NOTE: This post contains spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok.
I’m definitely not the first person to make this observation, but I’m going to put it here up front. The Thor movies from Marvel are not superhero movies, they are epic fantasy, or perhaps science-fantasy/space opera. This is not a criticism, but a guideline for which genre conventions to measure them against.
Thor: Ragnarok, the latest one, demonstrates this exceptionally well. Dramatic destiny stories about trying to avert the destruction of a mystical kingdom? That’s fantasy, and setting it in space just makes it Star Wars, which is science-fantasy no matter how much they tried to rewrite the magic of the Force into midichlorians. (Similarly, Marvel can say the Asgardians have super-advanced technology instead of magic; it’s still fantasy, hush.)
The movie delivers very enjoyably on a variety of epic fantasy fronts, from the revelation of connection to the villain, to the stylized approach some of the actors take to their scenes, especially the Big Revelatory Speeches. My favorite trope that it picks up from the genre, though, is the one thoroughly spoiled in the trailers and advertising: we’ve got a gladiator fight here, folks.
I was a baby Star Trek fan, and this trope is one that every Star Trek series hit at least once, I think. Buffy the Vampire Slayer never did a gladiator episode, but its spinoff Angel did in the episode “The Ring,” thereby properly honoring its fantasy status (urban fantasy for Angel, I suppose, but that’s irrelevant at this juncture).
The gladiator fight is just one piece of the complete plot of Thor: Ragnarok, but its prominence in the advertising and the role its piece plays in the story hinge on genre knowledge of the trope. The gladiator fight trope puts a physically oriented character into a position of fighting for their life, with the knowledge that they have to kill others in order to survive and win freedom. The role within the character’s larger story is generally a shift from the physical to the mental or emotional sides of their personality, as they come up with a different way to win freedom that doesn’t require killing others (or at least, killing fewer others) or relying strictly on brute force. A clever trick, an appeal to the humanity of the captors, or rallying all of the gladiators into an uprising are all paths the trope can take, depending on what aspect of the central character needs to be illuminated.
In Thor: Ragnarok, Thor only completes one fight in the arena, but his realization that the game is rigged prompts him to be more creative in his plans for freedom. It’s a microcosm of his larger shift in the movie’s overall plotline, which leads him to thinking outside the obvious solutions for how to save Asgard.
I love this trope. It appears in lots of genre fiction books as well, on both subplot and overarching plot scales. Like any trope, it can be shifted into new forms to fit worldbuilding and storytelling needs. It’s a great tool for showing character growth and shifts thinking, either as a journey in and of itself, as a micro/macro parallel for the overarching plot, or even as a red herring.
And of course you could always subvert it and have your passive or intellectually-focused character embrace physical solutions to their problems, if that’s what your story needs.
If all else fails, it’s definitely a way to get your character into a stripped-down outfit for fighting purposes (Angel’s white tank top in “The Ring” is a visually iconic flip for a character usually huddled in layers of dark coats), or possibly a dramatic haircut (as in Thor: Ragnarok), which gives you more elements to play with in the moment and the aftermath. Bruises? Scars? Keeping the haircut or outfit because they decide they like it? Lots of ways to go.
Major shout-out to Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi for giving me an excuse to chew on one of my favorite tropes here for a while. And for Thor’s haircut.