Bleeding neon hues and blasting our eardrums with synth-pop, Ragnarok is a rollercoaster ride of pure joy, avoiding the dark plots and emotional angst that have suffused recent superhero flicks. Taika Waititi, famous for indie flicks What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, has stamped his trademark style onto Ragnarok, rocking the entire MCU in the process. For beneath the gladiator fights and space battles lurks a fascinating commentary on imperialism, forced isolation, and class divides — which makes Ragnarok Marvel's most socially progressive movie yet. And best of all, the comedy exists not in spite of these dark themes, but because of them.
Humanizing The God
Let's start with our hero, Thor himself, the god (not lord) of thunder. Thor has long been written as one of the #MCU's most lofty heroes, speaking like a Shakespearean player while behaving with gentle chivalry. Although endearing, this does make Thor rather difficult for viewers to relate to. Then along comes Waititi, who wastes no time bringing Thor down a peg or two, gently mocking Asgard's savior throughout the movie.
Thor stumbles and falters as Doctor Strange consistently messes with him, the Grandmaster makes light of his stature and powers, and the Hulk beats him to a pulp. This is entertaining to watch, as none of this is mean-spirited on the part of the director, and Thor champions in the end, finally becoming the true leader that Odin always pushed him to become.
It's this kind of subversive, rug-sweeping humor that comes from a place of alternative thinking. Thor is not a god, not a perfect being, and Waititi demonstrates that no-one is beyond a good ribbing. With this, #ThorRagnarok parallels the very first Thor movie. In each, our hero is taught humility, first via a poignant family drama, and now via a neon-hued comedy. But the core message remains the same — get down off your pedestal and look around.
As pointed out by New Zealand magazine The Spinoff, this kind of ego death is characteristic of Maori humor, which is unsurprising, as much of the film is inspired by the Maori experience. Waititi embedded Maori and Australian Aboriginal culture within Ragnarok, from the production design (check out the colors of the Grandmaster's ship — they're the same as the Aboriginal flag) to the film's major themes.
Running throughout Ragnarok are the ideas of isolation from home (shown with Thor), loss of identity after invasion (Valkryie), and imperialist entitlement (Hela). These themes, while somewhat universal, should chime specifically with viewers who have faced the unique struggles that colonialism so ruthlessly provides. And here is the crux of the issue: With Ragnarok, Waititi breaks down everything we think we know about what is good in both this fictional reality, and our own.
The Bloody Truth Under The Veneer
Marvel has long struggled with villains, but Hela proves that you can have a camp and cackling baddie who also has depth and motivation. We love to hate Hela, the jilted firstborn who was banished not just for her imperial greed, but because she was living proof of how Odin got his shining empire.
Striding through Asgard like a returning crusader, Hela literally tears down Odin's moral facade. Thanks to her, we now know that Asgard is no utopia, no beacon of hope for the cosmos to look up to. Asgard was once a symbol of invasion, of war, as Odin and Hela embarked on a campaign to subdue and conquer the other realms.
With one fell swoop, Waititi breaks down much of the mythology established by the previous Thor films. Sure, we knew that Asgard was at war with the evil Frost Giants and Dark Elves, but these battles are presented with a very clear good/evil divide. It would have been easy to continue painting Asgard as a fairy-tale throwback to idealized versions of real kingdoms. But Waititi is here to remind us that no empire — fictional or otherwise — can be built on anything but blood.
This also changes how we see the central conflict between Hela and her brothers. The Thor films have always been a family drama first, but Ragnarok critiques how squabbles between powerful relatives can cause the deaths of millions. As Waititi so artfully expressed to The Independent:
"Thor and Loki are just two rich kids from outer space and we shouldn’t really give a shit about what their problems are."
No character demonstrates this frustration better than Valkyrie, who has eked a meager living out for herself after Odin's spat with Hela lead to the massacre of her fellow warriors. As Thor attempts to recruit her to his cause, Valkyrie rolls her eyes and demands why she should get involved in another family quarrel.
Valkyrie's sense of disillusionment and detachment from her roots is palpable, thanks to Waititi casting the African-American Tessa Thompson and ignoring the comicbook Valkyrie's white, Viking appearance. Hearkening back to the colonial themes, Ragnarok's Valkyrie is the displaced protector of a land invaded, finally returning to prevent the conquering Hela from slaughtering again. And still, Valkyrie is funny. Sauntering in only to fall off her spaceship, Valkyrie is the beer-swilling everyperson, flipping the bird to Asgardian royalty and ridiculing them whenever she can.
Waititi plays with the heavy themes of imperialism and class divide with a light hand, sparking two revolutions as the plot naturally progresses, and inviting us not only to laugh with, but laugh at our heroes. His humor is deconstuctionist, tearing down our expectations just as much as he tears down traditional joke structures. Unlike the forced quips in Doctor Strange or the quirky humor of Spider-Man: Homecoming, Ragnarok's most hilarious moments spring from its darkest themes, helping to hammer Waititi's message home in the most entertaining way possible.
Or, you know, sometimes the joke is just an extended rock-paper-scissors metaphor.
Tell us in the comments: What do you love about Thor: Ragnarok?