There are many reasons why Thor: Ragnarok is being hailed as a distinct and vital new take on Marvel's God of Thunder. It's funny, trippy, and introduces a character tweak that is both minor and revolutionary.
When it was announced that Tessa Thompson, the talented Afro-Latina actress known for her roles in Dear White People and Creed, was cast as Valkyrie, I rejoiced. Because while Marvel Studios has been producing superhero films for 9 years now, the fight for representation in those movies has been a very slow, arduous one. For a long time, Zoe Saldana had been holding it down in Guardians of the Galaxy as the sole black female superhero in the MCU. Even Saldana's role as Gamora opens up further discussions about black actresses being casted for roles that completely covered them CGI or makeup. So to have Thompson cast as Valkyrie meant that the MCU would finally have a black female superhero with no makeup and no CGI, her blackness visible and in the forefront.
And with that blackness comes backlash, especially since Thompson is playing Valkyrie, a character who is is canonically white. It has been explained ad nauseam that her casting does not change the essence of Valkyrie as a character, but some comic fans will always have opinions, even if misguided. Thompson herself addressed the change and backlash, saying, "when people were posting about the race swap and the implications of that and they were very upset that this doesn't honor Norse mythology… if you read Norse mythology, it doesn't really make sense. And, you know, Idris Elba needs company. He can't be the only black person in the neighborhood."
Valkyrie as a character has a bit of a muddled history within comics. First introduced in The Avengers #83, Valkyrie wasn't exactly Valkyrie – she was the Enchantress disguised as the warrior. She mind-controls Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Medusa and The Wasp to form the Lady Liberators, with the goal of taking down men who have mistreated them. While this was an overall trick by the Enchantress (and a way for the male comic writers to ridicule feminism and female empowerment), this gives the reader a glimpse of who Valkyrie is: a strong female warrior who views herself as equal as the men she encounters.
Because of her odd entrance into comics and her origins having switched between having a mortal identity and being strictly Asgardian, Valkyrie's storyline is not linear. 2010's one-shot of Valkyrie, written by Bryan J.L. Glass, gives what I believe is the best description of Valkyrie's messy origin:
"Hand-picked by Odin to lead the Valkyrior — a band of female warriors who lead worthy souls to Valhalla — Brunnhilde served as the original Valkyrie of Asgard. Because of a sacred pact, the Valkyrior were only allowed to claim fallen Asgardians, and with their nearly unending life spans, she was left with very little responsibility in Asgard.
Looking for adventure, Brunnhilde was tempted by Amora the Enchantress. Yet when she realized the Enchantress was leading her on the wrong path, Amora trapped her soul and took control of her power. Because of this the role of Valkyrie has been filled by different personalities until Brunnhilde finally reclaimed the mantle. Feeling detached from Asgard, Brunnhilde decided to journey to Midgard and fight alongside its heroes."
Valkyrie has been a part of various teams, most notably the Defenders and Secret Avengers. In Fearless Defenders, it is revealed that Valkyrie is bisexual (a factoid that Thompson tweeted about, though the movie doesn't address it). With her enchanted sword named Dragonfang and Aragon, her winged horse, she is known to be one strongest warriors of Asgard. But more importantly, she is revered as one of the most powerful female superheroes in Marvel comics.
This muddled origin makes room for Thompson to craft the role as her own. There are countless excerpts of Valkyrie being a warrior for the equality of the sexes. Though she does not define herself as a feminist, the core of her character subscribes to feminism.
For Thompson to step into this role with her visible blackness makes the casting even more important because now there is an opportunity for that feminist dialogue to be uttered by a black woman. Even better, it is a black actress who understands the nuance of racism and sexism and how that intersects. With Thompson speaking to Kevin Feige about a Lady Liberators film and no doubt signing a multi-picture deal, the possibilities for the reverberations throughout the MCU are endless. It is incredibly significant to have a demigod-type character representing black womanhood and potentially, black feminism/womanism.
Now that we have another black actress portraying a superhero, what does that mean for further black female presence in the MCU? As casting news rolls in, it seems that Phase 4 will open up a new wave of black women on the silver screen. Though not playing superheroes, Spider-Man: Homecoming gave us young talent in the likes of Zendaya and Laura Harrier. In 2018, we are getting a slew of black women in the anticipated Black Panther. It will be refreshing to see Lupita Nyogo, Letitia Wright, Angela Basset, Danai Gurira, plus others exist in Wakanda. We are even getting a bit of black female villainy with Hannah John-Kamen playing Ghost in the upcoming Ant-Man and The Wasp.
With Infinity War on the horizon, let's hope that will see some of these women suit up in a large scale Avengers film. It is our job as fans of these films to keep pushing this progression until all of our favorite black female heroes are represented one way or another.