Sunday, November 05, 2017

"Proud of what he had. Ashamed of how he got it", Thor Ragnarok as a riff on Asgardian revisionism hiding the bloodshed that was the foundation of the throne

While it sounds like Thor fans are not entirely happy with the brazenly comedic turn this third film has taken it's the first successful Thor film in the franchise for me.  The jokes are legion but since they derive from character tensions I'm willing to let a lot slide.  Loki and Thor are still locked in a brotherly relationship where affection and distrust are mingled at high saturation levels.  That is in some ways the core of the story, how two brothers have drastically different understandings of the nature of their shared family legacy.

Thor Ragnarok runs with the idea that the brothers end up bonding over the discovery that Odin had withheld the truth about the foundation of his kingdom from them, a truth that breaks forth at Odin's death in the most literal way when Thor's older sister Hela (played with scenery-chewing gusto by Cate Blanchett) appears to conquer Asgard and continue expanding its empire beyond the nine realms ruled by Asgard.  This is more or less the woman for whom Thanos would wish to wield the Infinity Gauntlet so he can impress her enough to marry him, though I'm rusty on these more arcane and frankly tedious elements of Marvel higher-powered characters.  Since Loki Marvel villains have tended to range from blandly forgettable to tediously filling space.  There have been some exceptions like Wilson Fisk in the Daredevil series, and of course Tom Hiddleston's Loki but these are roles that have been saved by the dynamism of the actors going for broke in roles to have some fun.  These are not necessarily brilliantly scripted antagonists but they're well played.  Well, I kinda take that back, Fisk was pretty well-scripted whereas Hiddleston just hammed his way into comedic gold as Loki. 

Since Hemsworth turned out, apparently, to be one of the few convincingly funny parts of last year's ill-advised Ghostbusters remake it looks like people have decided to play to his strengths rather than his weaknesses (drama of more or less any kind). Thor is a muscle-bound moron but he's like the golden retriever of the Marvel universe, he's a moron but he means well and he really likes people for the most part.  He's not so great at remembering stuff.  Of course this gets played for laughs in a scene where Thor is trying to voice activate a rediscovered Stark jet by saying phrase after phrase.  He keeps getting the wrong phrases until he decides on a whim to say "Point Break" and discovers that only THEN will the AI on Stark's jet recognize his voice.

But the conflicts in the new Thor movie revolve around the grim consequences of secrets that fathers withhold from children.  Odin never told Thor that the foundation of the Asgardian empire was less a matter of Odin's warrior ways than the ravaging powers of Hela, his firstborn child.  As Hela recounts things, Odin was proud of what he gained but ashamed of how he gained it, namely through her skill in battle.  As she saw things there was no reason that the rule of Asgard should not span everything whereas Odin was content to rule the nine realms and settle into a peaceful life, with an empire that would be ruled by a less warlike heir, namely Thor.  For Hela both Thor and Loki represent the sons of an Odin who was content to lie to both of them about the real nature of the Asgardian legacy.  She taunts Thor in their first meeting by telling him "You're Thor? You don't look like him."  and then to Loki "you SOUND like him."  The two brothers are, neither of them, what Hela thinks a true heir of Odin should actually be.   Thor and Loki are, to Hela, both mamma's boys in different ways.  The real legacy of Asgaridan triumph and prosperity is in Hela's sea of bloodshed, which she intends to renew so as to stretch the reign of Asgard to everything.

That is, as these things go, a fairly pedestrian evil plot by an evil character.  What salvages it, if just barely, is that Blanchett is having so much fun chewing through every scene.  At a conceptual level her character represents the no longer repressed terrible history of erased prehistory of what seems on the surface to be  a peaceful and prosperous empire.  Hela is the shadow that brekas out and reveals the illusions that have to be harbored to maintain what looks to be peace but is a peace that was founded on bloodshed.
At the start of the film Surtur is the fiery monster (voiced impeccably as ever for these sorts of roles by Clancy Brown) who is sure he will one day destroy Asgard and all its power in Ragnarok.  Thor begins the film by assuming his job will be to stop Ragnarok from happening but as the third act arrives and Thor realizes that Hela gains all her nearly unstoppable power from Asgard the place, he concludes that Surtur must be revived and allowed to destroy Asgard the place so that Asgard the people may be saved.  Odin's rather rote counsel is that Asgard is not a place but a people and that if the people can be saved then the place is where ever they may be.  Thor and Loki work together to revive Surtur, whom Thor defeated early in the film, and allow Surtur to burn Asgard down to its foundations and destroy even those to defeat Hela.  Thor chooses a path of formal defeat to save the people rather than let Hela continue to grow in power and expand Asgard's empire across the cosmos. 

Thor grants there might not be a whole lot of good in Loki but there might at least be some. Loki, for his part, goes along with Thor's diea that the best way to save Asgard as a people is to destroy Asgard the empire. 

