“I’d rather be a good man than a great king.”
When we first meet the God of Thunder, he is a bratty and overconfident heir to a mighty throne in Thor. His hubris leads him to start a war and throw the Nine Realms into chaos over little more than ego and pride. In response, his father banishes him to Earth, his beloved weapon, Mjölnir, deems him unworthy, and he spends the rest of the movie processing the lessons presented to him. By the end of the movie, he turns down the throne he once coveted, citing its inherent brutality as a major factor in his decision. The next solo entry in his story, Thor: The Dark World, steers away from Thor’s relationship to Asgard and the throne, focusing instead on a completely external threat, but Ragnarok circles back to the conversation started in Thor and pushes it even further. Thor focuses on humbling our young hero, but allows him to simply remove himself from the throne, which impacts nothing other than himself; Ragnarok takes that further and directly challenges the violence of the throne, Thor’s complicity, and what it will mean for Asgard to finally address the bloodshed it was built on.
Utilizing a similar structure as Thor, our hero once again finds himself away from Asgard, marooned on a remote planet where he must undergo yet another major character transformation. This time, however, he’s not reckoning with personal shortcomings, but with his role in a history of his nation’s violence that he has only now discovered, along with an older sibling he never knew existed and a reality about his beloved father he was never privy to. His entire world, quite literally, is turned upside down and he must get back so that he’s able to rectify it all. He must step forward as an inheritor and beneficiary of this violence and decide what kind of leader he is going to be.
“History is written by the victors.”
In Ragnarok’s criticism of monarchy and imperialism, its primary focus is the revisionism that can uplift ruthless, bloodthirsty leaders into reverence and worship, which it establishes from the very beginning of the story. Thor arrives back at Asgard to find his brother masquerading as Odin and hosting The Tragedy of Loki of Asgard, a play that re-enacts Loki’s death in Dark World, with little flourishes in dialogue that uplift Loki’s role in the events. It’s a silly, lighthearted way to start the story, but it’s more than just a playful gag: in the play, Loki asks Thor to build a statue in his own honor, and we can see that the statue has actually been built in Asgard. It’s entertainment for both Asgardians and for us, the viewers, but it’s also functioning as propaganda to elevate Loki as a hero, rather than the duplicitous trickster that he is. Thor dissolves the ruse easily enough, but it signals what’s to come with Hela and the Grandmaster.
Art does not exist in a vacuum. It is driven by the politics and ideologies of those who create it (no matter how much some of them swear it isn’t), and it can be used for more than just escapism and entertainment. We see this within the MCU itself, which has had a strong relationship with the U.S Department of Defense, who exchanges actual military equipment for authority over how the military itself is portrayed in movies. Much like Loki’s play, these movies themselves can and have been used as direct propaganda; Captain Marvel in particular was paired with a real-world recruitment campaign, with pro-US military imagery and themes littered throughout the film, right down to characters and plot points.
This is a rather prominent motif in Ragnarok. A grand ceiling mural telling through illustration a series of mythos and legends and history is likely an allusion to the Sistine Chapel, commissioned by Pope Julius II, “a warrior pope…[who] invested in symbolism to display his temporal power,” situated inside the Vatican, where the Catholic Church has exercised and asserted global power throughout history. Much like the Vatican is the center of the Catholic Church’s power, the throne room is the center of Asgardian power, which reaches across the Nine Realms. One of the core scenes of the movie involves Hela revealing to Skurge the truth behind the Empire’s rise to prominence, centered around the ceiling art in the throne room. “Goblets and garden parties? Peace treaties? Odin is proud of it, but ashamed of how he got it,” she says as she tears down the mural, dominated by soft pastel colors and peaceful imagery, to reveal the real mural hidden underneath, which tells of violence and bloodshed and is dominated by harsh reds and blacks and strong lines. As Hela explains, at some point in their conquests, her ambition exceeded Odin’s own, and he chose to banish her and erase her from existence. But in doing so, rather than confronting the death and destruction he’d wrought across the realms in the construction of his empire, he chose instead to rebrand himself as a peaceful and wise leader so that he could continue to enjoy the fruits of their efforts, and the mural that Hela destroys is an extension of that revision through the use of art and symbolism.
Thor touched on this reality of the throne, but where it allowed Thor to simply sidestep the responsibility of the throne, Ragnarok pushes him to not only step out of his father’s shadow and finally find his own power, but also confront and rectify his father’s sins. The throne was not his only inheritance; the bounty of Odin and Hela’s conquests allowed him a rather cushy life in a world built, in her words, on “blood and tears”. We get a glimpse of this conflicting narrative in Thor, where Laufey calls Odin a “murderer and a thief”, implying that the peace treaties between Asgard and the Frost Giants were gained and enforced through ill means on Odin’s part. But Thor brushes that aside and ignites another war with them anyway, and it’s not addressed again until we’re in the throne room with Hela two films later and she scoffs at the illustration of the Frost Giants. This is the imperialist violence that Thor must face, and he quite literally comes face to face with himself when he finally makes his way back to Asgard. As he enters the throne room, he stands over a shattered piece of the mural on the ground that is an illustration of him, then he looks up to see the real mural underneath. Visually, it challenges him to face his complicity and address it as the heir to the empire.
