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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Trash World of Ideology: Thor Ragnarok Wants You To Destroy America

It's a StIT Thorsgiving Special! Feeling harried by your racist relatives? Hide in the bathroom, pull up this essay, and talk turkey with me about how Thor: Ragnarok really does seem to think Marvel, Disney, and America all need to be destroyed!
Image extremely helpfully provided by EssayofThoughts

“Thor and Loki are just two rich kids from outer space and we shouldn’t really give a shit about what their problems are.” --Taika Waititi, director of Thor: Ragnarok

As I'm writing this, Ajit Pai is declaring open war on the very notion of a free and open Internet. Net Neutrality has --

Wait, hold up, can I just note how many of my articles these days read like an apocalyptic log? I feel like I'm writing missives from the blasted ends of the Earth, issuing increasingly pointless, unheard broadcasts from my lonely post in the wastes. (I'm actually writing them from Toronto, which, despite me feeling these days as though I'm living here in post-apocalyptic isolation, at least has some good grocery stores within walking distance.)

Anyway, yes, Net Neutrality has been given a death sentence and the crisis developing over the past few years is coming to a head. Our acceleration towards full cyber feudalism, where content creators act as tenant meme farmers on the lands of whatever social media website essentially owns their lives, has almost reached its logical endpoint.

I was going to make some cracks here about Marxist accounts of Feudalism but the first article I found was behind a paywall and I got too depressed to continue researching.

That's more research than I've done on the issue of whether or not Disney, in particular, has come out in support of Net Neutrality, mind. I'm totally ignorant of whether or not they're on the "right side" of this particular fight. I am bragging about my utter lack of knowledge, in fact. I don't care. It literally does not matter, and I'm continually bewildered by people treating Net Neutrality as an issue that has much of anything to do with individual corporations. If, for self interested reasons, the capitalists who run Disney take the "right" stance here, should that affect our perception of the Net Neutrality fight? Should it affect our perception of Disney?

No, not at all. Not when Disney has pillaged culture continuously and siloed it off into proprietary franchises, robbing us of our heritage in a far more real and horrific way than any nationalist's fever dreams of "white genocide" and "cultural marxism."

Disney deserves what all these corporations deserve. To be utterly destroyed.

Imagine my surprise to find Thor: Ragnarok kind of agreeing with me.


Probably the most surprising joke in Thor Ragnarok was a bit where the Grand Master demands that his slaves not be referred to as slaves but as "prisoners with jobs." I don't impress easily these days. It's trivial to throw in a veiled "MAGA" reference and call it a day. It's easy to have Phil Coulson say "Hydra are nazis" as though Marvel's own comics and the previous season of Agents of SHIELD didn't deliberately retcon that when it was convenient. This joke, though, managed to impress me. There's a real edge to its satire.

That edge comes from the way it should, by rights, make a lot of viewers uncomfortable. Hey, remember a few months ago when the world remembered that Hillary Clinton, in 1996, casually revealed she was served for a while by, oh, what was the term... "prisoners with jobs"? I bring this up for two reasons. First, because I will stop relitigating the 2016 election when either I or Peter Daou are dead, possibly both of us, each by the hand of the other, after falling off Reichenbach Falls. And you can verrit that fact! (editor's note: you cannot verrit this fact). And second, because I really think it's important to emphasize the wide scope of this joke and the way it doesn't just implicate right wing goons but, well, America as a whole.

It's easy for the political and cultural establishment to make (vague, nervous) strikes against Trump. He's a fantasy monster. He's an ogre leading a cadre of trolls and ghouls. He is an easily maligned outsider, if only in the sense that he keeps saying the quiet part loud. Donald Trump didn't write the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, though. Let's review that for a moment actually:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

See? Prisoners with jobs! It's totally fine!

I don't want to dwell on this one joke but to use it as a jumping off point for the radical critique bubbling under the surface of Thor: Ragnarok. It's not the zingers after all that really make for a critique but the deeper thematic tissue.

So let's rehearse that quickly.

Thor Ragnarok is a story about an imperialist civilization's bloody past coming back to haunt it in the form of a literal goddess of death and an army of skeleton warriors. This civilization, one of wealth and prosperity, where the buildings are covered in actual gold, gets brutally conquered by the undead armies that pillaged all that gold in the first place, centuries ago.

This poses some problems.

