Guest Essay: Postcolonialism and the Shattering of Toxic Masculinity in Thor: Ragnarok—by Demi Flowers-Blevins

Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok (2017) is one of the most well received Marvel movies yet, and that is a pretty big accomplishment looking at its competition. It is currently the fourth highest rated Superhero film of all time by Rotten Tomatoes, toting an adjusted score of 107% “Fresh” (“64 Best Superhero Movies of All Time”). While Marvel movies are almost always huge block buster successes these days, the fact that a movie with a post-colonial narrative (not even subtle one) being a huge success is a remarkable feat. It is also important to note the movie’s success despite its underwhelming prequels, Thor (2011) directed by Kenneth Branagh and Thor: The Dark World (2013) directed by Alan Taylor. It is rare for a series best movie to be it’s last (as far as we know), but Ragnarok manages to outshine not only its prequels, but many Marvel movies to date with its contemporary perspective.

The movie is far from perfect. It somehow managed to not pass the Bechdel Test, which is odd to say the least considering the pivotal role played by women characters (Hale-Stern). Cutting Valkyrie’s scene that displays her bisexuality was also a hard hit (Nicholson). One of the things it does succeed with, however, is its strong post-colonial narrative. Hela literally drops the ceiling (a la “drop the mic”) to reveal their colonialist past that was oh so conveniently forgotten (i.e. suppressed). She berates Odin saying he’s “proud to have it, ashamed of how he got it” as she admires their true history of enslavement and colonization that made them so powerful. Looking at the image that was only on screen for a split second, it is quite clearly slavery as the Asgardian soldier wields a whip over chained, working people whom barely have clothes. Truthfully, I don’t even remember seeing this part of the mural in the movie, which is a crying shame. There is also a depiction of Hela holding what looks to be Mjölnir, which is quite a loaded imagery in itself. Hela wielding Mjölnir tends to be a hot topic on Marvel forums. Some say it’s because it has yet to be enchanted, others argue with that point as she had to hold an enchanted Mjölnir to destroy it. That idea is negated by the idea that Odin’s enchantment likely faded as he passed along with his imprisonment of Hela. Regardless, Hela holding Mjölnir high above her head after we’re aware she wants to enslave the entire universe shows the impurity of a symbol that had previously signified heroism. The idea that such an artifact, which is known to the wider audience to only be held by those whom are deemed “worthy,” is being held by a murderous, imperialist, enslaver like Hela furthers the notion that even “sacred” items like Mjölnir are entwined to Asgard’s heinous past. One could read this as a reference to Christianity, which has its own history as being a gateway for colonization. Ragnarok is chock full of references such as this one.

One thing I rarely see spoken or written about Ragnarok is its tendency to not only make fun of toxic masculinity, but also recognizing Thor’s journey with overcoming it himself. Thor in and of himself physically is the epitome of masculinity. He’s all muscles, blond hair, and blue eyes and throws around a hammer to defeat his foes. The previous Thor movies centered solely around that representation of the character, not much of his emotional side was really allowed to bloom. Ragnarok, however, chooses to mock it right from the get go. Dan Taipua summed up Waititi’s humor as “the joke is always on the person trying to be smart.” There is really no better way to describe it. Throughout the movie, Thor makes comments about himself as a hero with way too much pompous sincerity, bickers with the Hulk and Banner about who’s the strongest Avenger, tries to one up Dr. Strange by saying he should’ve sent him an email, the list goes on. He and his brash self-confidence when he’s clearly in the wrong is constantly the center of the joke (Taipua). The characters within the movie and those watching it are very obviously aware that Thor is awkwardly trying his best to perform a role he believes he’s meant to play: the role of the typical macho man that knows everything, which defines toxic masculinity.

In reality, Thor is anything but the role he spends a fair amount of the movie trying to portray himself as. Underneath that exterior, Thor’s main journey is learning how to not only separate himself from his kingdom’s past, but how to not make the same mistakes. Landing on the trash planet Sakaar allowed Thor to experience what Asgard was once like in the shoes of the enslaved. With what we now know, Thor is essentially an outlier within his family; Odin was a ruthless war monger on a conquest for domination and gold, Hela not only supported his vision but ultimately outgrew his ambition, Frigga (though not explored thoroughly) is known as being the source of Loki’s desire for chaos and dark magic, Loki obviously takes after his adopted mother’s influence. Thor, while having a short-lived rebellious teenager-esque phase, is starkly different than them all when it comes down to it. Thor finds his deepest core values revolve around protecting others, not glorifying himself (even if his spoken words often make it seem otherwise). Thor comes full circle when he realizes what he must do to save Asgard: save the people. He, with some helpful nudges and character building, throws aside his own ego, his palace, his riches, his kingdom to save what truly matters. “Asgard is not a place, it’s a people.” It cannot be understated that Thor got past the colonizer ideals of land and riches. Even more amazingly, he got over his own ego to save Asgard by defeating Hela. He didn’t choose to die a “warrior’s death” in battle to save Asgard-the-place like how he was raised to. He was logical. Fighting until the end of time against his sister Hela would have the same consequences if Hela was to win. Instead, he chose an option that totally denies him any glory: summoning Surtur to completely demolish Asgard and Hela in the process. All that’s left is the people, but Thor got past his colonizer-minded upbringing to realize the people were truly what was important.

