For a certain segment of Marvel fans, the hope for future features is eternal – no matter how much common sense and history indicate those hopes will not come to fruition. In the case of Taika Waititi Thor: Love and ThunderSome fans have clamored for hope that the overwhelming positive response to Tessa Thompson’s role as Valkyrie in Waititis Thor: Ragnarok would lead to a bigger role and more screen time for the character in the new film. MCU watchers, who have somehow failed to notice Disney’s persistent history of queerbaiting, even hoped that Valkyrie would receive on-screen recognition of her bisexuality, rather than letting Thompson (who is bisexual herself) reveal it as one of the hidden, undisclosed nuances to play the character . Thompson, who promised in a 2019 Comic-Con presentation that finding a love interest for Valkyrie in the sequel would be “the first task,” kindled fan flames.
But consistent with the film’s pattern of constantly undermining its characters for jokes or plot expediency — and the similar pattern of the MCU films of pitching exciting female characters and then killing or marginalizing them — Valkyrie gets up cheated in quite a profound way love and thunder. And the specific way she was betrayed is particularly startling because it would have taken so little work to make the exact same character beats make sense and resonate, and make her feel like a developing person with her own story to be, instead of randomly dressing up in a story, they don’t even care a bit.
[Ed. note: Plot spoilers ahead for Thor: Love and Thunder.]
After the events of Thor: Ragnarok, Valkyrie was founded as the king of New Asgard, the earth settlement for Asgardian refugees. (Thompson, who’s always adept at making a sandwich when a roll reaches its crumbs, was vocally thrilled to be called “King.”) love and thunder‘s screenplay puts her in front of the kind of background and dilemma that could take an entire Valkyrie-focused film to unwrap: she’s an action-hungry warrior faced with a bureaucratic task. She’s clearly doing a good and meaningful job of keeping New Asgard safe and self-sufficient as a tourist trap – perhaps she’s doing too good a job considering that when a crisis hits, everyone immediately runs to her personally to solve their problems .
One gets the sense that she’s relieved to finally face a problem smack in the face with a sword, but Waititi and co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson aren’t pulling that thread. It’s reasonable enough that they wanted to invest the story more in Thor’s usual struggle to cope with a complicated world while being a straightforward character – and on his ex, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who doubles as godlike, empowering Superhero lives and dies from cancer. But Valkyrie is so underdeveloped and unspecific in this film that she’s basically just an uncomplaining support system devoid of personal desires to elevate Jane’s pain — an irritatingly familiar role for both queer and black characters.
Valkyrie has been on screen for a considerable amount of time Thor: Love and Thunder, but she never gets anything special or important to do. She provides some performances and some comical reaction shots. She goes where Thor and Jane do, fights the same battles and fails in the same places. The big relationship moment is a small courtly kiss on the hand for an anonymous extra with whom she never speaks. There are a few brief references to the tragic loss in her backstory that contain so little detail that it’s difficult to tie them to any contemporary development or nuance in the film.
But while reaction to her character’s negligible role in the film has focused mostly on disappointment with Kevin Feige and Marvel backing down certain promises for an LBGTQ love story in Valkyrie’s screen future, the real betrayal is a bigger, stranger one. Valkyrie decides there’s no way she’s going to the final battle against the film’s antagonist, Gorr the God Butcher the dumbest reason possible.
In an earlier fight in the film, Valkyrie is stabbed and ends up in the same hospital where Jane is recovering from a setback in her battle with cancer. When she talks to Thor about plans to restart the fight, she tells him that she won’t go because “I might die, and that wouldn’t do anyone any good.”
At that moment, it becomes clear that Valkyrie is downplaying the seriousness of her injury and the extent to which she feels unfit for the fight. But she is still an Asgardian. She is said to be a Norse warrior (or at least a heavily fictionalized, romanticized, Americanized version of it) from a culture that values dying in battle above all else. Like us explicitly reminded Earlier in the film, when Thor finds his old friend Sif wounded after a battle, Asgardians who die in an honorable fight against a worthy enemy receive the ultimate reward: they go to Valhalla to drink and feast with other worthy warriors, until they are needed to fight the last battle of all, during Ragnarok. She’s not just “Valkyrie,” she’s literally a Valkyrie, the warriors destined to escort the worthy souls who fall in battle to the Norse skies where the mead flows eternally. (From the udders of a magic goat, but we won’t go into that here.)
Keep that in mind when we first meet Valkyrie Thor: Ragnarok, she is the last survivor of Hela’s massacre of all her Valkyrie sisters, and she bears the heavy guilt of the survivors. She tells Thor that she settled on the planet Sakaar, where he meets her, because it “seemed the best place to drink and forget and die one day”. Why should she pass up the chance to die gloriously in a duel with the monster that stole her people’s children, rather than drink herself to death in a guilty haze or spend the rest of her life dealing with New Asgardian paperwork spend that she hates so much? a lot of?
“If I die, it might as well be driving my sword through the heart of that murderous witch,” she tells Thor Ragnarok, as she goes with him to fight Hela. She knows how slim her chances are against Hela in this film – Hela defeated her entire Valkyrie army without breaking a sweat. But she has regained her pride and defiance, and she realizes that even if she didn’t die along with the rest of her sisters, she can still deserve Valhalla. Where’s that defiance or that cultural belief in it? love and thunder?
The simple, obvious answer is that Waititi and Robinson didn’t want her to be part of the crucial fight because her presence would complicate the Thor/Jane story they were trying to tell and potentially steal a little thunder from one or both of the leads. But the way they’ve set that up is so dismissive and ridiculous, given Valkyrie’s story and literal identity as Valkyrie, that it’s downright insulting – and characteristic of how little the writers care about their motives, their history or… their most basic identity taken care of. The entire scene plays out with a kind of brief, apathetic shrug, and then Valkyrie disappears from the action, only to reappear in the final montage as another piece of scenery.
There were so many incredibly simple story fixes for this problem. Valkyrie could have come to the final battle, focused on the children’s safety and leading her new generation of warriors, and left when the children did, having realized that their safety is their first duty. It could have been an emotional moment as she realizes that the responsibility she has taken on in New Asgard is more important than her desire to find death in battle like her sisters did. (It’s particularly insulting that Waititi and Robinson can’t find room for Valkyrie in the final conflict, but can find room for a few dozen mostly nameless children to roar into battle.)
Or if she really had to be written out of the story first, Waititi and Robinson could have taken the extra 60 seconds of dialogue to make their decision meaningful rather than casual. What does it mean for a Valkyrie to reject their cultural heritage and realize that they would rather live and serve their people than die in a battle from which they are too wounded to make any meaningful contribution? What does it mean for a Valkyrie to admit that they are so weakened that they fear they will get in the way of people actually fighting? This should have been a major decision for Thompson’s character, a blow with some significance in her development. It would have taken so little effort, but she couldn’t even do that.
Perhaps this kind of apathetic treatment of established characters is inevitable in the MCU, as the universe continues to get busier and more convoluted, and more often than not characters are present only as confirmation of continuity and inside jokes for fans, rather than because they had real reasons to be present to be. But look at Awkwafina’s character Katy Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Ringsor Wong (Benedict Wong) in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness — Characters from similar backgrounds who don’t get the marquee treatment and aren’t the names everyone knows, but who still have their own development, their own triumphant beats, and their own chances of making a name for themselves.
Their stories – along with so many others in the MCU – prove that giving a character on the third wheel in a movie like a little time and space to themselves is entirely possible love and thunder, especially a fan favorite who was promised a lot more than she got. The filmmakers just didn’t want to deliver on those promises. MCU fans should be much more cautious about making similar promises in the future.