As a fan of traditional mythology, mother to two tiny Swedes and daughter of Icelandic in-laws, I’m probably not the best person to give a positive review of Marvel’s ability to remain faithful to Nordic God origin stories (spoiler, they don’t). Yet as a semi-devout follower of their cinematic universe, I joyously spent some hours of my Xmas holidays watching Marvel’s seventeenth offering… aka. third ‘Thor’ film… aka. fifth vehicle for Chris Hemsworth to show off his sculpted torso. Short version: I loved the film or at least I managed to convince myself that I did. World building, as Marvel has proven it can pull off over the last decade, is a skill I admire, it’s an escapist’s ultimate playground–yet my aversion to imperialism and the influence of a feminist education on how I perceive fictional heroes and supervillains ate holes in the fabric of my appreciation. They were tiny, yet still they jarred in what others have lauded as a pristine experience, because I believe the role models depicted in pop culture should be subjected to intersectional critique and I continue to be relentlessly disappointed in how Hollywood often enables a white supremacist narrative.
Still as baby steps in equality go, this was one of Marvel’s best attempts yet. The blonde haired, white skinned Valkyrie from the comic books was played by woman of colour, American Tessa Thompson whilst an eradicated romantic subplot ensured that she commanded respect and admiration in her own right rather than being used as token arm candy. Thor’s previously one-dimensional hero persona took a good few knocks and he experienced something like a character arc in realising that service to his people was more important than his thundersome majesty over a piece of land. And Heimdall, the all-seeing, all-hearing Asgardian God played by a man of colour, British Idris Elba was finally integral to the plot after two movies where he had been relegated to an inconsequential obstacle for unwelcome individuals coming in or going out of Asgard. In this movie, he’s the saviour of his people which according to several interviews made Elba himself far happier, and it showed. Overall the movie was funnier than an audience might expect Thor movies to be based on their track record, and a credit to the comedic talents of New Zealand director Taika Waititi who voiced Korg one of the comic relief characters himself.
Korg: Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Korg. I’m kind of like the leader in here. I’m made of rocks, as you can see, but don’t let that intimidate you. You don’t need to be afraid, unless you’re made of scissors! Just a little Rock, Paper, Scissors joke for you.
But then came Hela, played by Cate Blanchett–a superb actress who despite receiving third order of billing, was mainly consigned to the final showdown, whilst Thor and the Hulk go on their buddy cop roadtrip through the universe. In Thor Ragnorok, Hela is Odin’s secret first-born daughter with whom he once conquered the nine realms. She’s also the goddess of death and during act one of the movie, is set free from her lengthy imprisonment by Odin’s demise. Some fan theories on Reddit say that he carried her around with him, inside his body like tormented guilt, after converting from bloodthirsty conqueror to benevolent ruler. Others say she was trapped in the underworld Hel by Odin’s lifeforce–still by all accounts, she was imprisoned only because she was ambitious and eventually more powerful than Odin who, once he was satisfied with his acquisitions through war and bloodshed, banished his daughter, his competitor and trusted sidekick whilst he rewrote the history of Asgard, literally covering up murals glorifying his millennia as a cutthroat warrior.
Hela: “Look at these lies! Goblets and garden parties? Peace treaties? Odin. Proud to have it… ashamed of how he got it!”
Ashamed of how he got it yes, and also of her very existence, the weapon he cultivated and raised until she became as mighty as her father. As Asgardian enemies go, she is stronger and more powerful than many of her predecessors, as Odin’s incarcerated daughter and rightful heir to the throne, she has more justification for grievance than a simple power grab. But as a female antagonist, she’s an analogy for how men abuse and cast off feminine power when they consider it’s outlived its usefulness. She’s also emblematic of how we view history. Anthony Hopkin’s Odin remains the wise sage archetype and adored all-father despite his old testament style massacres, abuse and general colonial erasure of the nine realms, whilst Thor remains a hot-headed yet favoured son and hero who attempts, after a few words of introduction, to murder his newfound sister when she challenges his kingship.
This is God territory of course, where few are accountable for their actions and family counselling isn’t likely to achieve much, so it’s not like I expected miracles. Yet some reflection on Odin’s evil legacy, an apology or simple acknowledgement of his abusive behaviour could have gone a long way to promote a clear parallel to today’s discourse on racism and equality–that the sins of our forefathers cast long shadows upon future generations. The moral question of how we might consider the defense of realms won through violent subjugation could have been legitimately raised. But it wasn’t, because whilst Odin’s power over his dominions came to Thor, the responsibility for how they were obtained was conveniently left in the past. Perhaps the script writers felt that such a debate might have been just too challenging for the movie-goers suspension of disbelief.