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Monday, May 30, 2016

Thor: Ragnarok Casting Round-Up

Edited by Robert Beach 

As phase 3 of Marvel dawns, several major questions have started to loom in on the horizon as the previous invulnerability of the MCU begins to crack with age. At this point, Marvel is doing a dance of engagement with its audience, flittering between the fleeting high of Age of Ultron and the genuinely infectious interest of Ant-Man. Captain America: Civil War seems to be the best example of this so far, caught between the fun of the actual story and hanging out with characters we like/ All is enjoyable but fleeting, and the excitement of new heroes like Spider-Man or Black Panther, which is much more persistent. 

It seems that Marvel is legitimately at their best when they’re both expanding the scope of their shared universe and are being incredibly weird and idiosyncratic while doing it. That blend of new horizons and unique characters has reared its head once more with the latest casting announcements for next year’s Thor: Ragnarok. True to form, they seem to have everyone genuinely excited for a Thor film. 

Let’s start by addressing the casting I already discussed previously: Cate Blanchett as Hela, Norse Goddess of death. This was the most likely case for Blanchett’s casting given her ethereal looks, and the fact that she excels at playing ambiguous, inhuman beings of godly power. Traditionally, Hela has always been a major Thor antagonist as per the strategy of death Gods working as the bad guys in mythology reworkings. Ironically, Hela is fairly divorced from Ragnarok. 

In case you’ve never heard the term before, Ragnarok is the term for the apocalypse in Norse mythology where the forces of evil and good are locked in one final battle that destroys the 9 realms. When Marvel first adapted the Norse Gods into a science fantasy comic series, they didn’t really plan on sticking too closely to the material. Jack Kirby was just using the Gods as a framework to build his own universe off of. However, later authors brought the mythic connections much more to the front and had Thor actually face Ragnarok and its herald, the Norse fire demon Surtur. 

No word yet on whether or not Surtur is actually IN Thor: Ragnarok, but it seems they’ve opted to give Hela the leading villain role in the film as the scheming face of the end of days. Hela’s presence has a double meaning thanks to her role as Goddess of death and the growing threat of Thanos. The Asgardians still hold the Space Gem (Tesseract) in the Odin vault, which means Thanos will be coming for it sooner or later. Thanos’ comic book motivation is he’s literally in love with the grim reaper, so it’s possible Marvel will hedge their bets and have Hela play the role of Thanos’ unrequited love. 

This is one of the most unexpected but also most welcome casting choices. Marvel has had a slew of issues with race representation in recent days between the tasteless whitewashing of the Ancient One in Doctor Strange and the insistence on keeping Iron Fist a white guy for his Netflix series. Dropping Tessa Thompson into the MCU as one of the most powerful super women this side of Storm is a great way to wash away all those complaints and go hand-in-hand with the massive popularity of Black Panther in the wake of Civil War.

Thompson is a stand-out actress with a lot of versatility, so I’m sure she’ll do a great job as Valkyrie.  What’s more, reworking Valkyrie as a woman of color makes a lot of sense for Marvel as a lot of their worthwhile WoC heroes are currently owned by Fox.  This leaves Marvel trapped between a handful of low-profile heroes like Monica Rambeau or characters far too new to warrant adaptation like Ms. Marvel. Swapping out character’s race is a great way to get around this problem and put out some high-profile women of color as part of the MCU. Plus, the idea of race swapping worked wonders for the Thor franchise already with Heimdall. 

My big question about Thompson’s Valkyrie is whether or not she’ll BE a hero. In the comics, Valkyrie is a hero, In terms of Norse myth, the Valkryies have always been servants of death. While it’s possible Valkyrie will just team with Thor and Hulk to stand against Hela, I could definitely see her acting as a sort of inverted Thor. She could act as the all-powerful champion of the realms of Death, serving as Hela’s right hand. Given other revelations about the casting, it would make sense if the assemblage of characters was meant to act as reflections of one another, but we’ll get to that in due course. 

