Thor: Ragnarok will be remembered as the goofy Thor installment, thanks to a zany middle section set on a psychedelic planet named Sakaar where Jeff Goldblum, sporting blue eyeliner and space pajamas, presides over a gladiatorial tournament. And while those scenes are enough to recommend the movie, I wouldn’t want to overlook a rich and theologically resonant narrative thread that involves Thor’s home planet of Asgard.
Asgard—a land of bright seas, lush forests, and cascading waterfalls—serves as the seat of a benevolent monarchy. In the Asgardian throne room, a series of massive, elegant murals depicts Odin (Anthony Hopkins) establishing peace among the Nine Realms and preparing to pass the ruling of them to his son, Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Reminiscent of Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel, these murals also boast a cinematic bonus. The Renaissance-style figures are given a slight motion effect, so that the halos around Odin and his anointed son seem to glow, pulsing with approval. The overall impression is that of humming prosperity—purple mountain majesties, a kingdom fully come.
It turns out, however, that this is a lie. The narrative proper—the reason Thor must escape slaphappy Sakaar and get home—involves the arrival of Hela (Cate Blanchett), the banished older sister Thor never knew. Upon her return to Asgard, Hela shatters the murals in the throne room to reveal an earlier fresco painted underneath. Here, with similarly shimmering motion but in darker shades, we see Hela and Odin conquering the Nine Realms by brutal force and subjugating their inhabitants. This is the true story of how Asgard was founded. Given that she is also the goddess of death, Hela is tired of the planet’s shiny-happy facade and wants to return to ruling it and expanding its influence by lethal force. Her first step? Deposing Thor and making a claim on Asgard’s throne.
There is a special significance to the filmmakers’ decision to depict these Asgardian murals in motion. It suggests that history is always moving, and that this movement has repercussions on the present day. If this is true for fictional space kingdoms, it’s also true for contemporary nation states. Consider, in particular, the current American debate over Confederate monuments, markers of a certain era in the country’s history. Can’t these, too, be seen as falsifying frescos, willful attempts to paint over nothing less than slavery, the nation’s great historical sin? It’s also interesting to note that in Thor: Ragnarok it is the movie’s “good guys” (particularly Odin) who are perpetuating the deception. And Asgard’s comfortable citizens are willing to go along with it. Their blind patriotism involves an unwillingness to acknowledge their planet’s faults, to see themselves as anything other than a purely heroic power. Sometimes it takes a goddess of death—or, more peaceably, a kneeling NFL player—to shatter the lies we tell ourselves.
For the nation of Israel, the prophets served just this purpose. Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah—these and others tried to shake God’s chosen people from their stupor, to bring them to confession of their sins. Often it took great humiliation, even the crumbling of a nation, for that confession to come.
Unlike Hela, however, destruction wasn’t the prophets’ end game. Their reputations as doomsayers belies the fact that they almost always placed the demand for confession within the trajectory of redemption. Consider Hosea 6:
“Come, let us return to the Lord.
He has torn us to pieces
but he will heal us;
he has injured us
but he will bind up our wounds.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will restore us,
that we may live in his presence.
Let us acknowledge the Lord;
let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
like the spring rains that water the earth.”
If you look between the laughs of Thor: Ragnarok, you’ll see that Thor’s journey toward becoming a leader involves a repudiation of the past. (There’s a comic foreshadowing of this on Sakaar when Thor, as Goldblum’s prisoner, is forced to cut his beloved golden locks.) Indeed, the film’s finale takes this notion of a kingdom paying for its sins to apocalyptic proportions. If Asgard is to carry on after Ragnarok’s climactic battle, it will involve reconstruction. Maybe even reparations. Surely restoration of some kind.
Thor: Ragnarok makes its biggest impression as a comedy, yet it still also functions as a prophetic call to confession. Whether we’re Asgard, America, or some other nation state reeling from a history not fully faced, we should be moved to confess for the same reason the Israelites did: to own up to our communal failings, to accept the mercy God continually offers us, and to live toward a better history—one that enacts, as best we can, the new creation to come.