There’s no wind machine or rousing soundtrack to signal Tessa Thompson’s entrance in Thor: Ragnarok. At first her Valkyrie is introduced neither as Thor’s nemesis nor his ally. She strides into the scene powerfully for all of two seconds, before toppling over into a pile of garbage. She’s blind drunk. This welcome moment of comic relief provides the first real clue as to how Valkyrie is going to change the game for women in Marvel movies. Balancing self-aware humour and vulnerable sincerity, Thompson’s performance has brought salvation to the Marvel Cinematic Universe just when it needed it most.
Ever since DC impressed us with the first ever Wonder Woman movie earlier this year, the clock has been ticking for Marvel to reassess its own female stable. Stretching all the way back to 2008’s Iron Man, women have tended to act either as febrile love interests or generically “strong” characters within the ever-expanding MCU, characterised by their super-strength or forceful power to counteract stereotypes of female weakness. But Marvel’s Strong Female Characters™ are rarely imbued with real emotional nuance and as a result often come across as two-dimensional.
Thankfully, change is on the horizon, with Brie Larson poised to lead the studio’s first female-led movie, Captain Marvel, in 2019, and Thompson showing her how it’s done in this second Thor sequel. While she kicks ass on-screen, off it she’s a vocal advocate for an all-female superhero movie. “As much as we want, righteous, fantastic, strong characters”, Thompson has said, “we also want weak ones and bad ones and shitty ones, we want all kind. Representation means the spectrum”.
The American actor has previously earned praise for her scene-stealing performances in 2014’s Dear White People and the following year’s Creed. Outside of cinema she has dabbled in various forms of visual media, from making her onstage debut with the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company in 2002, to starring in popular TV shows like Veronica Mars and Westworld. In 2018 Thompson will appear in Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller Annihilation, and reprise her role as Valkyrie in Avengers: Infinity War.
Her character has long existed in Marvel’s comics, but the Valkyrie we see in Thor: Ragnarok is brand new. Asgard’s most complex warrior is based on Brunnhilde, a fierce female soldier and leader of the Valkyrie tribe who served as Odin’s special force. Since the Valkyries’ downfall, Thompson’s binge-drinking bounty hunter now roams around the garbage-heap planet of Sakaar, capturing prize-fighters as they fall out of the ether onto her land. She toys with playing Thor’s adversary, sidekick and even potential love interest, all while introducing a wholly new agenda to the MCU.
In contrast to her cartoonishly masculine, constantly-clowning-around male counterparts, Valkyrie is a no-nonsense force of nature who subverts the expectations of a female comic-book character. She easily matches our eponymous protagonist both in terms of presence and prestige, but what makes Valkyrie so compelling is that her journey of self-discovery, in which she must battle her inner demons and confront her painful past, feels just as emotionally significant as Thor’s.
On top of this, Thompson has responded to rumours regarding the ambiguity of her character’s sexuality in the comics, confirming that Ragnarok’s Valkyrie is bisexual. The chemistry between Valkyrie and Thor is undeniable, but gone is the outdated set-up in which the girl next door (or you know, next planet over) lusts after the unattainable Really Attractive Male Superhero. Valkyrie is Thor’s equal, if not superior: in his own film, she is the hero he aspires to be.
Thompson has also stated that in reinventing the character, she and director Taika Waititi set out to design a hero that a wider demographic could root for. It’s not just about ticking a diversity box – Thompson is rattling the box, busting it to pieces and forming a new world without it. In challenging the blonde, sexualised image of Valkyrie from the comics, Thompson’s character develops her own prerogative. “The one-dimensional girlfriend or the sassy black friend – those weren’t going to work for me,” she told Elle in response to the conventions often employed when casting women of colour. In a way, Thompson parallels her character by refusing to be defined by what precedes her and breaking a cliché-ridden mould.
Thompson has created a new superhero for younger viewers to aspire to. She is urging the women of Marvel to move past the binary representation that has plagued them for too long: Valkyrie is neither a token romantic accessory, nor the tired “strong female character” that Marvel has been superficially fanning the flames of feminism with in recent years. Valkyrie is a boundary-breaking symbol of what a female character in a superhero movie can and should look like.