Thor: Ragnarok’s Revolutionizing of the Marvel Cinematic Space
By Sarah Druhan
Photo: Vanity Fair – Source
Marvel Studios’ choice of Taika Waititi to direct the third installment in the Thor trilogy was a move that was met by some raised eyebrows from the hero’s enthusiasts. Taika Waititi’s usual tongue-in-cheek, humorous style seemed out-of-place beside the grittier fare of the previous two Thor movies, and an odd choice for Chris Hemsworth’s mostly solemn character.
But the release of the resulting Thor: Ragnarok felt like both a natural continuation of the Thor series and a demonstration of Taika Waititi’s mastery as a director. Waititi was able to yield a lot of quality by mining into the notes of comedy that had been in the previous Thor movies—Thor’s occasional ignorance of his surroundings and overconfidence were both played up in Ragnarok in a way that made the character even more likable. And in the film’s focus on character, a focus many Marvel films tend to lack, it elevated itself above many other stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It thoroughly benefits from its lack of the plot-heavy universe building that often weighs down many other Marvel movies, allowing Ragnarok the space and levity to develop its story and its own characters. Waititi reportedly encouraged the film’s cast to improvise lines during shooting and to get as creative with it as possible. This lends an organic buoyancy to the movie that just makes it feel natural in a way that many other Marvel movies, which tend to develop characters through meticulously crafted one-liners and choppy action sequences rather than through giving them the space to establish themselves onscreen and cultivate a relationship with their audience.
Even with these Waititi-influenced changes, Thor: Ragnarok still appears to be a business-as-usual Marvel movie on its surface, albeit one of the more enjoyable ones. The story places a white male superhero at its center, an act that is not game-changing or groundbreaking by any means. But Ragnarok is even more than its unique humor and meta style. However, as the film evolves, it slowly becomes clear that this freeing space has allowed Taika Waititi to make Ragnarok into something more, something that can be considered revolutionary.
The introduction of Tessa Thompson’s character into the story might have been a tip-off for some audiences that Ragnarok was purposely embarking on a different path than most other movies in the Marvel canon. In a space like the MCU—predominantly white, heterosexual, and male—the inclusion of the character of Valkyrie interrupts the usual narrative, especially when Waititi makes her such an integral and powerful part of the story. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Thompson brings up the vital need for more Black characters in films rather than the usual stereotypes, specifically the prevalence of the ‘Black women in pain’ trope; Ragnarok changes the game in its presentation of Valkyrie as complex, mischievous, and wholly her own character. Thompson
also brings up Valkyrie’s coding as a bisexual woman in the film, citing a deleted scene in which a woman was shown exiting Valkyrie’s bedroom. The fact that a character like Valkyrie has such an influential gravity in this space of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a space that is usually reserved for main characters like Chris Hemsworth’s white and traditionally masculine Thor, disrupts and revolutionizes the hitherto typical Marvel formula.
But Ragnarok restructures the Marvel space not just through this progressive feminist lens, but also through a postcolonial one. Waititi, a man of Māori descent, takes his opportunity at the helm of a Marvel blockbuster to explore more advanced ideas than usually found in superhero movies: we watch the horrific effects of colonization as directly suffered by Asgardians, and at the same how colonization and other crimes of the past are all too often covered up by civilizations like Asgard. At one point, the film’s antagonist—Cate Blanchett’s Hela—literally tears down works of art depicting idealized versions of Asgard’s past to reveal the truth hidden constantly behind them: the violent conquest spearheaded by her and Thor’s father Odin. This literal revelation of how colonialist realities are hidden away under palatable fictions, demonstrating how history is written by the colonizer, is an incredibly mature and relevant topic to explore through a film from Marvel and Disney Studios, and something no one likely expected from a Thor movie.
Waititi uses the character of Thor—again, someone who could not be more emblematic of the standard Marvel-as-usual character—to introduce a poignant and postcolonial idea: that a culture is not a place, but a people. As we experience the characters’ pain at the destruction of Asgard, but also their resilience and strength in the wake of such loss, we are able to understand a point of view from an Indigenous director that can’t be found or replicated in any other aspect of the ‘traditional’ space of the MCU. In its initial operating under the guise of a normal addition to the Marvel canon, Thor: Ragnarok is able to develop as something that brings a refreshing outlook to an old formula and a revolutionary effect to the primarily male and predominantly white landscape, solidifying it as undoubtedly one of the more groundbreaking and important installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.