Marvel takes on colonialism and white supremacy in ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

The villain Hela in Marvel’s “Thor: Ragnarok” has a plan that could be summarized, “Make Asgard great again.”

Played with over-the-top zestiness (and fun) by Cate Blanchett, Hela is freed from the curse banning her from her mythic, technicolor home upon the death of Asgard’s righteous king, Odin (played with righteous kingliness by Sir Anthony Hopkins). Despite her surprising familial relationship to Odin (these “Thor” films are always about family disputes), she wastes no time explaining her platform, which is that Asgard needs to cut it out with its hippie-dippie, hopey-changey political correctness and get back to what it once did best: unrestrained, racially-driven colonialism.

She scoffs at the murals on Asgardian palace walls depicting the family of Odin (which, by the way, includes Thor and Loki) posed nobly in scenes of peaceful diplomacy with other realms and worlds. She rips away the wallpaper to reveal the stories the walls used to tell: Odin the warrior, the colonizer, who went from world to world destroying and looting, with pre-banished Hela at his side. Buried deep within Asgard (and its subconscious) are actual skeletons of fierce, ruthless conquerors.

And Hela’s there to wake them up.

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Her message should wake up the living Asgardians, too, who have lived in comfortable, ignorant peace for years now. Asgard has been a nation of openness and prosperity during the (recent) reign of Odin, and the nation has come to have rather generous self-image of progressiveness. Memories of the conquests and destruction that formed the foundation of Asgardian history -- and allowed the prosperity and security in the first place -- have been conveniently forgotten.

Hela poses not only a threat to innocent Asgardians, but to Asgardians’ ability to see themselves in the historical narrative as innocent.

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Unfortunately, this storyline is only one of several running through “Thor: Ragnarok,” which left me feeling that things have officially gotten too big and too crazy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to tell any kind of coherent story. (“Universe” being a word that, when it only meant four or five movies, seemed a little grandiose, but now feels appropriate, almost stifling, for how many details and stories it contains.)

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

This experiment of adapting a big, unwieldy, incongruous comic book library into a big, unwieldy, incongruous film series is not without its growing pains and burdensome complications. When Doctor Strange shows up in this movie (which is early on), I got antsy. I love the single-mindedness and isolation of what James Gunn has been allowed to do with “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but “Thor” is a franchise that goes back so far in this cinematic project, it has accumulated more than it can possibly deal with in one sequel.

The first “Thor” (2011) was like the second or third MCU movie we got, and its sequel, “Thor: The Dark World” (2013) was one of the more forgettable entries in the series.

But don’t mistake this for a trilogy. The Thor/Loki sibling rivalry story also boiled over in “The Avengers” (2012), where Loki was the main villain, and there’s a whole Hulk thing going on here that is a direct continuation of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015). Many (almost all?) of the characters we know and love from the previous “Thor” films -- including Natalie Portman’s Jane, who we last saw on screen in a passionate embrace with Thor -- are written off with quick, unsatisfying lines of dialogue.

We’re now at a point where keeping track of all the little details in the MCU has become unattainable for any filmgoers who don’t make keeping track of all those little details a moderate to major life priority. And I actually kind of like that. I’m not necessarily one of those superfans, but I like the experiment, and the secret sauce is to create individual entries that are fun to watch on their own. In that regard, “Thor: Ragnarok” succeeds.

It would probably succeed more if director Taika Waititi had the ability to create a self-contained world of its own, but that’s just not what we’re dealing with here. And the energy and style that he is able to inject into “Ragnarok” is delightful. This movie is, at times, hilarious, with lots of surprises. If it is, at other times, dragged down by the immovable weight of Thor’s hammer because of all the tie-ins and previews and threads to be needled, well, that’s the way the universe (this one, at least) works.

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

As for where the movie lands on Hela’s Asgard-first foreign policy, based in a philosophy of an Asgardian master race and her mission to openly colonize the universe once again, I give the film props for finding a resolution that I found satisfying. It would have been easy to lose sight of the thematic potential in that idea and go with a less provocative ending than the one it ultimately does. I like where things end up quite a lot.

I also like the overt refugee imagery, the cast full of people of color (not just white and green), and the thoughtful -- and, to me, thematically meaningful, not just flashy -- application of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," which in its lyrics also explores colonialism through Norse mythology. Given where the film goes with the Hela-the-conqueror storyline, all three of those elements fit into the film’s most interesting, coherent thematic interests, which I loved seeing in a big, unwieldy comic book movie.

Review: 'Thor: Ragnarok'
Grade: B+
Director: Taika Waititi
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston, Tessa Thompson, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum
Running time: 2 hours, 10 min
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material