So here’s a weird thing. I was really sick and high on cough medicine a few weekends ago and I happened to finally watch Thor: The Dark World (hereafter Thor 2 or The Dark World). Obviously, I was watching this movie well after having seen the glory that was Thor: Ragnarok, and it gave me some perspective.
First, let me disclaim. I did actually like Thor 2. This does not mean that I was blind to its flaws. We’re actually going to dive into some of those, sort of sideways. I was, however, pretty strung out sick, so if you are looking for a low-brain-power sick movie and like staring at Thor, this may be a good pick. If not, well, your miles may vary. But while Thor 2 may indeed be higher on my Marvel ranking list than Dr. Strange (let’s be honest, what isn’t) I’m not actually intending to talk about that today. I’m more interested in talking about Thor 2 within the context of the primary theme of Thor: Ragnarok – the critique of empire. Specifically, Asgard.
What is that you say? Ragnarok had a theme that was that political? Far be it from me to point this out to you so many months later, but yes, it did. Taika Waititi is a brilliant maniac, and he very clearly constructed a story that dealt with some major issues that don’t often get taken up in big budget superhero films in a critical way. I would argue that his work paved the way for Black Panther to be as political as it was, actually. If watched in a continuum, Ragnarok becomes the swing towards self-awareness of what empire means and its bloody history, while Black Panther deals with the equally destructive issue of isolation. These are two sides to the same technologically-advanced coin. Add to that Black Panther‘s own complicated relationship with colonialism, and you get a profoundly politically charged shift in these two films.
But how do previous Marvel films play into that? Specifically, how do previous Thor films play into that?
Thor: Ragnarok makes clear that no empire rules cleanly, because empire requires conquest. This is the dirty secret of Asgard, the secret that assures its eventual downfall from a technologically advanced civilization to a society of refugees. Except it’s not really such a secret, is it? In The Dark World, and in the original Thor, we saw our share of violence, often of the genocidal kind. The Asgardian’s history with the Dark Elves, with the Ice Giants – it’s an open book. Once, a people lived here. Once, there was a world. Then the Asgardians came, for one reason or another, and wiped it out. In these stories, we are led to believe that these other people were inherently evil. In The Dark World, the Dark Elves are specifically trying to wipe out the whole universe of stars because they apparently don’t like light or something. They’re not good people, or at least we’re told they’re not.
But what led them here? What led to this? Was it merely the inevitable result of one empire’s clash with another? Is that an excuse?
The movie The Dark World was constructed to appeal to our narratives of good and evil, and of whiteness, a certain Western European cultural nostalgia. The soundtrack evoked the Lord of the Rings to the point where it could have honestly been stolen. The characters on screen were, for the most part, white (with the notable exception of Heimdall and Hogun, who unfortunately had little screen time) and human-looking. Scenes in Asgard were golden and clean, evoking righteousness. The Asgardians were being attacked. The last conflict was ages ago, and really none of their concern. Why couldn’t they be left to subjugate the orc-looking dudes on their planets (I really have to question that director choice, by the by) in peace? They were the good guys.
Then the Dark Elves had to revive their centuries-old vendetta and try to wipe out the universe.
Perhaps what was most interesting to me about this movie was the way that it continues to reflect the empire’s fascination with being attacked on its own soil. By their nature, empires are sprawling. We see that the Asgardians conquer several worlds, and control those territories. Yet the Dark Elves do not attack them on those worlds. They attack them at the heart – killing their queen, destroying their throne, the symbol of Asgardian power. They are unstoppable – just as the Asgardians have been unstoppable on so many other worlds, with their relative might and skill.
Taken within this context, Thor: Ragnarok is an even more subversive movie than first supposed. Not only does Ragnarok deal directly with the evils of empire – it does so in the quintessential empire, in the home of what, in The Dark World, has been structured off of our own ideas of the golden (white/Western/patriarchal) society.
Honestly, having that context made me love the Thor oeuvre even more.