Thor: Ragnarok is upbeat, hilarious, and high-octane. If you don’t enjoy this movie, you might not have a pulse. Ninety-nine percent of conversations I want to have about it start with that sentence. Then the other person says, “I know, right?!” and then we recount back and forth all the moments we loved in the movie.
But let me give you that last one percent, because they managed to stick just a tiny bit of deeper thought in there, too! Spoilers ahead.
I’m pretty committed to the idea that even the cheesiest superhero story is always more about what people are feeling than what they’re doing. Even Deadpool took a time out from genre-bashing jokes and fan-service sex and violence to throw in a story about how love and forgiveness are deeper than his skin condition. These stories are ways for us to hold up mirrors to ourselves — the storytelling gets past our defenses and lets us think things through in some new way.
So what’s in Thor: Ragnarok? Apart from an AMAZING use of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song?
To borrow from a slightly later song: It’s the End of the World as we know it … and Thor feels fine.
Once you get past the obvious character stories being told (Thor and Loki are brothers! Thor and Hulk are friends! Skurge can be a good guy after being a terrible guy! Valkyrie can fight the good fight … without giving up drinking!), Ragnarok is about what we do when the old ways don’t work anymore.
The movie does this really well (without ever pulling out of its target light-heartedness). It happily telegraphs the ending from the first scene: what’s the recipe for Ragnarok? Putting Surtur’s head in the eternal flame. And in one of the most obvious “Chekhov’s Gun” moments in all of superhero films, they store it next to the Eternal Flame. In a movie called Ragnarok. So yeah, we know.
But getting there’s half the fun, right? The movie’s question isn’t “Ragnarok?” but “Why Ragnarok?”
The movie shows us two reasons. One is shiny and fore-grounded: Hela draws her evil insta-knives power from Asgard (and Cate Blanchett’s limitless well of talent). Once she makes landfall, she’s basically unstoppable. Unless you get rid of the land itself. So the storytelling shows us early-and-often that wise old Odin knows Asgard is the people, not the place.
We can all add up the pieces as the movie hands them to us — this film won’t tax your synapses:
Surtur Head + Eternal Flame = Ragnarok (destruction of Asgard)
Hela’s Power Needs Stopping + Hela’s Power grows with Asgard = Need for Ragnarok
But the second reason for Ragnarok matters more: The current Kingdom of Asgard isn’t worth saving anyway.
Some of it has been creeping around in the modern Thor franchise for a while. Thor’s a lovable goofball with tough skin and a tougher right hook, but he’s not made to sit on a throne holding court and sober vigil. Loki’s got the brain for it, but the emotional wound from his childhood always puts his desire for self-affirmation over the needs of his people. Odin’s out of options for succession planning, and gets locked away by Loki’s spell to boot.
So we arrive at an Asgard that’s abandoned by both its heirs: Loki’s given in fully to his self-indulgence, while Thor cheerfully and blindly imagines that Dad’s on the throne and spends his days killing monsters. The movie shatters both illusions in the early scenes: Asgard has no ruler.
Enter Hela, the firstborn daughter who wants to “Make Asgard Great Again” by turning it back into a conquering superpower, even if that means replacing all the people with undead under her thrall. And let the film’s social commentary begin!
Hela shows us the worst of the kingdom’s secret fault lines: a covered-over past in which wealth was won through the violent conquest of other races and peoples. She recruits the left-behind Skurge to her cause, promising that he’ll have a chance to prove his worth.
Meanwhile, Thor and Loki get split up from Asgard and one another for the film’s second act. And just in case we missed it, the shattering of the hammer Mjolnir reminds us that Thor, like Asgard, is defined by who he is, not what he has.
The second act is sheer fun. Thor vs Hulk, with just enough of an offscreen ending that fans can engage in a favorite game: bickering about which hero would win in a fight. Valkyrie and Topaz are great additions. Jeff Goldblum plays … well, he plays Jeff Goldblum wearing a blue outfit, and he’s typecast for it!
But Act II also manages to slip in the punchiest line in the movie: Topaz (you know, the Grandmaster’s henchwoman, who was also the sweet grandma in Moana?) tells the Grandmaster that the slaves are revolting, and he cringes and demands that she not use “the S word.” Sighing, she rephrases it to “the prisoners-with-jobs.” Against the backdrop of a for-profit, privatized prison system, where issues of justice are slowly becoming part of US public consciousness again, that line is cold and potent.
And it sets up the other revelation about Asgard: Hela asks where we imagine all the gold in Asgard came from, anyway? We know the answer by that point in the film: Odin and Hela went a’conquering. Asgard prospered, while the other nine realms suffered the costs.
So we hit the film’s crisis point. Hela will attain unmatched power in Asgard: the place was built by her terrible strength, and now it fuels it in return. Neither Thor nor Loki can stop her, and for that matter, they can’t rule Asgard anyway.
They come to the solution we’ve seen coming all along: burn it down and go sail the cosmos with friends new and old. And Miek lives!
So what mirror does this hold up to our own feelings?
We’re living in an age where the idea of the United States feels imperiled. Like Asgard, we have an insufficient ruler on the throne, thinly masking his self-aggrandizement and feeding his own insecurities, instead of looking to the real needs of a nation and its people. And we’re watching some of the oldest fault lines of our country come home to roost: our nation, like Ragnarok‘s Asgard, was built on wealth accumulated from the backs of the conquered and killed, and we still haven’t healed from those sins.
I’m not suggesting that our job is to find Surtur to burn it down. But in between punchlines and punches, Ragnarok does remind us that we’ve built our own kingdoms, and when they stop serving people, we really can think about what our “bold move” can be together? We might have to face some hard truths from our past, and some things we’ve come to value and identify ourselves with may shatter, but we might just find a way to save ourselves by taking up the journey ahead together.
Or, to borrow from Odin, “America is all its people, not a place.”
Not bad for a buddy flick about a green monster and Chris Hemsworth’s biceps.