There are many adjectives used to describe the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, depending of course on who you ask. Light. Varied. Good. Great. Uniform. Stylish. Flat. Unsatisfying. Amazing. Blech.
But rarely will you find the person to drop the word “political.” And yet, of the 17 films that comprise the MCU, Thor: Ragnarok is the first to earn it.
To be fair, Captain America: The Winter Soldier came closest, given that directors Anthony and Joe Russo patterned it after classic conspiracy thrillers like Three Days of the Condor, The Manchurian Candidate, and The Parallax View. But it wasn’t, in and of itself, political — by which I mean to say, it wasn’t a film that commented directly on the current socio-political climate.
By the time the end credits start to roll on director Taiki Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, it has revealed itself as an overt commentary on, well, Trump’s America.
Here, my friends, is where the spoilers start. Since we’re all good nerds, I’m going to assume that we all saw Ragnarok over the weekend, a safe assumption as it made $121 million at the domestic box office this weekend. But, if you haven't seen it, here’s your warning: I’m going to give away THE BIG THING that happens in the final 10 minutes of the film.
Again, final warning. Click away, if you must.
The use of “Ragnarok” as the film’s subtitle isn’t just because it’s a cool-sounding Norse word for the End of the World — it’s prophetic for the End of the Movie. Because that’s what happens. The only way for Thor (Chris Hemsworth, having the best time ever) to save the people of Asgard from the wrath of Hela (Cate Blanchett, chewing as much scenery as possible) is to let Ragnarok happen.
Asgard burns. To ash.
But, as Odin reminds Thor earlier in the film, Asgard lives in the hearts of its people, not the shiny walls and drinking halls. Asgard will survive, so long as the Asgardians do. So Thor saves as many as he can and ferries them off-realm, in search of a new home.
Now, of course, this is a tale as old as time — literally. Right out of the Old Testament’s Exodus, in which Moses led the Hebrew slaves out of Egyptian bondage in search of a land they could call home.
But right now, at this moment, in cities and countries all over our world, the word “refugee” is a charged one. During the 2016 presidential campaign, and just after it, the debate over what to do about Syrian refugees was one of the major points of debate and contention. President Trump still holds fast to his desire for a border wall to keep out “bad hombres,” and is clamping down on undocumented immigrants and their children, many of whom came to America dreaming of a better life. Of a better home.
Into this climate comes Thor: Ragnarok, which puts its hero at the head of an ark full of people whose homeworld is on fire, looking for a new land to call their own. Immigrants all, refugees from a foreign land. (In the Thor comics of the late 2000s, writer J. Michael Straczynski offered an Asgard that hovered over Oklahoma — and Ragnarok intimates that Asgard will rebuild somewhere in Norway.)
Given the need for these movies to make hundreds of millions of dollars, both in America and around the world, Marvel has never been this overtly political. Yes, they’ve dealt with extremism and terrorism, especially in the Captain America movies — and who knew that punching Nazis in the face would be more than a throwback to a 70-year-old war?
But not like this.
It is also worth noting that Taiki Waititi is the first person of color to direct a Marvel movie. (Black Panther’s Ryan Coogler is hot on his heels.) His perspective is different from those who came before him. And to be a person of color in our world, at this moment, is itself something of a political act. So, perhaps, it’s no wonder that he made a political film — nestled inside a laugh-out-loud space buddy comedy.
Art is supposed to reflect the world around us. That’s what it's for. And genre art has a unique capacity to refract that reflection so we don’t quite recognize it, but the message still seeps through. The trappings of science fiction and fantasy can be the glittery cheese that allows the incisive, trenchant broccoli-thought that, perhaps, one of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes doesn’t come from the same place as you, doesn’t sound like you, and doesn’t worship the same gods as you — but he or she can be a hero just the same.