But before that, he must find his way back home while marooned on a remote planet ruled by a total screwball simply called the Grandmaster. Much like Odin, who positions himself as the Allfather of the Nine Realms, caring and wise, the Grandmaster presents himself similarly as the playful and endearing leader of a loving community of outcasts and exiles. On his way to meet the Grandmaster, Thor is taken through a psychedelic tunnel where an automatic recording welcomes him to Sakaar, which it describes as a place for those who are “lost and unloved”. With the melody of Pure Imagination playing on top of the recording, it’s a very explicit reference to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, likening the character we’re about to meet to Willy Wonka, a colorful and kooky character with very dark, maybe even sinister undertones. And when we meet the Grandmaster, we discover that he’s actually a slaver who buys captives and forces them to participate in gladiator-style battles to the death for entertainment while the world remains impoverished and littered with trash (and thus, more prone to capturing people and selling them to him for coin, creating a self-sustaining slave market). Still, he never breaks his playful and endearing facade; he cracks jokes and laughs heartily even as he’s executing people in the most brutal ways possible. And this is of course strategic; he taps into this false sense of community he’s developed when Thor and Hulk seek to escape the planet to turn the common folk, who he calls his “loyal Sakaarians”, into his tools and resources to stop them. But in turn, Thor allocates resources to Korg, an aspiring revolutionary, to both liberate the enslaved people and also create a distraction as they flee.
Despite such heavy anti-imperialist themes and criticisms, the film is, at its core, a comedy with a chaotic sense of humor that slings jokes almost nonstop. With a story like this, comedy is usually used as a reprieve from the heavier moments, but Ragnarok pushes it further than that, using humor not only to control the tone of each scene but also reflect the many ways humor can manifest in real life. The Grandmaster, for example, uses humor to mask his brutality and endear himself to the masses that he rules with an iron fist, so when he’s onscreen, jokes are flying at near breakneck speeds. Korg, on the other hand, is soft-spoken and a lighthearted source of much of the movie’s comedy, but is also the mastermind of a revolt against the slavery and brutality happening on Sakaar. Just as humor can be used to mask sinister intentions, who’s to say we also can’t laugh and giggle our way to revolution? A revolution that doesn’t leave room for joy and laughter is not a very sustainable one.
The very first scene of the film is also riddled with jokes, even though it involves Thor battling Surtur, the creature prophesied to bring about the end of Asgard in a cataclysmic event that shares its name with the movie itself. The entire scene is written to be comedic because, despite the threat he poses, Surtur is light work for Thor. But it also creates an important question: if Thor prevents Ragnarok in the very first scene, what will the primary conflict be, then? It, of course, proves to be far more complicated than defeating a big, bad scary monster. In fact, Ragnarok turns out not to be the conflict at all, but the resolution: if Hela derives her power from Asgard, then Asgard itself, a place built from conquest and massacre anyway, must be destroyed. So there’s no reason to take this monster seriously, leaving room for Thor to flex and have fun before all hell breaks loose. When Surtur comes back at the very end to destroy Asgard, that moment is also played for laughs, and for good reason: the destruction of the physical place is the first step to rectifying the empire’s violent history, and as Odin himself reminds Thor, “Asgard is a people, not a place.” We are not meant to mourn Asgard, but to bid it good riddance and clear the way for a brighter, less bloodier future. So why not do that with a few giggles for good measure?
However, the film exercises restraint in its humor where it matters most: the characters. Sure, in scenes where Thor and Bruce try to open up to each other, they can barely get a word in around all the jokes and physical gags that are flying, but we’re also dealing with characters who do not typically discuss their feelings openly. Thor, Loki, Valkyrie, and Bruce are all extremely guarded people, so their inner conflicts are explored and processed visually, rather than in dialogue. Thor tries to talk to Hulk about losing his father and his hammer, but where we really see him deal with those feelings is in the throne room at the end of the film, and the flashes of his father being the gateway to his powers in lieu of Mjölnir. Loki’s facial expressions belie his inner conflict as Thor finally gives up on him just as he’s experiencing the same betrayal from Odin that Loki faced in Thor, presenting them an opportunity to reconnect. And after skirting around Thor’s attempts to recruit her back to Asgard into the fight against Hela, Valkyrie’s tragic past is finally revealed in what is probably the most beautiful sequence in the film.
Since we get there through Loki’s mindreading powers and are therefore in a sort of mindscape, the flashback is presented as a series of moving illustrations that are highly stylized and use extremely wide shots, dramatic lighting, and depth-of-field to convey the grand, nearly biblical scope of the battle. There is no great battle sequence, with flashy fight choreography and banter and the natural peaks and valleys for tension, because this is in the mind of a woman who has spent the countless centuries since trying to forget all of this and move on; a standard battle scene would cheapen the emotional impact of this reveal. Instead, it focuses on a select handful of moments in the battle that are pivotal to the effects the battle has had on her character. The Valkyries descend from the heavens like warrior angels to confront Hela, the ferocious devil awaiting below. They are quickly cut down as Hela unleashes her horrifying power. The Asgardian warriors are slain en masse. Val reaches out as the last of her comrades die in front of her. She falls back, then it cuts to her in present time crashing to the floor of the room where her and Loki were fighting, a warrior fallen from grace. Nowhere in that sequence is her trauma played for laughs, and her deep internal conflict is presented merely through visuals, without any heavy-handed exposition or dramatic monologue, yet with all of its complexities intact: survivor’s guilt and terror have driven her into alcoholism.
And that level of care extends to characters all the way through to the end, when the surviving Asgardians watch Surtur destroy Asgard. After Korg’s little quip, the Asgardians themselves are given a moment visually to process the destruction of their home, and this is important because, even though Asgard the physical place had to go, the people still have a valid emotional connection to it. But the tone lightens again rather quickly as Thor, having now finally stepped up as the leader of his people, banters humorously with Korg and Heimdall trying to figure out what their next move is. They are only given a few moments to process rather than the space to mope endlessly because what’s done is done; Asgard is a people, not a place, and as a people, they have to look forward and move onward.