to forget their past misdeeds. This is true for both Sakaar and Asgard in different ways: the Grandmaster prefers to think of himself as a cool and groovy ruler when he clearly isn’t, and Asgard underwent a “rebranding” of sorts when Odin decided that Nine Realms were plenty to have under his jurisdiction. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to fans of the MCU at all, particularly since this idea has been seeded in the Thor films from the very beginning. Ragnarok is merely bringing all these ugly ideas to the surface and allowing us to see where everything has been taped together and painted over.
The first Thor film depicts Asgard as a shining and glorious fantasy kingdom in space, with a magical old ruler who makes a few mistakes in how he chooses to raise his sons. Specifically, Odin misses every chance to redirect Thor’s inflated ego into more empathetic leadership, and makes Loki feel inferior to his elder brother at every turn, despite insisting that either could be king of Asgard. After banishing Thor to Earth for being a product of his upbringing, Odin reveals to Loki that he was adopted from Jotunheim, planet of the Frost Giants. After a final war between their peoples that resulted in their current standing peace treaty, Odin found their king’s son abandoned in a temple for being too small. He took the child and raised him as his own with a specific thought in mind—one day, Loki could return to Jotunheim as a son of Asgard with a direct claim to the Jotun throne, bringing about permanent peace between their peoples. Of course, he never told Loki this as he was being raised as an Asgardian to hate Frost Giants.
Loki, understandably, does not take this news very well. He attempts to prevent Thor’s return to Asgard, then tries to kill both his brother and the Frost Giants in hope of proving himself. When he suggests that Odin should help him finish off the people of Jotunheim and the king refuses, Loki allows himself to fall through an abyss in space, and only makes it back out with the help of Thanos, considerably worse for wear. He goes to conquer Earth on Thanos’s behalf, attracting Odin and Thor’s attention once more. The attempt fails and Loki is returned to Asgard in chains, sent to prison permanently for his crimes.
This punishment looks a tad ironic once Thor brings his human girlfriend Jane Foster back to Asgard after she accidentally absorbs an Infinity Stone known as the Aether. While the Nine Realms are technically part of Odin’s galactic jurisdiction, he tells Thor that the human woman he loves would be better helped by her own planet’s doctors, and compares her sophistication to that of a goat. (So Loki should feel bad for trying to rule humans, but Odin barely thinks of them as sentient. Good to know.) It’s only once he realizes what resides inside of her that he agrees they must help. The Aether was originally used by the Dark Elves, and once it activates in Jane, their leader Malekith comes out of hibernation to claim it. The Dark Elves were subdued by the Asgardians back during the time of Odin’s father, Bor, when he brought an end to their reign and their plan to plunge the universe into darkness. While this all sounds reasonable from the denizens of the current light-filled galaxy, it is never made clear whether the Dark Elves had a real claim on the nature of existence before the Asgardians started throwing their weight around.
In attempt to beat Malekith back while grieving the murder of his wife Frigga, Odin orders his men to fight at all costs, leading to many unnecessary deaths that Thor takes him to task for. When he asks his father how his willingness to sacrifice the lives of his people makes him any different than Malekith, Odin replies, “The difference, my son, is that I will win.” Thor disagrees so vehemently with this concept of leadership that he eventually commits treason with his friends (and Loki) in order to prevent the Dark Elves from destroying the universe with the Aether.
Ragnarok puts many of these choices into perspective. In terms of the history of his reign, Odin is as immovable and vicious as ever, but he hides it behind a carefully cultivated veneer of respectability. Hela tells Thor that when their father didn’t like something, he merely covered it up—and she’s right. He covered up Thor’s massive errors in judgement by tossing him over to another world. He covered up Loki’s heritage with Asgardian values and lessons. He covered up Hela’s existence with a new era of prosperity and new children to take her place. Then he covered up evidence that he had ever been a conquering juggernaut by literally painting over their murals, their history, to ensure that no one recalled a time when he had seemed anything else than the benevolent king.
This is a real tactic that powerful countries and peoples employ in an effort to ignore their own participation in subjugation, colonialism, and systems of privilege. History books get rewritten so that events are more palatable. Stories are told to highlight the kindness and inherent rightness of the victors. Holidays are created for people who did abominable things. Resources are mined and historical artifacts are stolen away at night… and those things are never returned or paid for in kind. As Hela says to Thor, standing in the Asgardian throne room—“Where do you think all this gold came from?”
There are more layers to this, of course. It is relevant that Hela was Odin’s daughter rather than a son, because it speaks to what happens to women with power when men decide they have no use for that power in their grand designs any longer. Hela is her father’s right hand, his executioner, the one directly responsible for the emergence of his little empire. Then Odin literally seals his daughter up in some pocket dimension as soon as her power is too much for him to control. When she attempts to break free, he sends Asgard’s only all-female warrior class to stop her, which results in their annihilation… and their ranks are never replenished. Thor and Loki both look on Scrapper 142 as though she is something out of legend, because to them she practically is. In one swoop, Odin manages to bat away most of the female seats of power amongst his people.
Of course it was right to stop Hela from trying to conquer the universe, but when you examine how he treats his sons, all is not equal. Thor is given an instrument to help him focus his power (that’s Mjolnir), Loki is held in prison rather than another dimension. Odin clearly knows he has made mistakes with his family, but Hela never benefits from that knowledge. Arguably neither does Loki, and that is hardly surprising—for Loki is the son of the enemy Odin subdued, the one who was taught magic “tricks” and how to fight like a Valkyrie by his mother. Loki was given Hela’s colors (black and green… with that added splash of gold for Asgardian prosperity), a replacement for the daughter Frigga ostensibly lost. Of course Loki would never be as trusted or revered as Thor, the son who was meant to do right where Hela did wrong.
