Thoughts On: Thor: Ragnarok - Marvel Mythology?


Thor: Ragnarok - Marvel Mythology?

Thoughts On: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

The end of times appear to be upon the Gods. Loki, Thor and more have to team up to fend this off.

Thor: Ragnarok is pretty fantastic, and certainly the best Thor movie Marvel has so far produced. With Waititi helming this all, we see an improvement across the board; the comedy is strong, the characters are engaging - even many of the minor ones - the direction is great and the story is rife with joy. If I were to be as objective as I could, I would say that this is hard to fault as a piece of entertainment. Whilst not all the jokes work, whilst the antagonist is flat as always, and whilst there are one or two moments that had me groan, all of this is overshadowed by everything that works in the film - which left me walking out of the cinema feeling pretty good. The only objective criticism I could conceive of concerns this not being 'just entertainment'. There is very little subtext to deal with here, and the message of the narrative is nothing particularly new.

Whilst I could leave things at that, there is some room for analysis and criticism that is maybe not granted or completely valid. Thor: Ragnarok would have probably slipped past me for quite a long time if I had not just finished a book of Norse myths and spent quite a lot of time reading about Norse mythology. Having absolutely loved hearing stories of fire, ice, creation, great trees, foolish gods, trickery, betrayal and destiny, I wanted to see how the adaptation of the Marvel comics lived up to the original mythology. In short, the movies about Thor are ok, but nothing in comparison to the Norse myths. I then highly recommend that anyone who has any interest in what we talk about today to pick up Neil Gaiman's book (or audio book as I did) Norse Mythology. In this rather short book, Gaiman retells famous Norse Myths centred on Odin, Thor and Loki with a few of his own distinct touches that really bring to life the myths with energy and vibrancy.

Whilst I have not read a Marvel comic before, looking at the Thor movies and seeing the way in which Norse Mythology was twisted and bent, it appears to me that Lee, Kirby and Lieber didn't care too much about the mythology and its subtext. In the Thor movies Norse Mythology is used as an armory of characters and objects that are thrown into an Arthurian world and put on a Hollywood adventure. In such, the idea of Thor, Asgard, Odin, etc. are portrayed within system of monarchy that in no way resemble the old mythology as there were no kings, and the relationships between characters was far more nuanced.

A book could be written about the ways in which Norse Mythology differs from the Marvel comics, but there are three key things to pick up on. Firstly, the dynamic between gods is not hierarchical in a strict sense. Odin is the Allfather and the ruler of Asgard, but, all of the Gods - the giants even - are somewhat equal. Odin is not king, and there is no kingdom as there is in the tales of King Arthur. Each God has their strengths and their weaknesses, and they form a slight hierarchy that is often undermined in a way an older brother with a mouthy younger sister would understand; though some people are bigger and stronger than others, the game is often one of ego and bravado. Most clearly, we see this expressed between Thor and Loki. They are not brothers, but Loki is a 'brother' to the Gods - despite the fact that he is, and this is a well known fact that leads to no familial drama, a giant. (Giants themselves, whilst they are the enemy of the Gods, are not always at war with them, and are not simple creatures). Thor likes and hates Loki. Loki doesn't like anyone, but he likes that he can mess with people. The Gods keep Loki around because he is smart - smarter than them sometimes, and often a great help. They tolerate his betrayals and his trickery because of this. Thus, Thor and Loki need each other, they go on adventures together and seem to get along, but are often threatening to kill one another - if not, Loki is getting drunk and cutting off Thor's wife's hair. (Thor's wife is Sif, who we see portrayed as his friend in the first Thor movie - there is, thanks to the powers that be, no Natalie Portman). Whilst we see the antagonistic bravado of Loki and Thor's relationship captured quite well in parts of the Thor movies, this kind of relationship is quite common among all the Gods; they are friendly, they are obnoxious, they sometimes adore each other - they are a complicated unofficial family loosely glued together.

The second difference that is quite key is the way in which Norse stories are structured. The Gods, as implied, are not perfect - they are often far from this. All of the great Norse myths are centered on this fact and thus they are all about arrogance. In the simplest terms, Norse myths are about mistakes, naivety and obnoxiousness. They then have great comic potential in them - which I believe the Thor movies pick up on brilliantly. However, all of the Norse myths are about arrogance because they are also always about Ragnarok. Ragnarok, as the newest Thor movie constantly undermines and refuses to explain, is the end of the Gods. However, Ragnarok is also a play on words; in old Norse ragnarök roughly means 'the twilight of the Gods' whilst ragnarøkkr means 'the renewal of divine powers'. The actual story of Ragnarok is like a judgment day, but unlike a Christian idea of the end of days, Ragnarok discusses the death of the Gods and the world and then the birth of new Gods and a new world. There is much more to be said about this idea, but, Ragnarok always hangs over the Gods' heads and in their dreams; they all know they will die - they even know that Loki will be the one to lead the legions that slaughter them along with his children, the dead and the giants. (Loki has many children, but the key three are Hel - who we see a horrible version of in Thor: Ragnarok - Fenrir - a giant wolf also seen in Thor - and Jörmungandr - a giant world serpent). With Ragnarok as the known and accepted fate of the Gods, they live their days sometimes knowing that what they are doing will lead to their end no matter what, and the rest of their days fooling around, maybe trying to prevent their end. (Let it be noted that the Gods are almost immortal and can stay alive and young as they have almost since the dawn of time if they eat golden apples - they can be killed, however). Ragnarok implies a great cycle to life and leaves all of the rather flat (though expressive and incredibly fun) Norse stories as entities to first and foremost be reflected upon. Thus, when hearing about Odin's missteps and Thor's arrogance, we are supposed to think about their actions in accordance to their fate and what they would/should do in their next life.

