In Thor: Ragnarok, what is the name of the character Tessa Thompson plays?

It’s not “Valkyrie.” That’s what she’s listed as, that’s the superhero character she’s adapted from, but that’s not her name. That’s her former job. Tie-in material suggests that it’s ‘Brunhilde’, the same as the comic character, but again, that’s not in the film, and no one cares to ask her name in any part of the story.

Think about that for a minute: this character who is widely being praised as a great example of representation for bisexual women of color isn’t even given an actual name.

There’s a lot that’s wrong with “Valkyrie” in Thor: Ragnarok, but that tends to be overlooked because, well, she’s a bisexual woman of color. She’s introduced in the film as a stumbling drunk that captures and enslaves our title hero, regularly tortures him for stepping out of line or for fun, and sells him to fight in the arena (before which he is physically and psychologically tortured some more) where “Valkyrie” fully expects him to die. It’s heavily implied that she’s done this several times before, which is why the Grandmaster favors her so much.

But it’s okay, because slavery is funny, I guess?

Her backstory doesn’t really add up. We’re told that the Valkyries were all killed by Hela, at some unspecified point in the past, but that “Valkyrie” survived because another of her companions took a shot from Hela in her place. But unless “Valkyrie” learned to teleport, there’s no reason that Hela shouldn’t have taken another shot after the first one and finished the job. If you shoot at someone, and someone else gets in the way of your projectile, there isn’t any reason you shouldn’t shoot again. The story’s tragic, yeah, but because it’s tragic it doesn’t mean it makes any sense.

She ends up on Sakaar because…reasons, I guess. We’re told time is weird there, which is the only plausible reason she’s apparently around Thor and Loki’s age when Hela’s first defeat was meant to be waaaaaay before their time. But it’s never really explained.

“Valkyrie” joins the heroes eventually because she also wants a shot at killing Hela for the whole ‘massacring her coworkers’ thing, and from then on she’s treated as mostly being a hero. But at no point in the film does she get any comeuppance for being a part of the interplanetary slave trade. No one even suggests that she was in the wrong for doing so. Yeah, Thor isn’t happy with being a slave, and Korg calls attention to the fact that she’s harsh, but neither of these are things that affect other characters. She doesn’t have a character arc about becoming a better person. We’re just supposed to roll with the fact that she’s nominally on the side of Good now without acknowledging that this woman’s destroyed people’s lives while sitting back with a smile and a bottle of booze to watch. Because Hela killed her friends (and her lover, if we accept a deleted scene as canon), this is all forgotten.

Let me state this plainly, so my point is clear: a slaver becomes one of our heroes, and isn’t even given a redemption arc or cursory nod that she’s ever done anything wrong.

I’ve said this movie baffled me with its popularity, and it still does. Did I miss something? Have we come to the point of our society that we’re no longer on board with demonizing slavery on principle?

I’m not saying that characters can’t be complete douchebags and still be sympathetic. But there’s a way to make these sorts of characters sympathetic and still condemn their more problematic actions. Rocket from the Guardians of the Galaxy films is a lying, thieving, violent jerk, but he has a character arc about being better to the people around him, and while his sociopathic tendencies are played for laughs it’s played deadly serious that he acts the way he does because he’s broken inside. You’d have to be a fool to not pick up that he’s probably robbed and killed a lot of people over the course of his career as a bounty hunter. The movies call attention to these personality traits, highlights them, and displays them as bad things that he should leave behind. He doesn’t, because being fixed once they’re told there’s something wrong with them isn’t how people work. But the film recognizes that what he does is wrong.

Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow is a similar case. She’s a spy—one of SHIELD’s top agents, and before that she worked for the KGB. A good chunk of her career is spent killing people; she’s referred to as an assassin multiple times. But she acknowledges that she’s done terrible things. It’s clear that she sees herself as an irredeemable monster, and that she can’t ever see herself having a normal life. When Romanoff finds out that SHIELD has been infiltrated by HYDRA, she feels even worse because she’s told herself SHIELD is at least doing all that dirty work for something good—but now she’s got no idea how many of the things she’s done “for the greater good” are actually just to further HYDRA’s agenda. She has done terrible things, and it clearly weighs on her very heavily.