The most notable of these problems is that Hela, the hauntological remnant of imperial sins in question, literally draws her power from Asgard, and since Odin's dead within the first 15 minutes of the film like a CHUMP she's got nothing to stop her from bringing back the old school imperial approach to the civilization.

Meanwhile, the protagonists of the film are stranded in a universal garbage dump. It's a planet-sized garbage dump, seemingly both for Asgard and a bunch of other worlds throughout the cosmos. In the absence of anyone taking responsibility for the creation of this world of garbage, and the people stranded there, the world has come under the control of the Grand Master, the guy with the "prisoners with jobs." In the absence of anything better to hinge the economy on, the Grand Master's world is built around brutal colosseum fights. People would like to rebel if they could but the Grand Master has things locked down pretty tight.

It doesn't take much disruption for the whole thing to come crashing down, though. And so, one world erupts in revolt, leading to a bunch of the revolutionaries grabbing a huge spaceship. They fly this to Asgard, where they pick up the former-imperialists-now-refugees who must rely on these garbage pile revolutionaries for their salvation--the subaltern rising from its sacrifice zone to save the hegemony from itself, if we want to get all [waves hands] Theory about it. (We don't need to, of course, to get the basic point across--it's all there in the basic plot, after all). An exit though can't stop Hela, and so, given that she draws her power from Asgard itself, the heroes conclude that the only way to stop her is to cause Ragnarok and destroy Asgard itself.

Or, put a different way, the only way to finally defeat the dark legacy of imperialism is to shatter the imperial power down to its foundations.

I like the "prisoners with jobs" joke because it's a microcosm of the wider orientation the film seems to have towards imperial powers, America most notably (though I imagine there's jabs at Australian and New Zealand politics here as well, given we're all part of the same monstrous legacy, our own some-debatable-number-of-Realms). Part of what makes these imperial powers what they are is their ability to decide one day that Asgard has always been a force of peace in the Realms, and really these prisoners love having jobs. An empire can look like something led by your friend and mine Palpatine, but it can also look like Asgard's golden, gleaming city.

Anyway, funny how Thor and Loki don't show up much in this summary. Oh they've got arcs, to be sure. But this is ultimately a story about revolution, and revolutions aren't stories about two rich kids from outer space.


Here's High Phase-King Kevin Feige on Thor's friends getting killed in about 30 seconds early in Ragnarok:

“Well, it was a – they, they had noble ends – mainly to serve the arrival of Hela, the arrival of the biggest villain into the MCU, who within the first five minutes destroys the hammer, kicks Loki and Thor out of Asgard, and kills almost anyone we’ve ever met before in the other movies. Which is really – we want it to start with a bang.”

This is very funny.

Even if we take Feige at his word, this is obviously hackneyed bullshit. Yes obviously they were killed to escalate the stakes. No one failed to understand that. Not in an era of Game of Thrones.

What people are responding to though is the blatant disrespect toward material and audience this represents, the sheer inability to imagine storytelling that escalates stakes through character storylines being developed rather than being abruptly cut short. It's the same kind of contempt for material and audience we can see in the fact that Tony Stark's whole character development has been rolled back about five times now, most egregiously after Iron Man III. 

Were we to take King Feige at his word, we would still obviously have to respond that their attempt flatly failed.

It's ok though because his stammered protest that "they had noble ends" is hilarious nonsense. Again, these are Thor's supposed best friends and they get killed in about 30 seconds. I barely recognized who they were in that amount of time! They had perfunctory, barely considered ends. All the other recurring characters were simply casually written out. I don't think they even bothered to explain where Sif was.

And it was great!

Don't get me wrong, I normally hate this sort of thing on principle. Typically, people making such sweeping changes have delusions-of-Alan-Moore, but really they're just Michael Bay or Zach Snyder. Hell, Zach Snyder even managed to play the Zach Snyder to Alan Moore directly with Watchmen! The company of "people who make their living shitting up other people's continuity" isn't exactly exalted.

As with all narrative techniques, though, we've got to judge these things in context. It's hard to deny, in the context of the rest of the film, that Waititi's evident contempt for his subject matter is justified, and it's hard to miss that Waititi himself, as a Jewish and Māori director, is likely to have a rewriterly perspective markedly different from the likes of Bay, Snyder, Nolan, Miller, and so on and so on ad nauseam.

