Asgard, the Realm Eternal. Muspelheim, the fiery realm of Surtur the Fire-Demon. Jotunheim, home of the Frost-Giants. Svartalfheim, the Dark World. These realms, along with the many others, should have been the easiest things to make interesting. The fact that there are so many races and landscapes to explore in the Nine Realms and beyond spark the imagination with ideas for how different cultures evolve and interact with one another.
Yet I remember far more about the culture and sub-cultures of Wakanda than every culture in the Thor trilogy combined.
I remember the Challenge Day, where the King-to-Be is challenged for his birthright at Warrior Falls. I remember the Jabari, the traditionalist outsiders of Wakanda who reject the vibranium to live as their ancestors did in the mountains. I remember the other visually-distinct, if simplistically-named, tribes of Wakanda, each with a different role in preserving and advancing their society as a whole. I even remember the charge of the Dora Milaje, raising their spears in the air to the shout of “Phambili!”
There are many reasons for this to be the case, but I feel that the biggest one is that the filmmakers of “Black Panther”, particularly director Ryan Coogler, treated the country of Wakanda almost as a character itself. Like a character, it has an arc, going from an isolationist nation who will abandon a young orphaned boy in Oakland to keep their country hidden, to a nation opening itself up to the world to improve both itself and other countries. This also acts as a defining arc for T’Challa’s story, but I think you can also see many citizens of the nation change as well, particularly Okoye. Early in the story, when Agent Everett Ross is injured protecting Nakia, she questions T’Challa’s decision to bring a foreign intelligence agent within their borders. But by the end of the film, she has seen the troubles wrought by Wakanda’s lack of interference in the outside world and even accompanies T’Challa to the United Nations during the film’s mid-credits sequence. With each character in the film having their own views about how Wakanda should be ruled, you see a grander view of the country itself through the eyes of its people.
Also, like a character, you are given the chance to learn more about Wakanda and, therefore, care about what happens to it. While their names are almost comically simple, the different tribes of Wakanda do give viewers insight into various sub-cultures and hint as to how they affect the country as a whole. The Border Tribe protects the border and maintains the illusion of Wakanda as a third-world country. The Mining Tribe mines the vibranium ore from the earth beneath them. The Merchant Tribe sells goods, likely having to sell them to the outside world while keeping their true origins a secret to avoid suspicion. The River Tribe…lives on the river, I guess. Yes, it sounds a little too straightforward, but it does give you an idea of how each tribe fits into the grand scheme of things and what their roles are in their society.
Now, back to the Thor franchise.
For me, Asgard never once reached this level of cultural depth. The only thing we know about Asgardian culture is that its people live for thousands of years with enhanced physical abilities, they are obviously inspired by Norse culture, and they love to fight, feast, and frolic. We only get hints of its history in all three movies, with the only thing of major significance being Hela’s revelation that Odin had conquered the Nine Realms through violence and warfare in one scene in “Ragnarok”. Other than that, there’s very little to learn here. If all you can say about their culture is that they like to smash their mugs before demanding another one, then you’re not building your world properly.
The other realms get it even worse. Since the filmmakers decided to focus on Earth so much in the first two films, for some unknown reason, we only got hints at the other worlds. “Ragnarok” was the only one to give us anything memorable, with the deliciously hellish design of Muspelheim and the admittedly creative planet of Sakaar. I will give the first film some credit for having the design of Jotunheim give us some visual backstory. We know that Odin had waged a war against the Jotuns years ago, but when we finally see Jotunheim, we see it as a broken, frozen world with tattered ruins that hint of a glorious former civilization that was decimated by violence. It’s just a shame we never got to see more of it, or at least learn more about it. But with that said, at least the design work gave us something to work with.
What I will not excuse is the lack of creativity that is the namesake of “Thor: The Dark World”: Svartalfheim, the Dark World itself.
When you hear someone say “the Dark World”, your mind immediately begins to spin with ideas of horrific nightmares and eerie darkness. When you learn that it is the home of the Dark Elves, whose leader sacrificed his own citizens to devastate the Asgardian army, you also begin to think of what the ruins of this civilization could be, like what they had done with Jotunheim in the previous film. Now that you have thought of all those imaginative things, I would like to ask you to throw those ideas away, because all you’re going to get is a dark sky and sand. That’s it. The only person who would be scared of that would be Anakin Skywalker, who, as we all know, does not like sand. The whole Dark Elf debacle in “The Dark World” is an article unto itself, so I’ll end that here before I start rambling too much.
My point is that it’s very strange that the Nine Realms never felt nearly as believable or garnered nearly as much investment as Wakanda. Drawing upon the resources of Norse mythology should have been the grandest sight in cinema history. However, thanks in part to a tendency to focus on the mundane more than the fantastic in its first two films, the Thor franchise never reached those heights of magnificence. It’s one of the many aspects that took Thor three films to get things right, while Black Panther only needed one.