It's all in all a light popcorn movie that I had fun watching.  I've never really managed to get into the Thor franchise.  The first film underwhelmed me and Branaugh's approach and the script seemed too high-minded and serious in a largely unconvincing way.  The Dark World was just kinda lame and the handful of times it sprang to life was when Thor and Loki were having their brotherly conflicts.  So, finally, some people decided that building the conflicts around the family squabbles of the Odin clan was the way to go.  The twist is less that good defeats evil in this Ragnarok as that Thor decides that the death of the empire of the Asgardian gods must be embraced rather than resisted.  Better to save and spare the people than to be a king of an empire that will only give more and more power to the goddess of death. 

But the bloody legacy of the conquests she made that Odin took control over before banishing here is left lingering.  In a sense this Thor movie ends with a decimated Asgard and Thor, with Loki and the other surviving Asgardians looking for sanctuary anywhere they think they may be able to find. 

In a way what it gets me thinking about is how something that has been described about the alt-right is its embrace of Nordic and other white pagana religious idioms and tradtions.  Some have embraced these traditions in the past as an alternative to a Christianity that was held responsible for oppressing and killing pagans and paganism in the past, perhaps a kind of progressive or liberal dream of a neo-paganism that restores a balanced relationship with nature.  But such a revitalized paganism won't always be able to avoid ideologies espousing conquest and bloodshed. 

That a religion favored by white nationalists has been Odinism might be a topic for some other post by some one else.  That stuff has never strongly interested me but I am curious to read that when white nationalists have cast about for some religious views that can be thought of as alternatives to Judaism and Christianity Odinism is one of the endorsed options.  A Martin Luther King Jr. who wrote a letter from a Birmingham jail wouldn't have gotten very far if the appeal was to advocates of Odinism, would he?  For that matter, could the arguments advanced in terms of appeals to moral intuitions by King have made sense if recast in strictly atheistic terms?  Certainly atheists might like to suppose so but it's a bit moot since the letter was written as it was written. 

This Marvel Thor sets up a galaxy in which there's probably no meaningful correspondence between the characters and stories and actual Odinism.  Idris Elba, for instance, was someone some hardcore fans of Thor stuff said had no business playing Heimdel.  Similarly, there's probably a complaint that a Tessa Thompson shouldn't be playing a Valkrie.  I frankly don't particularly care in either case. 

I really hope nobody tries to do some kind of Christ typology business with Thor or any of the characters in this film.  It's far more interesting to consider the idea that Thor discovers that he's not technically the most rightful heir to the throne in terms of birth and that his father Odin decided to banish his firstborn Hela and give the throne to Thor.  Because we can look back on how even in the first film Odin decided Thor's egotism and brutishness would be unbecoming the throne and that Odin stripped Thor of his powers and banished him to earth.  Even Thor, it turns out, was in key ways starting his cinematic journey on a path that would have led him to become much like Hela in entitlement if not in love of violence.

But we'll never get a story about how and why Odin became remorseful of all the bloodshed that Hela did first in her father's name and then for herself.  These movies don't really traffic in those kinds of things.  It's not because superhero movies can't or don't explore the subject of filial loyalty and whether family legacies are characterized by violence or healing.  Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy couldn't have been more explicit about precisely those themes.  Ragnarok's most interesting gambit is to keep the jokes coming but to have the subtext and text of the conflict reveal the ugly family legacy that both Thor and Loki are forced to confront that neither of them knew about.  When faced with such a grisly previously concealed family history the two brothers who previously were locked in conflict find they have more in common with each other than they thought, and that in their ignorance of Odin's hidden legacy of conquest they may have more in common with each other than they have had with Hela or even Odin. 

I'd say it's a fun matinee.  It's neither the best nor the worst superhero film I've seen but it's easily the most fun Thor movie we'll ever see.  This would reallyu be a good place to just drop the Thor franchise.  It's a bit much to ask of a superhero film that there's a fourth one when the third one manages to be pretty solid.  We're finally at a point where we're getting third films in franchises that hold up, whether Captain America or Thor, even if they fall short of the ideas they try to introduce.

Had Ragnarok tried to actually be more serious about the secrets and the bloodshed of the Odin imperial legacy that would have made it less effective.  It makes sense that having stated the first film with Thor being stripped of his power by Odin and having to regain it that in the third film Thor would discover his father had his own legacy as a context within which to have discerned where Thor could have gone.  But the unanswered question may be the most salient one, how and why Odin suddenly felt that conquest spanning nine realms was "enough" and why he didn't feel there was a problem with all the conquest of the nine realms themselves and why it was okay for Hela to be the powerhouse of death and destruction that made that empire possible.  The assumption after all this time that Odin himself is somehow good and noble is never open to question because how could Thor end up being a good guy if his dad was bad.

But then good kings being brought into the world by terrible kings is more readily recognized in real world history than it has ever been in the superhero genre.

1 comment:

Eric said...

In my part of the world there is a Christian pop culture conference this weekend, including a screening & discussion of Thor Ragnarok. It's the first event I've seen like it here.