After the first Thor film, infused with Shakespearean dramatic tension by Kenneth Branagh, and a sadly forgettable second feature, Thor: The Dark World, comes the highly anticipated Thor: Ragnarok, as told by Māori director Taika Waititi, whose previous films Boy, What We Do In The Shadows, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople received both critical acclaim and box office success. Known for both his humour and his sense of place, the tone of Waititi’s Thor was set as soon as the first trailer was released. Keen eyed viewers quickly discovered the “Skux Life” grafitto on the wall behind Thor as he throws his hammer at Hela, the Asgardian goddess of death and now, upon Odin’s demise, the rightful Queen of Asgard.
If you were hoping for a quirky, funny Thor film as a result of Waititi being at the helm, you won’t be disappointed. The film is a blast from start to finish. It is hilarious in parts, but what is done so well is that even where the humour is slapstick (wait for Thor throwing a ball at a window) the humour never gets in the way of the story, which still manages to tell an epic tale of good triumphing over evil. What interested me, though, was the fact that the film doesn’t end with the sort of closure normally compulsory in these films, but with a displacement of a people who need to re-establish themselves anew. This for me, is what makes this a really fascinating film, and reading backwards from that displacement Thor: Ragnarok becomes quite an unexpected and, I think, quite brilliant story of imperialism, colonialism and resistance.
When Hela, Odin’s first born, returns to Asgard to claim the throne she immediately starts to radically redecorate the place by destroying the friezes that guild the golden halls of the royal city. As she knocks down walls and ceilings she doesn’t so much renovate as strip the building back to reveal Asgard’s dark past, one in which Odin and Hela took control of the nine realms through invasion, violence and the suppression of the other nations. It is a fascinating image where beneath the veneer of a kindly, caring, paternal, peaceful, “liberal” Asgard it is unveiled as ruthless, murderous and greedy. As Hela looks upon the old paintings of imperial Asgard she declares she wants Asgard to not only return to its position of supremacy, but act as if that supremacy is a right. In the context of contemporary politics, this language is clearly designed to resonate.
What made this reading stand out for me, though, was the fact that Valkyrie, as played by Tessa Thompson, is key to the narrative of colonialism and resistance that is central to this film. For a start, Tessa Thompson is a woman of colour, and as such she is positioned very deliberately in opposition to the very white, Cate Blanchett, whose performance as Hela is fantastic, by the way. Valkyrie is assumed to be the last of the Asgardian warriors that tried to stop Hela many years back. They were decimated, and Valkyrie now lives as a trash collector for the Grand Master (another excellent performance from Jeff Goldblum) on a planet called Sakaar, which comics readers will know was the setting for the brilliant Planet Hulk story, and which also evokes images of imperial Rome through the spectacle of gladiator-style fights in the giant circus of Sakaar. So, Valkyrie is here, and so are Thor and the Hulk, both of whom, having been lost in space, were drawn to this planet that acts like a giant, cosmic vacuum cleaner of space debris. Importantly, though, when we first see Valkyrie her space she is painted (coded) in the colours of the Māori flag: the red, black and white of the Tino Rangatiratanga.
She is also shown to be someone who has completely lost her way, her spirit and her hope. Represented as someone dependent on alcohol, the use of this intoxicant to both pacify and placate indigenous people, especially in Australia, means that Valkyrie’s dependance on it in the film is also no accident. As a result of her trauma she finds it very difficult to imagine an alternative to her life on Sakaar, so she drinks herself into oblivion. Gradually, however, she is persuaded to resist by the two “slaves”, Thor and the Hulk, that she has delivered to the Grand Master of Sakaar. Along with other slaves, one of whom, Korg, is brilliantly voiced by Waititi himself (and is also especially keen to start a revolution), Valkyrie makes the move that enables the escape from Sakaar and makes possible the defence of Asgard.
In the final battle against Hela, we see Valkyrie in a ship of different colours, but this time it is coded to represent another indigenous group, the First Peoples of Australia. As she walks out, now dressed in her traditional Valkyrie clothes the ship that she escaped in lies behind her with the red, black and gold of the Aboriginal flag clearly visible.
I would like to say more about this fabulous, funny, joyful, brilliant film, but I’d give away too many spoilers. However, as I said at the start, the film ends with the displacement of people in a bid to reassert the violence of imperial supremacy, and the whole film can be read backwards from that event as a call to challenge such supremacy; to resist, stand up and be proud. I bloody loved it!
PS, for a proper take on the issue of indigeneity, you can now read Dan Taipua’s excellent piece in The Spinoff.