For a certain subsection of Marvel fans, hope for future features springs eternal — no matter how much common sense and past history suggests those hopes won’t bear fruit. In the case of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love and Thunder, some fans were vocally hoping that the overwhelmingly positive response to Tessa Thompson’s turn as Valkyrie in Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok would translate into a bigger role and more screen time for the character in the new movie. MCU-watchers who somehow haven’t noticed Disney’s consistent history of queerbaiting even hoped Valkyrie might get on-screen acknowledgement of her bisexuality, rather than leaving it to Thompson (who’s bisexual herself) to play it as one of the character’s hidden, unrevealed nuances. Thompson promising in a 2019 Comic-Con presentation that finding a love interest would be “the first order of business” for Valkyrie in the sequel fanned the fan flames.
But in keeping with the film’s pattern of constantly undermining its characters for jokes or for plot convenience — and the MCU movies’ similar pattern of setting up exciting female characters and then killing them off or sidelining them — Valkyrie gets cheated in some pretty profound ways in Love and Thunder. And the specific ways she’s cheated are particularly baffling, because it would have taken so little work to make the exact same character beats meaningful and resonant and let her feel like a developing person with her own story, rather than random set-dressing in a story that doesn’t care about her even slightly.
[Ed. note: Plot spoilers ahead for Thor: Love and Thunder.]
After the events of Thor: Ragnarok, Valkyrie was set up as the King of New Asgard, the Earth settlement for Asgardian refugees. (Thompson, always talented at making a sandwich when a role hands her crumbs, has been vocally enthused about being called “king.”) Love and Thunder’s script sets her up with the kind of background and dilemma that could take an entire Valkyrie-focused movie to unpack: She’s an action-hungry warrior relegated to a task that’s heavy on bureaucracy. She’s clearly doing good and meaningful work to make New Asgard safe, secure, and self-sustaining as a tourist trap — maybe doing too good a job, given that when crisis strikes, everyone immediately runs to her personally to solve their problems.
There’s a sense that she’s relieved to finally face a problem that can be hit in the face with a sword, but Waititi and co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson don’t pull on that thread. It’s reasonable enough that they wanted to keep the story more invested in Thor’s usual struggle to deal with a complicated world while being an uncomplicated character — and on his ex Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who’s simultaneously living as a godlike empowered superhero and dying of cancer. But Valkyrie is so underdeveloped and unspecific in this movie that she’s basically just an uncomplaining, empty-of-personal-desires support system to highlight Jane’s pain — an irritatingly familiar role for both queer characters and characters of color.
Valkyrie is on screen for a significant amount of Thor: Love and Thunder, but she never gets anything distinctive or important to do. She provides some exposition and some comic reaction shots. She goes where Thor and Jane do, fights the same battles they fight, and fails in the same places. The big relationship moment is a little courtly kiss on the hand for an anonymous extra she never speaks to. There are a few brief references to the tragic loss in her backstory, which come with so little detail that it’s hard to tie them to any present development or nuance in the film.
But while response to her character’s negligible role in the movie has mostly focused on disappointment over Kevin Feige and Marvel walking back specific promises for a LBGTQ love story in Valkyrie’s movie future, the real betrayal is a bigger, stranger one. Valkyrie decides not to go to the final battle against the film’s antagonist, Gorr the God Butcher, for absolutely the dumbest reason possible.
In an earlier battle in the movie, Valkyrie gets stabbed, and she ends up in the same hospital where Jane is recovering from a setback in her fight against cancer. Talking to Thor about plans to renew the fight, she tells him she isn’t going to go because, loosely, “I might die, and that wouldn’t do anyone any good.”
It’s clear in that moment that Valkyrie is downplaying the severity of her injury and the degree to which she feels unfit for combat. But even so, she’s an Asgardian. She’s meant to be a Norse warrior (or at least a highly fictionalized, romanticized, Americanized version of one), from a culture that values dying in combat above everything else. As we’re expressly reminded earlier in the movie when Thor finds his old friend Sif wounded after a battle, Asgardians who die in honorable combat against a worthy foe get the ultimate reward: They go to Valhalla to drink and feast with other worthy warriors until they’re needed to fight the last battle of all, during Ragnarök. She isn’t just “Valkyrie,” she’s literally a Valkyrie, the warriors meant to escort the worthy souls who fall in battle up to Norse heaven, where the mead flows eternally. (From the udders of a magic goat, but let’s not get into that here.)
Keep in mind that when we first meet Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok, she’s the last survivor of Hela’s massacre of all her sister Valkyries, and she has profound survivor’s guilt. She tells Thor that she settled down on the planet Sakaar, where he meets her, because it “seemed like the best place to drink and forget and to die one day.” Why would she pass up on the chance to die gloriously in a face-off against the monster who’s stolen her people’s children, rather than drinking herself to death in a guilty haze or spending the rest of her life on the New Asgardian paperwork she hates so much?
“If I’m gonna die, well, it may as well be driving my sword through the heart of that murderous hag,” she tells Thor in Ragnarok, as she heads off with him to fight Hela. She knows in that movie how minimal their chances against Hela are — Hela took down her entire Valkyrie army without visibly breaking a sweat. But she’s regained her pride and defiance, and she realizes she can still earn Valhalla even if she didn’t die along with the rest of her sisters. Where is any of that defiance or cultural conviction in Love and Thunder?
The easy, obvious answer is that Waititi and Robinson didn’t want her to be part of the climactic battle, because her presence would complicate the Thor/Jane story they were trying to tell, and possibly steal a little thunder from one or both of the leads. But the way they set that up is so dismissive and ridiculous, given Valkyrie’s history and literal identity as a Valkyrie that it’s downright insulting — and characteristic of how little the writers cared about her motives, her story, or her most basic identity. The entire scene plays out with a kind of brief, apathetic shrug, and then Valkyrie disappears from the action, to reappear as yet another piece of set-dressing in the final montage.
There were so many incredibly easy story fixes for this problem. Valkyrie could have come to the final battle, focused on the children’s safety and on leading her new generation of warriors, and could have left when the children did, after realizing their safety is her first duty. It could have been an emotional moment, as she realizes that the responsibilities she’s taken up in New Asgard are more significant 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 largely nameless kids roaring into combat instead.)
Or if she really had to be written out of the story before then, Waititi and Robinson could have taken the extra 60 seconds of dialogue to make her decision meaningful instead of offhanded. What does it mean to a Valkyrie to reject her cultural heritage and realize she’d rather live and serve her people than die in a battle she’s too wounded to contribute to meaningfully? What does it mean to a Valkyrie to admit that she’s so weakened that she fears she’d just get in the way of the people doing the real fighting? This should have been a major decision for Thompson’s character, a beat with some significance to her development. It would have taken so little effort, but she didn’t even get that.
Maybe this kind of apathetic treatment of established characters is inevitable in the MCU, as the universe gets progressively more crowded and convoluted and characters are present more and more often just as acknowledgements of continuity and in-jokes for the fans, rather than because they have real reasons to be present. But look at Awkwafina’s character, Katy, in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, or Wong (Benedict Wong) in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness — similarly backgrounded characters who don’t get marquee treatment and aren’t the Names Everyone Knows, but who still get their own development, their own triumphant beats, and their own chances to make a mark.
Their stories — among so many others in the MCU — prove it’s certainly possible to give a third-wheel character a little time and space of her own in a movie like Love and Thunder, particularly a fan favorite who’d been promised a whole lot more than she got. The filmmakers just didn’t care to fulfill those promises. MCU fans should be a lot more careful about buying into similar promises in the future.