Thor Ragnarok and Colonialism

[Spoilers for Thor Ragnarok]

So, some weeks ago I was watching the latest offering in the Marvel Cinematic Universe about a superhero whose mythos and supporting cast are drawn from Norse mythology. Here’s the thing. I know most of the work of director Taika Waititi and eagerly awaited Thor Ragnarok purely because of the comedy stylings of its director meeting the solid structure powerhouse that is Marvel Studios. The film was loved for its humour and action. For my money, it’s not my favourite Taika Waititi film (What We Do in the Shadows) or my favourite Marvel movie (Captain America The First Avenger), but that’s a matter of personal taste and there’s certainly lots to love about the film. The thing I want to discuss in regards to Thor Ragnarok is a couple of scenes in particular. However, first, I have to talk about Hela.

When Hela, the villain of the film, is introduced to our heroes, Odin reveals that Thor and Loki have an elder sister who was banished. After Odin’s death, Hela is released and Ragnarok can begin. From her appearance, you might think that Hela was a proto-Loki when it came to Asgard. However, when Hela arrives in the throne room of Asgard, that’s when things start to get interesting. Painted on the ceiling of Asgard’s throne room is an idyllic fresco of life in Asgard. Wise, benevolent Odin with his two sons. The painting is reminiscent of Renaissance paintings of scenes from the Bible. If I were in my poetry class, I’d be using the word pastoral. However, Hela destroys the fresco and reveals something.

The history portrayed on that fresco is a revision of history. All the nasty history is painted over and replaced with this ideal version of the story. Hela was one of the monsters forgotten by Odin’s reframing of history. Hela’s whole ambition is to embrace the conquering, colonist Asgard of the past. The Asgard that Odin wanted to forget. Hela’s is the sins of colonialism rematerialized to haunt those that benefit from it.

A little context for those who aren’t up with all the lingo. In literature, one of the critical lenses that we use to examine texts is colonialism/post-colonialism. Colonialism is all the ideas associated with when people from European nations tried to conquer the world and the rhetoric they used to justify their conquering. You might be familiar with two particular concepts around this framework. One might be the ‘Scramble for Africa’ in which, during the late 19th and early 20th century, several European nations claimed as much land as they could on the African continent and the horrible ways they justified their territorial wars. Another might be ‘Manifest Destiny’, wherein American settlers continued to expand their territory all the way to the western coast of North America and the terrible things they did to the Native American peoples on the way. Colonialism: it’s not just for Europe anymore.

A little closer to home, the atrocities committed against Aboriginal Australians. Their slaughter at the hands of English settlers, their continued subjugation with atrocities like the Stolen Generation. The thing about colonialism is that in some ways, it just doesn’t end. Chances are, most of the stereotypes you can think of about groups who suffered under colonial expansion was formerly colonialist propaganda. I wanted to go in-depth about Australia’s history is that’s the corner of the world I know. Though, as long as we’re in this corner of the world, let’s discuss the director of Thor Ragnarok.

Taika Waititi is a New Zealand man of Maori descent. Now, a quick delve into New Zealand history reveals that the arrival of the British didn’t go well for the Maori people (). On this, I’d rather lead people to sources than word things myself and stick my foot in something that I’m not well-versed. Now, with this slight bit of context in mind, it seems that Waititi was interested in the colonial aspects of Asgard’s history. For the Thor series, that’s an interesting development. The first Thor is a Shakespeare play. The second film is an interstellar drama. The third film is a post-colonial comedy.

Back to the film, there are two more elements worth noting. First, is Thor’s brief realisation when he sees the old fresco that his father covered up with Hela wielding Mjolnir. Perhaps in this way, Thor realises that Hela was Odin’s soldier for their colonist past and that Thor was to be Odin’s soldier for their present. Those little moments where we can infer that Thor is considering where he sits in the colonial timeline of Asgard and realises that he has benefited from the conquering and subjugation of others in his life as Prince of Asgard. Hela wants to revive the subjugating conquest of other worlds, like those contemporaneously who perceive that they’ve lost something because of the steps we made towards a more equal world. Could we say that Hela wants to Make Asgard Great Again?

The last thing I wanted to mention is a line from the same scene as above. Hela, while in the throne room, posits to Thor: ‘Where do you think all this gold came from?’. That’s the question I’d like to leave things on? When considering who benefits from history and the horrible things that were done to people in that history that resulted in the power imbalances of today, think to yourself. Where did the gold come from?

Then be like Thor and destroy the place that stands as a monument to the colonial past.


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