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Thor Ragnarok and Parihaka: Postcolonial Apocalypse

Thor: Ragnarok is a riot of colour, sound, violence, humour, sci-fi and fantasy. As a piece of entertainment it is the best Marvel has produced so far. As in many of Taika Waititi's films the plot often seems secondary to the humour and a number of quirky moments seemed only to serve for a quick giggle. I left the theatre overwhelmed by the sensory experience, but ultimately unimpressed by any deeper meaning.

It wasn't until the second morning after my trip to the movies that I woke to the realisation that the movie could function as a profound postcolonial metaphor (I do some of my best thinking while alseep, also it can take me a while for the penny to drop). Unfortunately a quick google showed me that I was neither the first, nor the second to have this thought.

[Spoiler Alert!]

It's easy to miss with all the other stuff going on but Thor undergoes a postcolonial awakening during the film as he slowly realises that his beloved Asgard and its dominion of the nine realms has a past built on bloodshed and oppression and conquest. The key line is when his long lost older sister, Hella, the goddess of death, mocks him, "Where do you think all the gold came from?" In an earlier scene she also literally rips the down the sanitised version of Asgard history revealing its evil past.

Thor is fighting for his life and so it doesn't seem like it has much time to sink in, but when the crunch comes [serious spoiler alert] he does not hesitate to destroy the physical Asgard and all its gold. The truth of Asgard's history has sunk in.  The legacy of Asgard's imperialist past returns with a vengeance and destruction is complete.

Today, as I do practically every working day, I cycled past a causeway which supports a road heading on to the Otago peninsula from the town. That causeway was built by slave labour 140 years ago. Those slaves were prisoner who had been arrested for non-violently defending their legally held lands against armed settlers. Those slaves were Maori. They were from a settlement devoted to pacifism follow both Maori and Christian principles. On Sunday, some New Zealanders marked Parihaka day.

A few short years after guaranteeing to Māori the undisturbed possession of any lands they wished to retain, the Crown began systematically to dispossess the tangata whenua of Taranaki of their lands.

By purchase deed, force of arms, confiscation and statute, the Crown took the rich lands of Taranaki and left its people impoverished, demoralised, and vilified. (from the Crown apology)

When the peaceful Maori farmers were arrested and forcibly moved, the government of the day passed retroactive legislation to "legalise" what had been done. Yes, some white men spoke out against the evil, but by and large the settler government and white New Zealanders approved and supported the criminal and immoral act of oppression. They wanted to keep those natives in their place, and preferably encourage their extinction. Parihaka was only one act in a long history of injustice on which the wealth of white New Zealand has been built.

This is part of New Zealand's history of colonial bloodshed, oppression and injustice, which is still not well known in our country or abroad.

So it makes all the difference to me that Thor Ragnarok was directed by Taika Waititi. I've noticed in interviews online that people relate to Waititi as a New Zealander, a Kiwi. But there seems a lack of appreciation of the fact, despite the colour of his skin and his name, that Waititi is also Maori, tangata whenua, indigenous. Why this makes a difference is that those postcolonial themes could just be in there as an accident of plot, to help explain and propel the story. They could just be the proddings of a liberally educated white guy trying to prove his wokeness. But of course, they are not likely to be, because Waititi is himself one of an oppressed and colonised minority, whose people have experienced and continue to experience the disastrous effects of imperialism.

Is it an accident that in the film Waititi chooses to play a Kronan, Korg? In Thor: The Dark World the hero, Thor, murders a different Kronan as part of his "subdual" of Vanaheim, one of the nine realms. In Ragnarok, Korg becomes Thor's friend and helper, and ends up making room on his spaceship (waka) for Thor and the other (formerly) imperialist Asgardians to take shelter.

There's much more that could be said, but I'll leave that to others. Thor's postcolonial apocalypse entails his eyes being opened to the reality of his history and then moving on. He wasn't responsible for the past, but he did need to awaken to it in order to do what needed to be done in the present.

Read this way Waititi's film is not a beat up on the evils of white people but an invitation to look unflinchingly at the truth of the past (not just NZ, but Australia, USA and of course Britain, etc.) and then to move on in partnership with those who were oppressed or who oppressed us. Thor's motley crew of refugee Asgardians and runaway multi-racial gladiators that sail off in Korg's waka will have plenty of challenges to face apart from confronting the colonial legacy: Thanos looms large in the windscreen. Today, in the real world, Maori and settler, refugees and immigrants, we need each other. None of us are equal to the challenges of the future on our own, but we will only be able to meet those challenges if we first deal with the legacy of the past, however painful it may be.

[Just so we're clear, I don't make any claim to speak for Waititi or Maori people, I'm just a migrant in NZ making some observations and connections that could be completely wrong. I've tried to be respectful of all, but if I've failed please let me know.]

Let me know what you think, :-)

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