In Defense of Supporting Characters – Some Thoughts on Thor: Ragnarok

A reaction to Marvel's treatment of supporting characters in the Thor movie franchise - with spoilers

By: Ned Miller

Thor: Ragnarok may be lots of fun but in this Spoiler response to the movie I wish to discuss its treatment of supporting characters.

One of the things which made MCU’s Thor so human and relatable was that he normally did not operate alone. He had his gang, his group of adventurer friends, who have been by his side on many of his adventures. These include the Warriors Three: the bearded Volstagg, the dashing Fandral, Hogun the Grim. The three are joined by the brave and loyal Lady Sif. He loved and respected them and they him. At one point, the lady Sif is even portrayed as a possible romantic love interest for the god of thunder himself.

Alas, in the latest installment of the Thor movies, the warriors three all meet their death at the hands of Hela, goddess of death. Now, the fact that they die is sad, but largely loyal to the comic book source material. Although movies have been known to alter such things, and the warriors’ deaths was unnecessary, killing them off is a legitimate choice.

The problem is Thor’s reaction to their deaths, or rather his complete disregard to it. Action movies involve deaths. At least, most of them do. But the warriors three are not MCU’s version of the Star Trek redshirts. They mean something. Not that making redshirts into gun fodder is cool, but Thor’s companions are more than that. Yet, somehow, their deaths seem to be meaningless in the movie. How meaningless? Ridiculously so.

To begin with Volstagg and Fandral never get to raise their swords. Their deaths are swift and humiliating. Despite their being tremendously capable warriors, there are murdered within seconds of Hela’s arrival at Asgard, as no more than a side thought from the goddess. Not even a distraction. Hogun manages to make a few fighting moves, and even encounter and return some of Hela’s blows, but is also quickly dispensed with.

The deaths of the warriors in the movie are already different from their endings in the comic books. So why not give them a good final stand? Why kill them in a matter of seconds, as if they are not worth the screen time? And what message does their departure from the story send out to the movie’s audiences? This is my main issue with Thor: Ragnarok. When such important characters die, they deserve better than that. They deserve better scenes, they deserve more screen time and they deserve to be mourned by the hero. Hopefully, they will receive their due in the next Marvel film.

Adding Insult to Injury

If the unheroic and underwhelming deaths of the warriors three were not enough, a new character in the franchise, called Skurge joins the party and makes things even worse. Surprisingly enough, for those of you who are not very familiar with the Thor comics series, Skurge was not invented for the “benefit” of this movie. He is a recurring villain, often led estray by either Loki or Amora the Enchantress. Was inserting him into the movie necessary, I believe not. At this late stage in the story arch, the character simply doesn’t manage to raise an emotional attachment in the audience. Therefore, much of its screen time is largely wasted. Who cares about him, or about his moral dilemma? And the scene of his introduction into the movie, trying to impress two Asgardian young ladies, is nothing short of idiotic.

This is not helped by the casting of Karl Urban for the role. The actor, originally from New Zealand seems to be everywhere! The 90’s shows Xena: Warrior Princess, and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Judge Dredd in the unnecessary sequel to Silvester Stallone’s hit movie, Eomer in The Lord of the Rings, Black Hat in the failed Priest movie, Vaako in the Riddick movie franchise, Dr. McCoy in the new Star Trek movie series, and sadly, even in Disney’s live action remake of Pete’s Dragon.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I suspect that Urban is a cool and very likable guy. However, in most of his movie appearances, he never becomes anything other than himself. Perhaps this has to do with the number of B and failed movies he has been in. This means that his very presence on screen calls attention to the fact that “it’s only a movie”. Notable exceptions to this, I think, are his roles in The Lord of the Rings and in Star Trek.

Why is this important? Because I didn’t go the movie to see him again. I don’t know that anybody ever did. Up until now, at least, he does not have the star power or the on screen charisma for that. This is why giving him and his character so much screen time AND a heroic death, at the expense of more important characters seems to me to be in very bad taste.

The Expendability of Female Supporting Characters

In the previous movies in the Thor franchise, Jain used to be Thor’s main love interest. Admittedly, she didn’t have much to do, besides falling in love with the god of thunder and then fighting her urges. But she was there, and Marvel/Disney did try and portray her as a strong woman. This attempt was impeded by the fact that Jain did not really reach a level of independence as anything other than what she was – the female lead opposite the main hero.

Then, briefly, there was Sif, whose attraction to Thor helped add tension (not one, but two women desire to be Thor’s companion). Sif is another matter, because, unlike Jain, she can actually last more than five seconds without screaming for help, or clumsily doing away with opponents who are brutally dumbed down and made ridiculous. Does it help her any? Not really. Does she gain any level of independence on screen? Nope. In short, Sif is the prerequisite female badass, invited to the party only in order to pander to female and generally feminist audiences. Does it work? I don’t know. It certainly doesn’t for me.

For Thor: Ragnarok, however, neither Natalie Portman nor Jaimie Alexander were available to complement Chris Hemsworth’s muscles. What to do? Enter Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson)! True to the comics, Valkyrie is another strong female character appearing alongside Thor. In the current movie she even defeats Thor and holds him captive. Hell, this warrior from nightmares is even able to defeat Loki in combat, despite the trickster god’s foul play. So, she’s above such things as craving the male in the lead role, right? Wrong. Though heroic and impressive in her own right, eventually Valkyrie is no more than Thor’s female companion on screen.

When everything is said and done, Thompson’s character is not there because she needed to be there. She is there because Portman and Alexander could not. Thus, by the end of the movie, even she exchanges meaningful looks with the thunder god. sigh Now, to be fair supporting roles are there to support the lead role. Their title gives it away. But come on… does every strong woman opposite the main character MUST fall in love with him? In 2017? Really?

I wonder who will take Valkyrie’s place by Thor’s side in the next Marvel movie.

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