Whether it’s Thor’s Asgard or our America, the history you’ve been taught is a lie
“Thor: Ragnarok” is more than just another superhero movie. Taika Waititi, the film’s director, gives us an entertaining film with a powerful and needed message: ignore history at your peril.
Promos and teasers for “Thor” promised an epic battle between Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and the Goddess of Death, played by Cate Blanchett. I love superhero movies, but I never read the comics. So I was surprised at the revelation that Hela, the film’s villain, is no outsider invading the realm of Asgard, but the first born daughter of Odin coming to reclaim her birthright.
Sibling rivalry is a consistent theme in Thor mythology, but Hela is no Loki jockeying for attention. With an insatiable desire for power and conquest, Hela is a violent reminder of Asgard’s past. Asgard’s dominance over the nine realms was not accomplished through Odin’s diplomatic skills; it was built through Hela and Odin’s violent conquest. When his own lust for power subsided, Odin imprisoned the uncontrollable Hela and papered over his own violent rise to power. In “Thor: Ragnarok,” Thor and Loki learn that everything they were told about Asgard and their history is a lie.
“Ragnarok” is clearly a commentary on colonialism and the perennial desire to whitewash history. Yet the film is also a critique of the United States in 2017. Indeed, it is a direct attack on the alt-right and white supremacist’s fascination with the perceived racial purity of the Norse gods and Viking history. Salon’s John Semley argues this movie could be “a hammer to the face of the alt right.” The first movie in the Marvel franchise directed by a person of color, “Thor: Ragnarok” exposes both the violent history and delusions of white supremacy. (The film also included Marvel’s first L.G.B.T. character, Valkrie, played by Tessa Thompson; Valkyrie is white in the comics, but Waititi chose an actor of color for the role.)
“Thor: Ragnarok” is a direct attack on the alt-right and white supremacist’s fascination with the perceived racial purity of the Norse gods.
Hela wants to make Asgard great again. Because Odin refused to face his (and Asgard’s) violent, oppressive and genocidal past, Thor and the people of Asgard are confused and ill equipped to process the present moment. How many Americans were shocked by Charlottesville? The persistent desire to proclaim progress and to profess the United States’s greatness requires papering over the truth of the nation’s rise to dominance: conquest of indigenous peoples, slavery, Jim Crow, lynching. Just as Odin could not face his own past, so too the myth of the kindly General Lee persists. The recent rise in hate crimes is a tangible reminder that racism, white supremacy and hatred have not disappeared.
In Christian ethics, restorative justice prioritizes truth telling as a necessary condition for reconciliation. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu often reminds us, national amnesia is not an option if one wants to move forward. There are many examples of racial injustice deeply rooted in a history ignored or glossed over. From Standing Rock to Flint, Mich., to Puerto Rico, restorative justice is impossible without telling the truth.
In the end (spoiler alert) Thor embraces people not dominance, as the once-mighty Asgardians become refugees headed to earth where they literally become illegal aliens. Amidst the calls to “make America great again,”“Thor: Ragnarok” reminds us to take a hard look at our history and the very notion of greatness. A good place to start is a new initiative by Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, Lynching in America. Asgard isn’t the only empire built on convenient myths.