Is there any greater scion of nerd than Karl Urban?  This guy has been in Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, Judge Dredd, and even turned down a role in the new Star Wars because “he already had enough iconic roles.”  Well, I guess that wasn’t totally true because the lord of the geeks is now going to be Executioner in Thor: Ragnarok. In the likely event you’ve never heard of Executioner, he’s a B-list Thor villain that’s managed to persist as an antagonist since some of the earliest days of the comics. He’s not quite as low level as Absorbing Man or Mr. Hyde (who’ve both been relegated to TV land on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and he was never a big name like Loki, Hela, or even Ulik. 

Executioner’s presence here is a little vexing. So far, every Thor movie has actually featured two villains in this manner. Thor had both Loki and the Destroyer armor while Thor: The Dark World had both Malekith and Kurse. It’s a smart split as it creates a mini-boss type conflict to build tension in anticipation for the big blow out and lets Thor really cut loose with a strength-centric bad guy. I’m not totally convinced that’s the Executioner’s role here, though it’s certainly possible.  It’d be a shame to waste Karl Urban, who actually is a really talented performer in his own right on the role of “henchmen.”

Additionally, Executioner is almost always pared with fellow Thor B-list baddy the Enchantress. Enchantress is a powerful witch with all kinds of love and illusion magic who’s yet to be cast anywhere in Thor: Ragnarok. It’s not entirely surprising as the MCU seems staunchly opposed to portraying any semblance of actual magic within its films. Instead, they stick with sci-fi cop-outs like the Asgardians being aliens rather than actual Gods or Dr. Strange’s power coming from multiple realities. What seems most likely here is Executioner will end up pared with Valkyrie as the super villain team for the movie, possibly both serving as lieutenants of Hela and opposite numbers to Thor and Hulk. 

Now comes the big one. As far as I can tell, the casting of Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster is at the heart of the actual interest in Thor: Ragnarok that these casting announcements have generated. It’s easy to see why.  Goldblum has always been a pretty mercurial talent in Hollywood. A staple of the childhood of 20-somethings everywhere, thanks to dual roles in Jurassic Park and Independence Day ,but he's also a reoccurring fixture of cult oddities like The Fly, Earth Girls Are Easy, and Buckaroo Banzai.  

Even just as a guy Goldblum is weird. His whole self-projected image of celebrity is that of a weirdo. He’s incredibly handsome with just enough exaggeration to his features to not be traditionally attractive. He’s confident and cool while projecting himself as the nerdiest man possible. This is a man brimming with personality and independence for days, and he’s been cast in one of the strangest Marvel roles this side of the Collector. 

The Grandmaster is an Elder of the Universe, one of the several ancient beings who were the first races of the cosmos. Each of the Elders is named after whatever hobby they happen to obsess over like how the Collector, Benicio Del Toro from Guardians of the Galaxy, loved to collect things. In the case of the Grandmaster, he’s obsessed with games of chance, gambling, and strategy play. A lot like the Collector, the Grandmaster originally popped up as an excuse for a bad guy to collect a bunch of heroes and villains and make them fight to generate action scenes or taking a tour of the weirder parts of the Marvel universe with all the motivation and identity added later. Another thing that was added later, the Grandmaster was a shepherd of one of the Infinity Stones (in particular the mind gem). 

It’s unclear how much of that identity will translate to Thor: Ragnarok. I mean, the Collector is a really big deal in the comics, but he was a cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy. As mentioned, Marvel is at their best when they’re weird. And Jeff Goldblum as an immortal, bright blue alien gambler with a magic rock is about as weird as you can get. Grandmaster’s presence, along with the Hulk, leads me to think that the plot of the film will involve the Grandmaster and Hela playing some form of game for the fate of Asgard with Thor, Hulk, Valkyrie, and Executioner as their pawns. 

If that is the case, here’s hoping Marvel can manage to keep Grandmaster around for a while. He’s a great character to break out to keep the universe turning . With Jeff Goldblum in the role, he could easily end up the most popular thing to come out of the Thor movies since Loki. 

Thor: Ragnarok is scheduled for release November 3, 2017.
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