It's always been true that the Asgardians conquered the "Nine Realms" so it's not as though Asgard's fundamentally imperialist past was a secret. Odin is such a dodgy bastard that it's immediately believable he kept an entire age of conquest, one (1) whole Evil Sister, and a whole bunch of rivers of blood secret from his sons. He already deals with all his problems by exiling them into the void, why should his world's violent past be any different? It's hard to argue, therefore, that much of what Waititi does is a retcon in the way we now use the phrase. Sure, it's literally retroactive-continuity, going into the past and inventing more past to find there, but it's retroactive continuity that could only not have been there if we willfully pretend all the stuff that comes along with Empire simply isn't here because, well, this empire is the Good Guys' Empire.

I'm gleefully delighted to see Waititi respond to this the same way I do: with a firm "screw that."

The Swashbuckling Three or whatever they were called can only exist in a system of feudal excess. The Adventuring Party is probably inherently cut from the same cloth as the Trump administration's decision to ok trophy hunting of elephants. It's of a piece, too, with Trump deciding to reinstate the ban because he was angry someone else lifted it without telling him. The specific actions of the Adventuring Party matter way less than the context in which they are allowed to carry out their colonial adventures: a context of autocratic and ultimately arbitrary power.

One of the more delicious ironies of Thor Ragnarok's creation might be that Phase-King Feige's autocratic power of life and death over his cartoonish subjects allowed Waititi the opportunity to display contempt for exactly that sort of medievalism.


Let's jump back to Disney for a second, and the company's attempts to ooze their way into all aspects of culture. Its capitalists recently considered purchasing all of Fox's entertainment wing (to loud cheers from nerds who, in typically myopic fashion, saw only the possibility that ZOMG X MEN COULD JOIN THE MCU!!!1) which should tell you all you need to know about whether Disney heads oppose cyberfeudalism or late capitalism or whatever we're calling hellworld.

They don't. Just to be clear. These guys might quibble over specific plots, but their basic class interests remain the same. Net Neutrality just happens to be a timely battleground to bring up. If it was a different day of the week, I'd be talking about a different battleground.

Or, I could try to talk about all the different things I've heard about just today. It's not hard to find stories about Disney's perfidy, after all. The heads of the company, starting with Walt himself, have always been nasty pieces of work. Taking a break from writing, I immediately found news of Disney's current exploits: the company recently abruptly ended its contract for something called "Marvel Heroes" with a game studio that, in response, just laid off its workers on Thanksgiving Eve. Hilarious! I also happened to see that Disney's got some strange pineapple based advertising for the next Star War, which my friend Tobermoriansass helpfully informed me is part of some big project with Dole, a company that's about as vile as you can get, itself owned by fucking Dow Chemical, because I guess all atrocity-mongers are now voltron'd together into too-big-to-fail atrocity-mongers just as a matter of course. And there's EA producing a Star Wars game for Disney that is so blatantly exploitative that they've singlehandedly inspired multiple states and countries to propose regulations that would ban certain types of in-game gambling. Well fucking done!

There's more, but I'm actually having trouble keeping track of it all. I had to be reminded by friends of the deal Marvel struck with death merchants Northrop Grumman a while back, for example. It totally slipped my mind that Disney's Marvel Studios made a deal with arms dealers to promote the global slaughter industry. Wild how the company can literally put out a comic promoting the very people who were ostensibly villains in Iron Man I! It's almost like the entertainment industry is a massive discursive shell game.

What's really remarkable here, though, is how much of this fuckery is tied to the broader functioning of American Empire. Protecting our interests abroad, in Latin America most infamously, has often meant funding death squads on behalf of companies like Dole, for example. The appalling lack of labor and consumer rights on display in the schemes of Disney and its cronies would only be possible with the aid of a government dedicated to suppressing proletarian action. Old Walt himself could not have busted unions so effectively without government McCarthyism standing strong beside him!

To take a stab at American Empire is thus to take a stab at Disney; to take a stab at Disney is to take a stab at the imperial capitalism that enabled its hegemony. The two are inextricably linked, two Jormungandrs rutting in the roots of the World-Tree. This is the toxic dragon in the foundations of the celestial hierarchy.

It's a pity that Jormungandr itself never shows up in Ragnarok, but the toxic dragon is there all the same. The base of Asgard, after all, apparently rests in a garbage heap, connected by the Devil's own anus.


There are two end credits scenes in Thor Ragnarok. 

One teases the future of the MCU, hinting at the arrival of Thanos, in search of an Infinity Gem. Stone. Whatever.

