marvel cinematic universe

I Didn’t Give a Sh*t About Marvel Movies Till I Saw Tessa Thompson in Thor: Ragnarok

Photo: Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Studios.

I have a hit-and-miss record with Marvel movies, meaning that they are all hits, and I have somehow missed seeing most of them. I haven’t seen a single Avengers movie, nor a Captain America movie; I avoided Doctor Strange and just realized this very second that there was an Ant-Man movie. Also I can’t remember if I saw Guardians of the Galaxy or if I’m misremembering Guardians of the Galaxy 2, which I definitely saw because I could see it for free. Maybe I saw the first and third Iron Man, but not the second? Actually, I definitely saw the first Iron Man, because I distinctly remember being surprised that Terrence Howard was playing something other than the light-skinned abusive boyfriend. If memory serves, I saw Iron Man 2 with a boy I was seeing — but actually, maybe I saw Iron Man 2 with someone else, and that boy and I went on a three-on-one date Bachelor-style, and saw Hellboy?

So, for a long time, I really thought the newest Thor installment was called Thor: Rigmarole, which, honestly, seemed like a pretty cool title to me. Rigamarole, a film full of shenanigans and beautiful people fighting crime, and maybe a few one-liners or some gratuitous super-masculine shirtless scenes. Rigmarole, a big fuss over nothing, which is honestly what I’d expect from Thor’s golden (stringy) locks. Upon closer inspection, I later realized the title was Ragnarok, which sounded like a garage emo rock band from 2007. And, like, sure — Thor, go off!

Then I saw Ragnarok, or, more specifically, then I saw Tessa Thompson in Ragnarok. Tessa is Valkyrie (no relation to the Tom Cruise movie), a warrior goddess on the downswing; her current gig is capturing potential players for the Grandmaster’s (Jeff Goldblum) gladiatorial contest, but in better days she was a defender of Asgard, Thor’s home planet. Here are two songs that perfectly describe what it’s like to watch Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok: “Independent Woman Part 1,” by Destiny’s Child, and “These Words,” by Natasha Bedingfield. Like these inarguably perfect tunes, Tessa’s performance is euphoric and emboldening (please press play on them for the duration of this essay).

Tessa’s got the comedic timing to match Taika Waititi’s Thor humor, and the physicality to lead the movie’s pack of superheroes. She’s not trying to outdo the boys; she’s just trying to sip her drink and mind her own business, which is one whole 2017 mood. Consider her look: the slate and gold armor that looks like it was part of Beyoncé’s I Am … world tour, with an added lapis cape. Not even Michelle Obama — the human with the most perfect biceps in American history — can pull off Valkyrie’s sleeveless armor in her opening scenes, which dares you to cross her. I like that she’s decidedly not in a sleek spandex jumpsuit or a leotard: You’re supposed to see her strength and admire her muscles. Considering the misogynoir launched at Serena Williams and Simone Biles for embracing their muscles and physicality as beautiful, this visual feels especially important. Every time Valkyrie took her sword out, ready to slice through the evil Hela’s (Cate Blanchett) minions, I was rapt with attention, throwing popcorn toward my face, missing my mouth. And soon, I realized: This Marvel stuff is Hela tight!

I’ve only seen two black women superheroes before: Halle Berry as Storm and Beyoncé as Storm. I had fun during Wonder Woman, and entertained fantasies about escaping to Themyscira like everyone else. But Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie performance genuinely seemed like a preview of what a feminist blockbuster could look like, without a body-invasion climax or a romantic arc. (But there’s certainly space for her to get the latter: Valkyrie is bisexual, which is important for mainstream representation, but the only explicit reference to her sexuality in the script was cut in the movie’s final edit.) Valkyrie usurps every meme’d comic-book movie stereotype. She’s not white, blonde, and named Chris. Valkyrie is Afro-Latina, irritable, and a warrior goddess. What if Valkyrie was the de facto black doll of my childhood, instead of the Addy, the black slavery-era American Girl doll? No shade to Addy, of course — love you, wherever you are in Auntie’s attic — but I might have felt a little more confident, a little more sure during primary school show-and-tell, that black girls didn’t always have to be twice as good, or always enduring some kind of domestic tragedy.

Valkyrie also has the best character entrance this side of Armie Hammer in Call Me by Your Name: She’s wasted, drunkenly stumbling out of her spacecraft to rescue Chris Hemsworth, who has been trapped and bound by a group of masked scavengers. He’s the damsel in distress, and Valkyrie boots up her spacecraft’s machine guns to shoo away his captors. This flips the usual gendered convention on its head: Valkyrie doesn’t rescue Thor because she’s lonely, or to win him over, or even out of the goodness of her heart. Thor is big and muscly, a perfect contender for the Grandmaster’s game. She could squeeze some money out of his capture herself.

Watching Tessa Thompson in Ragnarok was an exercise in reclaiming my time. For two hours and ten whole minutes, my time was devoted fully to the glorious machinations of Valkyrie. She delivers Blair Waldorf–level eye rolls when Thor tries to enlist her to help him escape back to Asgard. Eventually he does, and the trio — Thor, Bruce Banner, and Valkyrie — steals one of the Grandmaster’s ships to make a break for it. That’s when Valkyrie springs into action, using guns on her spacecraft to zap the guards trying to stop them from leaving the planet. This is where, suddenly, I see what Marvel stans are so gassed up about: Valkyrie jumps from spaceship to spaceship like she’s leapfrogging across lily pads. It’s a stunning image, that’s only outdone in the climactic battle against Blanchett, when Tessa’s glowing like the human manifestation of Fenty Beauty’s Trophy Wife.

The inner workings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe remain a mystery to me, but I have clicked on enough Abe Riesman explainers to know that it exists, and that Thompson could show up in a future Avengers movie. She’s rumored to be returning for Infinity War, and was spotted on the movie’s Edinburgh set. But might I request that we get even more of a good thing? The Marvel actresses have already floated the idea of an all-ladies, Avengers-style ensemble. I vote we keep Valkyrie in the Avengers posse, but also get 120 minutes of a Valkyrie stand-alone: a boozy adventure with midair fights and explosions, and maybe even a mink cape in a color worthy of Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards, just because that’d be really cool to see. Imagine it: Valkyrie kicking ass and then striding off to some dive bar in Asgard for a pint. It can be Insecure meets Wonder Woman meets Waiting to Exhale. My ticket is already purchased.

In Praise of Tessa Thompson in Thor: Ragnarok