2 weeks ago
Thanksgiving’s a difficult holiday – even if you can ignore the bizarre reality of celebrating how our ancestors were generously saved from starvation by people we would go on to genocide, your racist uncle is still there to remind you. It’s hard to enjoy pumpkin pie when it tastes like ashes in your mouth, and it’s hard to feel good about Black Friday deals after you’ve seen videos of store employees being literally trampled to death by mobs of frenzied shoppers. But don’t worry, there’s a way to educate yourself on how to reconcile a history of colonial oppression in service of materialist meaninglessness while still contributing to the economy and having a good time – seeing Thor: Ragnarok.
I saw the newest Thor with a close friend of mine, and as we were leaving the theater he turned to me and said something like “I loved it, but why’d they tell two different stories? The whole thing should’ve been on the trash planet.” I can see his point – that segment was a lot more visually interesting and exciting than the frequent cutaways to what Hela was up to in Asgard – but I don’t agree with it. Thor’s story has two seemingly disparate elements, but they come together to tell one story, and not the kind I’ve come to expect from Marvel’s typical status-quo preserving superheroics.
The action in Thor begins with a revelation delivered from Odin to his two sons: you didn’t come first. Odin reveals that he made a mess before his sons were born, and he hid it, but now that he’s dying it will be up to them to deal with it (and his suggestion is to run). There’s a lot of backstories, but the gist is that Asgard wasn’t always the realm-spanning Viking paradise that Thor and Loki know it to be and that Odin and his true firstborn, his daughter Hela, made it what it is together.
Odin is explaining to his sons that Asgard’s history of good-natured rompin’ and stompin’ through the galaxy is perhaps not as good-natured as everyone pretends. As the movie continues, Hela reveals a lot of the details about this history: about how bloody it was; that Asgard campaigned to conquer and subjugate the 9 realms; and that the plan was to continue conquering for as long as possible, by any means possible, until Odin had a change of heart and banished Hela to some kind of medieval space prison. It’s a dark history, but not an unfamiliar one.
What we are learning is that Asgard is a Colonial power which rose to prominence by dominating, subjugating, and stealing from the realms it expanded into. While Thor and Loki are busy escaping from the trash planet, Sakaar, the movie frequently cuts away to show Hela resuming control of Asgard. And as she takes over, she explains herself to her newfound lackey, Skurge – she destroys a mural depicting Odin, Thor, and Loki benevolently ruling, revealing an older mural depicting her as the violent power behind Odin’s brutal campaigns. She gestures at the gilded palace itself and rhetorically asks Skurge, “where did you think we got all this gold?”
At the same time, Thor and Loki are experiencing Sakaar, the Black Friday planet. Now, Sakaar is not directly implicated in Asgard’s colonial expansion, but it is linked – Thor and Loki arrive there after being diverted in their transport to Asgard, and they leave it through a wormhole in the Sakaarian sky which dumps them right back on Asgard’s shores. And Sakaarian culture is certainly representative of colonized cultures: extremely stratified with the locals living in poverty while the rulers live in opulent splendor, emotionally and socially controlled by cheap entertainment, and resuming the status quo after a failed attempt at revolution.
Thor and Loki eventually escape, but not before meeting and freeing the would-be revolutionary leaders, Korg and Miek. In the process of leaving, they destroy the gladiatorial system of social control and weaken the despotic grip of the Grandmaster, preparing the ground for revolution. Upon their return to Asgard, they confront Hela and, armed with new knowledge of who they really are, attempt to defeat her in typical superhero combat. It doesn’t work, and so they resort to drastic measures, using their talents to destroy Asgard entirely rather than let it fall into another cycle of colonial destruction.
The story that the film is telling is one of revelation and reconciliation. Asgard is rocked by the arrival of Hela, just as Thor is rocked by the knowledge of her. Hela may be a destroyer, but she is also a truth teller. She knows the true history of Asgard and understands that its splendor has nothing to do with any kind of inherent quality of Asgardians, and everything to do with their willingness to violently take what they want from others. Thor wishes to oppose her, but he cannot do so without acknowledging the reality of her argument: that Asgard was never the world he thought it was.
And so the film proceeds, appropriately, to a compromise. Thor is only able to save Asgard by destroying its land (that is, its culture of wealth and status). This mirrors how colonial powers in our world must address their own histories. We can’t kill everyone who benefits from their ancestors’ thieving, as it’s not really their fault and killing is wrong I guess. But those of us who do benefit from a history of exploitation cannot continue to live such rich, unaware lives if we ever wish to live in integrity. For if we convince ourselves that our world is more worthy of saving than the lives and worlds of others, we will readily fall victim to anyone who claims to be able to preserve it.
Under the surface of this narrative is a warning: when you create Asgard, you create Sakaar, too. When you demolish the world beyond your own in order to steal its luster, you demolish your own sense of place in the world. Asgard looks peaceful, Sakaar looks violent, but the small-scale violence of Sakaar could never compare to the realm-spanning destruction of Asgardian exploitation. Sakaar is Asgard’s shadow, just as landfills and sacred site-destroying pipelines are America’s.
By the end, Thor is finally king of Asgard; a king of a place that does not exist. If we take this as symbolism, we can read it as Thor being king of himself. Having faced his history and reconciled it, he is free to make actual choices, rather than always reacting to conditions created for him. Similarly, we as citizens have our own choices to make regarding how we celebrate our history this week. Do we go in blithely, with nothing on our minds besides how much we like gravy and deals on electronics? Or do we use our knowledge and privilege to make choices that are less comfortable but more honest? Our worlds – exterior and interior – depend on it.