“Valkyrie” is never given any of that. The story at no point indicates that there’s something wrong with the way she’s lived her life. Oh, she’s an alcoholic? A torturer? A slaver? Well it’s okay, because Hela killed her friends and her lover. I’m not saying “Valkyrie” needs to be punished, or that she needs to be removed from the story, but I think that if the story had any decency or honesty, it’d at least point out that she’s done something wrong.

That’s why I’m calling “Valkyrie” a Sue. She’s a character that becomes a clear part of the narrative despite a backstory that makes little sense and she’s a terrible person, but the story, characters and fanbase act as if she’s just a mostly-noble anti-hero who fell on some hard times. Despite, y’know, getting money and kicks out of the whole ‘slavery and torture’ thing. She’s not a strong character, she’s an unlikable Sue.

And if anyone tells you she’s a strong female character of a well-written film, remind them of this:

SHE’S NOT EVEN GIVEN A NAME.

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Comment

  1. dragonstorm on 19 May 2018, 00:40 said:

    I also had issues with her character, although I’ve never articulated them nearly as well as you did here. I think part of the reason she gets overlooked is that the movie in general treats a lot of the suffering with a very comic tone, so she manages to slip in. Hulk shares at least some of these issues in that he’s a champion gladiator, constantly killing slaves, although given Hulk’s own position, I guess his culpability is a bit more debatable.

  2. Juracan on 21 May 2018, 21:37 said:

    Exactly how the Hulk and Bruce Banner interact isn’t entirely clear, so like you said, his culpability is debatable. Furthermore, we see that Banner is actually terrified and horrified about the fact that he’s been Hulk’d out and killing people. He’s also very distraught about the idea of (possibly permanently) turning back into Hulk, which the movie mostly plays for laughs.

    So yeah, I agree that the humorous tone is in large part to blame for this. Because the movie isn’t serious it doesn’t dwell much on the fact that all of these things are in there. But I’m still constantly confused at how this movie keeps getting praise for being so brilliant when you have terrible character writing like Valkyrie’s.

  3. Princesselwen on 23 May 2018, 18:59 said:

    I agree that Valkyrie was horribly written, and I couldn’t stand her. It especially made me mad because she was one of the only women in the movie—and the other one was the villain. So the only major female characters are either jerks or Over the Top Evil.
    Plus, the tone was all wrong. ‘Ragnarok’ should have a bit more gravitas.
    I think a better version would have her as a fighter in the arena, possibly captured recently, possibly forced to kill to survive. Thor is set up to kill her in an opening bout, but refuses (and she figures out who he is), and so follows him on his quest out of gratitude and loyalty. She would also be serious and so crazy-intense that she gives Thor pause, but still have a softer side.

  4. The Smith of Lie on 28 May 2018, 03:13 said:

    I never though about the points your brought up. And despite that Valkyrie was probably the one part of the movie I actively disliked (the tonal problems you’ve described in your previous essay I don’t mind so much, though I must admit they exist). But for me it was because she was a sort of non-entity.

    I don’t know if she has been praised by critics, but for me she was uninteresting to watch. With the benefit of hindisght I can attribute this patially to how unlikable she was. Even ignoring moral implications of her trading in slaves, she just seemed like an unpleasant person to be around.

    On the contrary to Princesselwen I think she might have been salvaged if the “shell shocked veteran” angle was more played up. Say that she survived fight with Hela because she got so grievously wounded that Hela just left her for dead, maybe even mistook her for a corpse already. This leaves Valkyrie broken both in mind and body, maybe with some gruseomely looking prosthetics, maybe with disfigurment. To that lets change her role in slave trade from active to more passive – for example she’s a pilot on a slave trading ship and just grew apathetic to her captain’s side business of gladiator trafficking. PTSD and alcoholism and fatalism make her conitnue flying the ship because “its a living”. And seeing Thor’s refusal to give up could be the spark that re-ignites her old spirit.

    Again this variant is still grumply, but the very shaking off the apathy is sort of mini-redemption arc on its own and it lessens the moral implications of her working for Grandmaster for all those years.

  5. Princesselwen on 28 May 2018, 08:15 said:

    Yes, I think that would have been a good idea too.
    Redemption arcs can be a really good part of a story, and they shouldn’t be skipped.