Thor: Ragnarok – The Smartest Marvel Movie Ever? – Wisecrack Quick Take
Welcome to this Wisecrack Quick Take on Thor: Ragnarok!
Directed by: Robert Tiemstra
Written by: Michael Luxemburg
Edited by: Andrew Nishimura
Produced by: Emily Dunbar & Jacob Salamon
Thor: Ragnarok – The Smartest Marvel Movie Ever? – Wisecrack Quick Take
Hey, Wisecrack. Jared, here. We all just saw Thor: Ragnarok, and — surprise! — we have some thoughts. Not only is it quite possibly the funniest Marvel movie, it’s also very close to being the smartest. Like most Marvel flicks, there’s a metric butt-load of smashy fight fight punctuated by smug self awareness — “We know each other! He’s a friend from work!” — but underneath the ocean of jokes, fights, and uncredited Matt Damon cameos, there are a few scenes that speak to really interesting idea.
But before we dive any further, here’s your obligatory spoiler warning. One of the most enduring images of the movie is Thor missing an eye, just like his father Odin, and we couldn’t help but ponder… if in Norse mythology Odin loses his eye to see a greater knowledge, what truth does Thor see when he loses his eye? So, let’s see why Marvel took Thor’s eye in this quick take on Thor: Ragnarok. First, a quick recap. Thor returns to Asgard from a spirit quest, complete with the crown of a fire giant, only to find Loki in charge disguised as Odin. They go to find the real Odin, who promptly dies. Immediately after, big sister Hela, goddess of death, comes back from her banishment to Hot Topic to claim the Asgardian throne and expand the empire, so she destroys Thor’s hammer, and sends Thor and Loki tumbling into space. Thor ends up being a gladiator on a planet called Sakaar. Loki weasels himself into Jeff Goldblum’s aristocracy and with the help of new friends, like Valkyrie and his colleague the Incredible Hulk, Thor gets back to Asgard, fights Hela, and saves his people. What a ride!
So sure, Thor fights the Hulk again, Jeff Goldblum plays a space DJ, and Loki gets rescued by a kiwi Rock Monster, but what’s more interesting is Ragnarok’s preoccupation with the past, and how it forms the world we live in. This is most clearly seen during Hela’s reign over Asgard… When Hela arrives, she sees is a fresco depicting Asgard’s history as all peace treaties and celebrations. But that’s not how she remembers it. To her, Asgard’s history is all blood and conquest and feeding enemies to her giant wolf. She wrecks the fresco, revealing one hidden beneath, one that depicts the history Odin tried to sweep under the rug: he and Hela conquering, killing, and generally wreaking havoc. She destroys what appears to be the entire Asgardian army on her own, then brings her old armies back to life, and suddenly, Asgard is just like when she left it: a military dictatorship run by a power hungry deity.
What’s really clever here is that just as Hela wants to reach into the dark and bring the past back to life, so too do all our central characters need to reconcile with their pasts in order make any progress. This is the substance buried under all the comedy in this movie. It’s interested in how we deal with our past. For The Hulk, this is simple. Banner has been stuck in Hulk mode for two years. It’s not until he witnesses his past, by seeing a video of Black Widow, that he is forced to confront what he left behind when he flew into outer space, allowing Banner to emerge and the escape to truly start. Valkyrie used to be a member of an elite, all female, Asgardian strike force, but ages ago, when Hela killed everyone but her in a huge battle, she gave up that life and became a scavenger. It’s only when she confronts those memories that she can return to the heroism she left behind. Loki’s confrontation with the past comes through his connection to his brother. Loki has always wanted Thor to recognize him, either with love or fear, but toward the end of the movie, Thor indicates that he no longer cares about Loki. It takes till the last 20 minutes of the movie, but Loki finally realizes that to start his own future he has to grow out of the person he was in the past. Despite his self aggrandizing battle cry of “Your savior is here,” we see real growth in his decision not to steal the tesseract, and in the fact that after the fight, he sticks around instead of running away.
But what about Thor? Well, that’s the biggest issue with this idea of history, (and what keeps this film from being decisively Marvel’s smartest movie). We never get to see Thor dealing with his own history, nor with Asgard’s. The closest we get is his battle with Hela, which could be considered as a metaphorical conflict between Asgard’s future and its past. This is the concept at the heart of Thor: Ragnarok. In order to move into the future, people and societies need to reckon with their past. An idea that is very much present throughout human history. It starts with the way that societies tell stories to themselves about themselves. For a long time Asgard presented itself as a warlike culture. When Odin wanted to shift toward a more peaceful arrangement he rewrote the history of Asgard to exclude Hela and all the fighting and position himself as a benevolent protector.
You’ve probably heard the phrase that history is written by the winners, but according to scholars like Michel Foucault and Jenny Edkins history is written for the winners. What that means is that history is written to justify past violence and set the stage for whatever needs to happen in the future. Edkins explains this process by describing the end of a war. “Victory parades, remembrance ceremonies, and war museums tell of glory, courage and sacrifice. The nation is renewed, the state strengthened.” With the commemoration of the past, we justify the measures taken to reach the future. That means the story of the past dictates the future. We see this idea played with at the beginning, when Loki disguised as Odin. He is putting on a play recontextualizing his deception as a sacrifice and rewriting the history of Asgard with himself as a hero, all while munching on fresh grapes. The Asgard around him is centered on indulgence and celebration, and Loki crafts its history to justify that behavior. He’s not the only one to pull this trick, and he’s certainly not the most dangerous.
For Hela, Asgard’s history is inextricably tied to this idea of place. She believes that expanding the territory of Asgard is the same as making Asgard more powerful. This equation of a people to a place has a long role in human history. Theorist David Campbell explains the dangers of tying political identity and security to a single place. One of his ideas is essentially that when a population and its power is tied to a place, that makes everyone outside of that place an enemy and a potential threat, and in a world full of potential threats, safety is an illusion — and that means Hela’s wars would wage forever. It takes a visit from ghost-dad for Thor to understand that the people of Asgard matter more than the place or even the name. This is the epiphany that led Odin to casting Hela out. Her militarism based on defending the land of Asgard from threats, or expanding its power would be the ruin of the people of Asgard.
This is why Thor loses his eye. In Norse mythology, Odin trades his eye for knowledge. Similarly, Thor loses his in the moment when he finally sees the truth that what really matters isn’t territory, it’s the people who create the culture. In the end, Loki unleashes the fire giant who destroys Asgard and Hela with it. By destroying the territory and making the Asgardians nomadic space travelers, they now have the chance to create their own history unbound from the past, despite the pain it brings. Underneath a Sakaar-sized pile of space junk, special effects, and fantastic jokes, Ragnarok is a movie about how we understand national, social, and personal identity in the context of our pasts. Whether for better or worse those pasts inform our futures, and only by confronting them directly, can we ever really move on. Hope you guys enjoyed the movie. Thanks for watching. Peace.