Such is a crux of Norse mythology that needs emphasis: these are stories that are as much about arrogance as they are Ragnarok and self-reflection. And this leads on to the final point of difference between the Thor movies and Norse mythology. Norse mythology has incredible subtext. Each God and most objects have a name that means something, and they go on journeys that see those metaphors interact. What's more, Norse mythology uses symbols and metaphors to explain how life begun, where poetry comes from and why there are earthquakes. These are then stories that function like other theological texts and should not be overlooked as unprofound.

If you know Norse mythology and you recognise these core characteristics of its stories, turning to the Marvel world of Thor and the Thor movies is quite far from thrilling. The Marvel universe does a great job of bringing some of the erroneous and unimaginable world building of Norse mythology to life. For example, it is always incredibly hard to imagine how the Bifrost functions and how the great tree resides within the nine realms, and the Thor movies attempt to clarify this with much success. Beyond this, comedy is used quite well, but never to truly capture the arrogance and naivety of the Gods within tales of self-reflection. Apart from these things, there is little more I can praise the Thor movies for.

One of the biggest downfalls of the Marvel movies is that they have very little subtext and force the natural logic of Norse mythology and Norse characters into story patterns and tropes they weren't made for. In such, where Norse mythology is about self-reflection in face of Ragnarok, is about questioning how the Gods could or should do things in their next life, the Marvel movies have all the answers and they see their characters go on ever developing character arcs. This is the reverse logic of Norse mythology. Norse mythology is not about change, it is not always about learning either. Norse mythology is about working within precarious equilibrium, knowing that fate is impossible to comprehend in full, and attempting to reconcile and confront that fact that, no matter how well you can see, how much you know, how wise you are, or how strong you are, you are always far from perfect and a lot closer to chaos than you could imagine. The Hollywood narrative, however, is, classically, about winning or losing - there is very little room for ambiguity. If a classically plotted Hollywood movie is a tragedy, the character then fails in transforming and learning. If not, a character transforms and learns a great deal. In Thor we see this manifested very clearly with Thor's move away from arrogance and towards being a king.

Without wanting to go into too much more comparison, I'll say that I am in full support of Marvel taking Norse mythology and doing what they please with it. I think it is a shame that Norse mythology has never really found its way to the big screen - just a plethora of usually mediocre Viking movies. However, I don't expect Marvel to fill this gap. I do, however, see Thor: Ragnarok to be about as good as a Thor movie as we're going to be getting. This is because the Thor movies have had a clear formula from the very beginning: comedy mixes with drama in a diluted mythological story that sees Thor go on a hero's journey to become a better person. There is a degree of the Norse non-change captured by the Marvel movies, but, seeing where they have come to, it seems that this will never be fully embraced. I then think that, now we have got a fantastic Thor movie, we aren't going to see a better one emerge unless we see some changes.

These changes, I believe, could come from an embrace of the actual Norse mythology, its story structure, its character relations and its subtext. With this, we wouldn't be seeing a continual journey of one character, but a saga of segmented, somewhat unrelated, adventures. And this same idea could be mapped onto all of the Marvel content: it is not mythological enough. Myths are highly laconic and self-contained, their stories all have a clear purpose and so they are structured around the subtext and meaning. Hollywood movies, on average, are horrific at doing this. The average Hollywood film takes 'the formula' of a movie, it takes a genre, and it attempts to either embrace or subvert this. Whilst all stories can be understood with similar structural perspectives, what makes Hollywood Hollywood is, by and large, the clear presence of this structure. When we look to art films, or even the typically European European movies, we see narratives that are often structured around themselves. Thus, they appear 'unique', 'strange' or 'different' to anyone who predominantly consumes Hollywood movies - and all because they can't feel the omniscience of a script or regurgitated formula.

If Marvel were to embrace this and were to give greater meaning to their films instead of bastardising them and using comedy to mask the fact that they have very little to say about humanity and life as it is, then we would see sagas made up of various chapters and a plethora of characters constructed; a Marvel mythology. However, I don't think we will ever see this. Instead, we will continue to be thrown the same old plots, the same old character arcs, but done with a varying understanding of characters and with worlds populated and kept fresh by the huge catalogue of characters and objects that Marvel have at their disposal. There is then a formula that Marvel will continually try to perfect, and so we will see fantastic movies like Thor: Ragnarok emerge every now and then. However, in comparison to great cinema, and great storytelling, Marvel will always be just entertainment and little more if they continue down this road.

But, these are just my thoughts on this topic. There is so much more that could be said about Marvel's cinematic universe and mythology. However, what do you think of Thor: Ragnarok, Norse mythology and all we've picked up on today?

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