The other focuses on the deposed Grand Master who, in a hilarious monologue, argues to his former slaves that the rebellion wouldn't have been possible without someone there to rebel against, and he did a great job of being that, so, they should consider the rebellion a tie.

One of the two scenes is much more important than the other.

It's not the one with Thanos.


Thor Ragnarok can't make it through the meatgrinder of corporate film production intact, of course. Infamously, of course, Valkyrie's queer identity didn't survive executive meddling, and there are other minor and major marks of this meddling throughout the film. I'm not under any illusions about how "woke" in total the film is. This isn't actually Secret Cultural Marxism, or if it is it's only because it's a secret to itself.

Thor still ends the film as a king. Barf. And yeah the symbolism alters this somewhat--Thor ends the film taking not a throne facing towards his subjects but a captain's chair facing toward the future. But that's not actually better. Do you want silicon valley techbros? Because subbing out monarchs for Brave Future-Looking Captains is how you get ants I mean techbros. Domination by the single vision of some self-proclaimed "hero" remains the same whether you call him a captain or a king.

If you've been following me for a while you know how suspicious I am of narratives that warp around a single hero. Suspicious enough that I wrote a damn monograph about it. Meanwhile, all of what I could, via some fuzzy definitions, call "Superhero Shit" that I've actually enjoyed lately has either been:

  • About the Power Of Friendship and decentering the narrative from one individual to a whole community (Mob Psycho 100, My Hero Academia, Diamond Is Unbreakable, Strong Female Protagonist, the really good version of The Defenders that is hinted at in the first few episodes but otherwise exists only in my head, Sense8???)
  • Overtly suspicious of the politics of typical superhero media (Strong Female Protagonist, My Hero Academia sort of on the down low)
  • About gothic supervillains making funny murders happen (I will defend Gotham, the ludicrous trash that it is, to my last breath)
  • Basically not even about superheroes but primarily about superpowers and their effect on people or a setting (Legion, Mob Psycho 100, Diamond Is Unbreakable, the bits of Logan that weren't the boring as fuck obligatory fight scenes, I still can't decide whether to count Sense8???)
  • Not American (all the anime, obviously)
  • Homestuck (Homestuck)

Thor's biggest problem is that it's still about superheroes, even if at times it manages to express its superheroics in ways fitting the above categories.

It mitigates this somewhat by having the "team" that Thor keeps declaring he's "putting together" be barely strung together out of who sort of happened to be there at the time. (This makes Thor's earnest declarations into one of the funniest meta-jokes in the film.) That's no doubt part of the point. Taika Waititi's own character Korg is a hero in part because he's a revolutionary, but also because he just happens to be on one planet, happens to get persuaded by Loki to take a huge ship to ANOTHER planet, and happens to be there to fight off the hoard of skeleton warriors menacing a bunch of innocent people. He's obviously a good guy! He's just as obviously not an ubermensch singlehandedly revolutionizing society.

But Thor Ragnarok is still a superhero movie, produced by Disney. Believe me, I cherish what got through. I appreciate what Waititi's done here. I enjoyed the hell out of Thor Ragnarok. It was frequently hilarious, occasionally surprisingly audacious, always gorgeous to look at.

Thor Ragnarok is so much like Asgard.

Yeah, it gave me a lot of what I want. Superhero shit frequently has, over the last decade. I'm not going to punish myself for getting pleasure where I can. There's something particularly fun, too, about being able to wring radical positions from things like Thor, Iron Man III, Rogue One, and so on. It's like getting away with something sneaky. If nothing else, I'm going to make more money posting this article than Disney will make from my trip to the movie theater. I'll take the wins I can get, and I don't see any point in living like an ascetic. I'm not an ubermensch. I can't be. Even if I could I don't want to be. I can accomplish nothing by throwing myself out of Asgard onto the garbage heap, nothing besides living in a garbage heap, which, I mean... don't even ask me about the state of this apartment, that's all I'm saying!

But let me tell you, if the time comes, I'll cheerfully volunteer to be the one putting Black Surtr's skull on the Eternal Fire.

Happy Thanksgiving.

This Has Been

The Trash World of Ideology

"We're Still Friends Right?" Fanfictional Trauma and Captain America: Civil War

Civil War is some of the biggest budget fanfiction ever to exist; maybe comic book movies always have been. But is it GOOD fanfic?


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