Lastly, let’s talk about another think Ragnarok did that was beyond amazing: making two roles held by people of color integral to the success of saving the people of Asgard. This being a topic we discussed in class, many were very happy that Heimdall became a Moses figure for the (overwhelmingly white, might I mention) people of Asgard as he huddles them to safety from Hela’s wrath. In the previous installments, Heimdall was merely a golden clad gate keeper who is able to see everything in the universe. He went from gate keeper to Moses who single handedly was the only barrier between Hela and the Asgardians for quite a bit of the movie. Ultimately, it was Heimdall that did most of the grunt work saving Asgard. He even led them safely to the Bifrost and protected them while they boarded the ship.

Valkyrie was the other POC, played by Tessa Thompson who is Afro-Latina. A long time ago, Valkyrie was a part of Asgard’s elite force of women warriors. After Hela murdered all but the last remaining Valkyrie, whom in the film only goes by Valkyrie or Scrapper 142, Thompson’s character fled Asgard in great despair. Somehow, she finds her way to Sakaar and, in her attempt to forget the atrocities she and Asgard committed, she’s taken up a taste for alcohol, so she can forget. Assumedly, she was a warrior for some time in the Grandmaster’s arena, but she eventually became a scrapper. Ironically, a scrapper collects “lost and unloved” beings who have the misfortune of landing on Sakaar and enslaves them in the name of the Grandmaster in return for money (and booze, in Valkyrie’s case). Unbeknownst to her, Valkyrie becomes the only remnant of Asgard’s ruthless history of “blood and tears” (Adlakha). Thor tries multiple times to recruit her to help save Asgard, but Valkyrie had no interested. Eventually, Thor became exasperated that Valkyrie could just abandon the people of Asgard with seemingly zero remorse. To this, Valkyrie advises him to forget about it and embrace Sakaar like she did. Valkyrie’s indifference is evidence to her loss of cultural identity, something many indigenous and aboriginal peoples struggle with (Taipua).

Valkyrie’s story is far from over there. While tracking down Thor and the Hulk for the Grandmaster, she and Loki have an altercation where Loki tries to force her into a PTSD attack by using magic to make her remember the fall of the Valkyrie at the hands of Hela (and Odin who ordered them to stop her knowing they never could). In her flashback, we specifically see a scene where she’s reaching out to another woman who had just been pierced straight through her abdomen by Hela. Tessa Thompson reminisces, “There’s a great shot of me falling back from one of my sisters who’s just been slain. In my mind, that was my lover.” Thus, revealing that it had been agreed upon that Thompson’s Valkyrie is cannonly bisexual (Nicholson). It’s hard to say whether Loki’s sole plan was to throw her off so he could win their race or to get her to help Thor, he is the God of Mischief after all. Regardless, the reminder hit her like a truck. She quickly tracks down Thor and expresses interest in joining the team, specifically mentioning her desires to revenge-kill Hela. Valkyrie has the most complete character arc within the film and absolutely stole the movie. In the end, she, like Thor, decided to save her people, not the thrown she hates like she had once been sworn to do as a Valkyrie (Adlakha). The climax of her plot line was her literally crash landing an alien space craft that was the colors of the Aboriginal flag as fireworks went off. Valkyrie’s role was a breath of fresh air in a very white, male, and anti-giving-a-female-character-an-actual-personality Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Marvel’s newest Thor installment was a completely wonderful surprise. It featured not only the first woman of color superhero within the franchise, but also the first woman super villain. They aren’t just token characters either, they’re nuanced and complicated and are an absolute pleasure to watch on the big screen (Hale-Stern). When it comes down to it, Thor: Ragnarok is a story about colonialism in every way imaginable. The rediscovery of Asgard’s horrific past and the erasure of human struggle is not something isolated to this movie, it is an obvious critique on the history of the real world that we live in. Hela’s character shows us the consequences of trying to gild the harrowing past of colonial rule and how it’s suppression leaves those who were never taught about it to try to clean up a mess they didn’t even know existed (Adlakha). While the movie presents this information with many hilarious jokes along the way, the underlying message is one of upmost importance. Frankly, it is amazing how socially conscious the Marvel Cinematic Universe is becoming, not only with Ragnarok but also Black Panther (2018). I hope the success of these movies steers Marvel executives to keep on this path and continue creating films that are more profound than just white men with superpowers and exciting action sequences.

Works Cited

“64 Best Superhero Movies of All Time.” Rotten Tomatoes Movie and TV News, Fandango, 2018.

Adlakha, Siddhant. “‘Thor: Ragnarok’: Marvel From a Postcolonial Perspective.” The Village Voice, Village Voice LLC, 10 Nov. 2017.

Hale-Stern, Kaila. “Should It Matter If Thor: Ragnarok Passes the Bechdel Test?” The Mary Sue, The Mary Sue LLC, 31 Oct. 2017.

Nicholson, Amy. “How Tessa Thompson Went From Indie Actor to ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ Badass.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 25 June 2018.

Taipua, Dan. “Thor and His Magic Patu: Notes on a Very Māori Marvel Movie.” The Spinoff, The Spinoff, 31 Oct. 2017.

Waititi, Taika, director. Thor: Ragnarok. Marvel Studios, 2017.

2018-12-13T15:45:49+00:00