There’s a moment in the newest Thor: Ragnarok trailer that suggests something fascinating about the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As Hela gleefully chokes the life out Thor, she takes a moment to remind him just who and what she is. She is not a queen. She is not a monster. She is the goddess of death.
As dastardly villain quips go, Hela’s assertion of her godliness gets full marks simply for sounding incredibly badass. More than that, though, the line is an explicit declaration of an idea that much of Ragnarok’s imagery overtly nods to: the Asgardians of the MCU aren’t just technologically advanced, they’re gods in the most literal sense of the word.
Like many pieces of science fiction, the first Thor film dusts off Arthur C. Clarke’s axiom about advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic in order to make the events of the movie fit into the established logic of the MCU. Bear in mind that when Thor was released back in 2011, the MCU was a much, much smaller place, composed of the Hulk’s solo film and two Iron Man features.
Up until that point, the world that Marvel had invited audiences into was wholly defined by science and technology. The decision to weave those same themes into Thor made sense if only for the fact that getting people into the idea of a strapping, Norse thunder god running around in a “realistic” universe of comic book characters is easier if you downplay the whole magic thing and repackage it as super-science. But in the time since Thor, the MCU has expanded to include many new worlds and dimensions, and the presence of other distinctly mystic elements.
Compared to when the Asgardians were first introduced, the idea that they’re merely a far-flung race of aliens now feels like a rather stale and ham-fisted way of ignoring what Thor told us about himself from the jump: he’s the god of thunder. While Marvel’s first phase might have milked Clarke’s axiom for all its worth, Thor: Ragnarok offers up Occam’s razor as an alternative and is giving us a literal clash of the god, thus proving the MCU’s a more interesting place when we embrace the idea of the divine being real.
There is a scene depicting a battle between Hela and Valkyrie that that looks and feels like a living, breathing Peter Paul Rubens painting moving in slow motion. Valkyrie leads a army of Valkyrior charging at Hela from the sky, hundreds of them riding on the backs of winged horses, weapons raised high. Hela stares into the oncoming horde with a murderous grin on her face.
The image is, for lack of a batter phrase, unabashedly baroque. It plays up the contrast between light and shadow and highlights the intensity of the scene by erring on the side of the melodramatic. Put simply, it’s the sort of imagery that we associate with epics about the gods.
As we near the end of third phase of Marvel’s films, with the fourth clearly on the horizon, it’s been obvious that the studio is trying to make different kinds of superhero comic book movies, movies that broaden the way we think of the genre. It’s given us a spy thriller (Winter Soldier), a WWII pic (The First Avenger), and a psychedelic acid trip (Doctor Strange) so far. With Ragnarok, Marvel’s exploring the idea of the modern myth in a very literal way.
We won’t know how Ragnarok stacks up against the other two Thor films until it hits theaters later this year. But if the glimpses we’ve seen of it are any indication, Ragnarok won’t just be the end of Asgard, it’ll be the beginning of a new age of gods for Marvel.