Kingship in Thor: Ragnarok
One of the most popular movies in theaters this weekend was Marvel Studios’ Thor Ragnarok. This movie was deservedly popular for several reasons. Most obviously the movie did well in creating exciting fight scenes. The gladiatorial battle between Thor and The Hulk was done well enough to make it entertaining in spite of the fact that no one in the audience was allowed to believe for a minute that either combatant was in any real danger of death. In addition to the special effects the presence of Loki throughout the movie provided both entertaining banter and an interesting sub-plot as Thor attempts to make his brother a good man. Furthermore, the movie added intellectual depth by exploring Thor’s challenges as he learns how to be a king.
Thor’s reign as king of Asgard gets off to a rocky start as an existential threat to Asgard's survival immediately appears in the form of Hela, the goddess of death who cannot be defeated while in Asgard. This places Thor in a difficult position. How can he rule as a good king when any attempt to overthrow the tyrant enslaving them would inevitably fail and cause more destruction? Is he obligated to throw his life away in a doomed attempt to save his planet? At first he seems to think so, spending most of the movie without any definite plan other than returning to Asgard and challenging Hela. This reveals that Thor still does not have a mature understanding of kingship. It does not help his people for him to die in a noble last stand. A good king does not risk all in a hopeless fight, no matter how just the cause is.
Thor’s brother, Loki, is less concerned about justice. He plans to abandon Asgard and seek his fortune on another planet. This reveals that Loki also has an incomplete understanding of kingship. He views political rule as a means of enriching himself. When Asgard ceases to be a useful avenue for this pursuit he loses interest in Asgard. He does not share Thor’s concern for the good of the political community.
Thor is reminded of his true duty as a king in a vision of his father Odin. Odin reminds Thor that is obligation is not to the physical planet of Asgard but rather to the people. This revelation changes Thor’s understanding of kingship and allows him to rescue his people from Hela. Since he is obligated to the political community rather than the physical city he now has the option to remove his people from Asgard and thereby remove them from Hela’s power. This results in the destruction of Asgard but the preservation of Thor’s people.
Although this is not a situation that real political rulers face it provides an important reminder of the obligations of a ruler. They exist, not to enrich themselves as Loki believes, but rather to work for the good of the people they rule. In this extreme situation Thor remembers this fact and preserves his people through a difficult time.
Between its thoughtful treatment of this intellectual question and the well-executed fight scenes, Thor Ragnarok was a highly entertaining movie. It was not without weaknesses, however, It seems that the writers wanted the movie to be funny but lacked the creativity to inject the script with real humor. Instead, they littered it with forced sexual innuendo that made the movie more crass than it needed to be. It is, however, more than worth watching in spite of this flaw.