Scrapper 142 (her name in the comics is Brunnhilde, by the way… unless they are pulling the same trick they did in Spider-Man: Homecoming with MJ, and she is only taking part of the namesake) tells Thor that Asgard’s problem is its leadership, and she is also right; “family squabbles,” as she puts it, have endangered the realm and anyone else who got in their way. When the people of Asgard come to realize that Loki has been playing the part of the All-father for a couple years, there is a brief gasp and then it’s business as usual because no one on Asgard finds it all that remarkable. The royal family have always been a source of turmoil. Even before that, Odin casts out one son, then falls asleep to leave the other one in charge at random, and Asgard continues on as it always has. What else can they possibly do?
Odin keeps track of these Nine Realms as a benevolent ruler in their current timeframe, but that requires constant upkeep and care, something that the Asgardians are not always in a position to provide. In the few years that the Bifrost is out of commission following the events of Thor, the Nine Realms descend into chaos, requiring Thor to remain home and defend these peoples against marauding and pillaging. When Loki ignores them while posing as Odin, the realms fall into chaos again in the space of roughly two or three years, meaning that Asgard has never done anything to make these worlds self-sufficient. Their fear of being toppled from their seat of power means that the other realms are relatively at their mercy when it comes to aid and peacekeeping (aside from Earth, which Asgard seems to have decided to leave alone after driving out the Frost Giants, probably because of its perceived primitiveness). This is also a tactic used by powerful groups in order to maintain their positions of privilege—when empires abandon their colonies, many of these places suffer economic collapse and upheaval, and Asgard’s withdrawal results in much of the same. While some of these peoples clearly still resent Odin for this state—the Frost Giants definitely do—there are others who have folded themselves into Asgard’s chain of command. Hogun is from Vanaheim, another of the realms, but his loyalty to Asgard is so profound that he still ends up dying for them. Odin has made it beneficial to ally with the conquerors, as Rome once did when expanding their empire across Europe.
This central theme is given further attention in Ragnarok on Sakaar, though the ideas presented there are deliberately tongue-in-cheek. The Grandmaster commands aliens from across the galaxy to fight and die at his behest. He tells Thor that if he prevails against the Hulk in combat, he will win his freedom, but then knocks the “Lord of Thunder” out before the end of the fight so that he can keep him on for future bouts. When the revolt occurs, the Grandmaster’s bodyguard, Topaz, tells him that the slaves have armed themselves—a term that he objects to. “The ‘S’ word,” he tells her. He doesn’t like it.
To which she replies, “The prisoners with jobs have armed themselves.”
The Grandmaster likes that descriptor better, which makes perfect sense. Control over terminology is key for people who want to maintain power. It’s part of the reason that no one wants to be labeled as “Nazis” or “fascists” even when their group ideology is directly influenced by Nazi or fascist beliefs—no one wants the bad PR. The Grandmaster can still be a good guy, even if he keeps slaves to fight in an arena for the sake of distracting the masses with entertainment… just as long as he doesn’t call those poor souls “slaves.”
The final tag scene of the film just extends this theme to the very end. The Grandmaster steps out of a ship following the rebellion and tells all the common folk that they’ve done a great job revolting against him! And that he also did a great job because they could have never joined a rebellion without someone to rebel against! And then he tells them “It’s a tie.” Because remember, he’s imprisoned countless people on Sakaar, but the important part is that your fight for freedom ends with no clear winner or loser. The Grandmaster certainly doesn’t want anyone getting ideas about holding him accountable for the pain he’s caused over the millennia.
It is hardly surprising that Taika Waititi has pulled all of these threads together to finally give better context to the cost of Asgard’s rule, and the power wielded by many across Marvel’s galaxy. The Maori director, who carefully wove in references to make certain that aboriginal culture was reflected in the film, who made certain that it was shot in Australia and that Indigenous Australians and New Zealanders were hired for the production, has a direct understanding of how imperialism affects the people who are absorbed by or suffer beneath it. Ragnarok is not interested in maintaining the story sold in Thor, that Asgard is a gleaming beacon of culture and advancement led by fair-minded noble aliens who only interfere when their might is helpful to others. Asgard was built on the bones of the people it slaughtered, and no amount of paint can cover that up.
What can possibly ameliorate such a gruesome history? In effect, nothing truly can or will. But there is something among the House of Odin that makes a difference—Thor and Loki, sons of Asgard, want no part of this particular legacy. Loki’s failings are bound up in a desire to belong, to be lauded and included. Thor came to realize that ruling was not his ideal career path when he learned what horrific sacrifices leaders often make at the expense of others. Neither of them are a good candidate to continue the kingdom the Odin created, even if they had interest in doing so. And that is where hope emerges…
What Ragnarok posits is that Thor’s true calling is to free Asgard from the model created by his father and grandfather. Asgard is not truly about the gold and the conquering and the might of its army. It’s about the people who live there. People that he must safeguard and work with to create a different future. And with the help of a Valkyrie, Heimdall, a bunch of freed gladiators, and his adopted Frost Giant brother—who has clearly taken the Tesseract with them and will probably hand it over to Thanos in a few minutes, but at least he cared enough to rescue everyone in the first place—maybe he can finally make this work and break the cycles of abuse that created the Asgard he was born into.