‘Thor: Ragnarok’ proves nuanced diversity sells, despite claims to the contrary

Racists and Marvel Comic purists raised hell in 2010 when it was announced that Idris Elba, who is black, would debut as Heimdall the Norse God, in the first installment of the Thor film franchise.

Seven years later, Thor: Ragnarok appears to feature more people of color in its cast than either of the previous movies anchored by the mighty god of thunder.

And Ragnarok is breaking box office records while surpassing the previous two Thor films in opening weekend ticket sales and critical acclaim.

Marvel Comics, on the other hand, have lagged in sales in recent years, after the company’s writers ultimately replaced many of its most famous white heroes with darker-skinned successors.

The publisher’s sales vice president David Gabriel seemed to previously buy into the idea that diversity was the reason for the sales revenue slump. “Sales of any character that was diverse, any character that was new, our female characters, anything that was not a core Marvel character, people were turning their nose up against,” Gabriel told to ICv2 in March.

He revised those comments in April after receiving major backlash, reaffirming Marvel’s commitment to its new cast of characters, but still noting that some retailers “were not happy with the false abandonment of the core Marvel heroes.”

Conservative critics and some retailers have argued that the drop in sales was a fan rebuke of progressivism and diversity in their storied, ethnocentric 20th-century folklore.

But Marvel’s film success bucks that argument in several ways.

It’s not just Elba’s role as Heimdall.

There’s biracial actress Tessa Thompson’s take on Brunhilda, aka Valkyrie, leader of the Asgardian female warrior troop known by the same code name.

The creative decision to cast Thompson changed the race of the Germanic and Norse mythological figure who is depicted in the comics as a fair-skinned blonde.

Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano (center) plays Hogun in ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ (2017).Thor: Ragnarok (2017)/Disney/Marvel

Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano revives his role as Hogun in Ragnarok, a part that he played in the first two Thor films. Hogun, a Marvel original creation, was white in the comics.

There are some people who are upset about these casting choices, but it obviously hasn’t hurt the movies’ box office totals.

Lifelong Thor reader Nick Purpura, 44, owner of JHU Comic Books stores in Manhattan and Staten Island, says the fans angry over changing the race of characters in both movies and comics are overreacting.

“You can’t have the same characters doing the same thing for 75 years and expect everybody to read them,” the comic retailer told Mic on Wednesday.

He points out that Thor himself, for example, while clearly based on an Odinist white European deity, was actually a bearded red head in Norse mythology even though he always had blond hair in the comics.

“Nobody was going to complain Thor had blond hair instead of red hair,” Purpura said. “Years later I met guys who said, ‘I never liked Thor because the mythology wasn’t right.’ It’s loosely based on this mythology and you have to take it for what it is.”

(Left to right) Rachel House, Jeff Goldblum, and Tessa Thompson star in ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ (2017).‘Thor: Ragnarok’/Disney/Marvel

Ragnarok’s plot also details a slave revolt, an apex female deity and subtle references to a tragic same-sex love affair.

While Marvel Comics has been criticized for prioritizing diversity and progressive messaging over quality storytelling, the latest Thor movie does a better job of seamlessly weaving those elements into an engaging narrative without coming off as preachy propaganda.

Ragnarok is still centered around its lightning-wielding, white male protagonist — but that only fuels the notion that Marvel needs to diversify its comics by adding fresh, new main characters of color to its series, instead of simply swapping out classic characters with ones that are a different race or gender.

Unlike Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s multiracial vision of Asgard proves that great storytelling based in European folklore doesn’t have to exclusively feature Caucasians.

It’s all fiction, after all.