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Thor: Ragnarok and the Refugee Spirit

Thor: Ragnarok has a gained a stronger hold in the affections of Marvel fans than previous Thor films.  This is largely due to its Guardians-esque sense of humor and absurdity, as well as its neon color palette and “buddy cops in space” vibe with the Hulk.  This is all true, and the film is an absolute blast; it also includes some interesting thoughts, though admittedly secondary, on how the Asgardians as immigrants or refugees draw their identity while disconnected from their homeland.

Even with regards to plot, Ragnarok breaks several conventions as compared to previous Thor films.  There is no Jane Foster.  Very little time in this film is spent on Earth, although not much time is spent on Asgard, either.  And yet, Asgard is the primary focus of the film thematically, and it is Asgard, not Earth, that is primarily in danger.  Loki, while no saint, is less of an antagonist in this film, and more of a chaotic-neutral god of mischief.  And then, of course, there’s the humor, which relies more on campy laughs than previous films, as opposed to the “fish out of water” idea, which the writers seem to have dropped completely.

But just as Thor: The Dark World tried (unsuccessfully) to blend humor with a darker and more grim story, this laugh-heavy romp is set against the backdrop of Ragnarok, Norse mythology’s version of the apocalypse.  Hela, the goddess of death, who has been banished from Asgard for a very long time, is able to gain her freedom, and becomes a harbinger of death on her own home world.  The balance of this in comparison to a very Jeff Goldblum Grandmaster and “He’s a friend from work” is handled mostly with expert balance, although that comparison does seem rather odd at times.  But the charisma of the cast, which includes not only Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, but also Cate Blanchett, Karl Urban, and Tessa Thompson, makes this odd mixture of tones work, and never loses sight of who its protagonist is for the sake of fan service, as the last Thor film did.

Marvel Studios' THOR: RAGNAROK..L to R: Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) ..Ph: Jasin Boland..©Marvel Studios 2017

But as fun as the film is, it’s the ideas of the film that I want to dig into.  From the time that Thor and Loki first learn about Hela’s return to Asgard, things seem pretty bleak that they will ever be able to save it.  In the face of that, Odin gives a word of wisdom that ends up being the mantra for the film’s primary theme: “Asgard is a people, not a place.”  This is a phrase that is highly descriptive of the immigrant experience, particularly as first-generation immigrants become concerned that their children will not retain the culture of their people.  It also fits in nicely with the whole concept of the Asgardians functioning as both superheroes and mythological figures for an Earth culture (Odin is on Earth in Norway when he says this).

And that’s not where the similarities between these ideas end.  The whole concept of being an Asgardian away from Asgard takes up a solid portion of the film when both Thor and Loki find themselves on Sakaar under the thumb of the Grandmaster, and Thor in particular is a prisoner forced to fight as a gladiator.  Even the Hulk himself struggles with a sense of identity based on what planet he’s on, and Bruce Banner has a particularly great scene being overwhelmed by a completely alien surrounding.  Even Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie has these identity struggles, and she is something of a refugee herself, having had some personal experience with Hela in the past.

Back on Asgard, the immigrant and refugee ideas are given more force, with Heimdall protecting a group of Asgardians in a remote part of the forest, and trying to find a way to sneak them off-world.  This is a really neat part of the story that’s not given near enough attention, and brings this theme to the forefront.  It should hardly be surprising, then, that the film’s climax is accompanied by Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant,” which benefits from a double meaning with its Asgard-inspired lyrics (“We’ll drive our ships to new lands/To fight the horde, and sing and cry/Valhalla, I am coming!”)

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This theme as a whole has a few applications, some of which are distinctly positive.  One that is not as helpful is that this could be seen as a highly political theme, one that is intended as a particular indictment of Republicans as anti-immigrant or anti-refugee party.  I think this is of limited value to Christians, if it is of any value at all.  The political realm has already become far too saturated in divisive rhetoric on either side, and Christians have, from my perspective, allowed themselves to be far too caught up in partisan trench warfare.  But the idea of compassion and empathy for the plight of refugees and the difficult journey of immigrants, removed from partisanship, is of much greater value.

There are multiple reasons I see value in this.  A significant one is the reality that some of the persecuted minorities who seek asylum (not only in the United States) are indeed religious minorities, many of them Christians.  Christians of all stripes in Syria, as well as Coptic Christians in Egypt, come to mind as persecuted believers in other parts of the world.  And this idea of identity can be applied to great effect – “Asgard is a people, not a place” can easily be adapted to “The church is a people, not a place,” which can help us draw our identity from Christ rather than from a regional culture of Christianity.  In short, that mindset can help us draw our identity not from cultural Christianity, but from Christianity itself.  This is perhaps part of the reason that Scripture itself uses this theme of immigration or pilgrimage numerous times in both testaments.

The whole concept of couching the somewhat somber theme of persecution and the plight of refugees in this aura of bright colors and over-the-top comedy is a neat idea, even if it doesn’t always land.  The tone can feel a tad off at times, but mostly, Taika Waititi has crafted an extremely enjoyable film that manages to be thoughtful in places as well.  He has also managed to make a pretty faithful adaptation to not just the Thor legacy, but the “Planet Hulk” story as well.  That he’s able to balance of these ideas and goals speaks highly of the film’s success, and makes it a more than worthy entry to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Rating: 8/10

Logan Judy
Logan Judy is a Christian blogger and science fiction author with a Batman complex. At Cross Culture, Logan writes about film, comics, cultural analysis, and whatever else strikes his fancy. In addition to his work at Cross Culture, Logan also blogs and podcasts at A Clear Lens. You can find him tweeting about Batman, apologetics, and why llamas will one day rule the world, @loganrjudy.
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